Samurai Warriors: Katana turns the Wiimote into a deadly weapon by taking you back to the Warring States period of feudal Japan, where you'll learn to ride, shoot and slash your way to the front lines through several story lines as you try to make your mark on history. It offers players plenty of what Koei does best while allowing you to pull off a pretty convincing samurai impression, but despite the fantasy fulfillment of swordsmanship delivered by the Wii, the core gameplay hasn't taken as many steps from its predecessors.
Koei's latest title has quite a lot in common with Samurai Warriors, although there are enough differences to make it stand apart as a story of its own, especially considering the changes that have been made to the basic gameplay. Fans of the epic hack-'n'-slash action in the Warriors series are going to find a lot in Katana to like or hate, depending on how open-minded they are about how it uses the Wii to deliver its arcade-inspired action.
Unlike Koei's other titles, players won't get to choose who they lead into battle. Historical figures from Japan's feudal Sengoku era, such as Oda Nobunaga and Shingen Takeda, are still featured in full costume with plenty of armed thugs at their sides, but you won't get a chance to be any of them. Instead, you take on the role of a faceless mercenary, ninja or warrior, depending on whose story line you're playing; the story marches along in a linear fashion until you unlock the next major arc. Starting off in the service of Nobunaga, you'll eventually participate in five different plots, with each taking a different view of the events of this period in Japanese history. History buffs shouldn't worry about getting the facts straight in any of Koei's titles, as they're more about flamboyant action than in enthralling you with lectures on what could have happened.
One thing that you might want to change when you start the game is in which language you want to hear the somewhat-cheesy dialogue. Each story is told with a mix of serious narration, in-game chatter, and the occasional talking head delivering insults and ominous portents of doom to foes. A lot of the story is just there to tie the stages together in order to give you an idea that everything is eventually leading up to something, but don't expect too much more than an action movie treatment of history. The English voice actors get into their roles with a lot of relish, but many of the parts sound seriously miscast, if not downright annoying. Fortunately, the Japanese language tracks sound considerably better, as long as you're able to put up with subtitles and can forgive some of the requisite melodrama.
The graphics in Katana won't burn your eyes, but even in 480p, expect plenty of jaggies and blurred textures to fill your screen as you fight a clone army of soldiers and ninjas. As any fan of Koei's Warrior series can tell you, no title is complete without a massive number of nameless targets for your fury. The smooth, fast-paced action makes functional use of what it throws at you, and a variety of special effects help spice up many of the battles. The looping music tracks that accompany your trip through the Japanese countryside aren't anything special to write to the dojo about, either, as many of the tracks can be as repetitive as the clones whose pixels drown the screen in browns, grays and purples.
The title makes use of your Mii to save your progress, and once it starts up, you can choose what you want to do. At the beginning, there's not a lot to look forward to until you play the main campaign under "Musou" and begin unlocking some of the extras. Trials are special side-quests that you can play for gold and character upgrades, and more challenges are unlocked as you progress through the main campaign. There's also a Versus mode, although it's more of a competitive mode in which you and another player compete head-to-head to complete objectives on separate maps, so if you're hoping to prove your blade skills against friends, you won't find it here.
Katana is a first-person hack-'n'-slash gallery on rails, similar to approach taken by titles such as Panzer Dragoon Orta, old arcade shoot 'em ups such as Operation Wolf or ADK's Crossed Swords on the NeoGeo. Using the Wiimote and Nunchuk to deliver your merciless strikes in the first-person perspective is one of the biggest changes to the Warriors formula; fans may like it or hate it, but the controls are easy enough to grasp and work with. After Red Steel, I was a little leery of anything sword-related on the Wii, but Grasshopper Manufacture's No More Heroes and Koei's Katana have shown how well the concept could actually work, albeit with a few shortcuts.
For one thing, there's not a lot of actual swinging that you'll be doing in Katana. Most of your attacks will require you to point the controller at a target, and then you'll either attack with your melee weapon using the A button or shoot with a ranged weapon using the B trigger. Blocking is handled by holding the Z button. The actual swinging comes in when you want to hit the enemy with a powerful charge attack. Throwing weapons, such as boomerangs or a bladed yoyo, can take a little more motion-based finesse to use, although you're not forced to use them outside of the few missions where they're required. If you're looking to swing your arms like a swordsman, you can certainly do so with most every weapon, but it's not a requirement.
There is also "Musou" that you can use with your Wiimote, a "super attack" that hits everything on the screen. Musou energy is built up by taking or dealing damage, and when it peaks, you can save it for later or unleash it with a shake of the Nunchuk, and then you can start whipping around the controller to tear into your foes. You'll also ride horses in the game, with the Nunchuk acting as the whip, and you'll have to hold the Wiimote sideways as if you were grappling the reins with one hand to steer — although it felt more like I was driving a horse, rather than riding one.
You never know what you'll be running into with the controllers until you get into a mission, making parts of Katana feel like an experimental grab bag in using the Wii's controls. The game will ask you to avoid giant spiked balls that are coming down a ramp by tilting both the Nunchuk and the Wiimote. You'll also juggle both controllers as you pump your arms to run to the next objective, zoom in to snipe at targets while avoiding civilians, or pick a lock by hitting the correct on-screen button sequence. Many of these sequences are pretty creative, such as when you dodge enemy bullets from behind cover or run through a trapped hallway, but there are not enough of these instances to help you forget the numbing repetition that fills the rest of the title.
The main campaign is divided into several story lines that are unlocked as you progress, and each one is split into chapters that consist of a series of battles in which you'll be participating. Before every battle, you can purchase upgrades to improve things such as your melee or ranged skill; buy items to assign, such as a health-restoring rice bowl; or equip "skill" items that you may discover in battle that can make it easier to find rare weapons or intensify the deadliness of your attacks. Of course, buying anything depends on how much gold you get, which is, in turn, determined by how well you do. Fortunately, Katana allows you to replay prior battles to improve your score or grind for gold and items. Certain statistics can have other effects; the melee stat can determine how many items you can equip before any battle, and there is also a cap on how far you can upgrade it before the next plot begins, but any earned gold can be carried over.
Enemy bosses round out what you'll be facing on the field of combat, and not only do they look like they should be a part of a parade, but they also have arrays of unique, if predictable, attacks. Most every enemy in the game has weak points that you can exploit for massive damage, depending on which weapons you're armed with, but bosses hide their weaknesses until certain attacks reveal them; these sequences certainly provide welcome breaks from the legions of clone warriors that you've just cut down. Saves are handled after every battle or visit to the camp, but it would have been nice to have checkpoints in some of the longer missions, especially when failing an objective can force you to replay it.
Occasionally, Katana throws out the rails and allows you to freely travel to where you need to go; the sudden sense of freedom makes me wish that this tactic had been used for more, if not all, of the game. There are other missions that, for whatever reason, force you into 90-degree turns and block moves that are found in RPGs such as Bard's Tale or Phantasy Star from the '80s. There are also plenty of timed missions that meshed well with the thin story line, although some missions felt like the designers merely wanted to tack on a clock to mess with you. The title also has the annoying tendency to allow you to skip some of the dialogue in the game while forcing you to read through others, when all you want to do is get right to the action.
As creative as the controls are, they can't hide the repetitive grind of the straight-up slaughterfest for which Koei's Warrior titles are known. Newcomers and action fans might find Samurai Warriors: Katana's use of the Wiimote to be enough of an entertaining distraction as a rental, but the rail-restricted action may feel like a huge step backward to series veterans who were hoping for more than motion controls, especially considering what Koei's Empire series has added to the formula. Rough edges and all, Samurai Warriors: Katana still manages to deliver a few moments of Wiimote fun when you feel the need to become a virtual samurai. Just don't expect it to be a tempered masterpiece.
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