Fans of the Dynasty Warriors series have had a decently good season, between the Wii-exclusive Samurai Warriors 3, HD-system Fist of the North Star, and the PC-exclusive Dynasty Warriors Online. Koei's grown to love essentially dominated this genre.
In Asia, Dynasty Warriors has had competition for a while in the form of Capcom's Sengoku Basara series. Developed by some of the team behind Devil May Cry, Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes takes the Warriors formula and, rather than trying to innovate it, turns it up to 11 instead. Fortunately, Capcom produces an entirely new set of jokes, combat styles, and all-around awesome to fill out the story. The title boasts some of the smoothest play the Warriors subgenre has ever seen, top-notch character design, and a powerful combination of historical accuracy and anachronisms. This is the third numbered game in the series, but it's the first one to arrive in North America. Fortunately, this entry is an exceptionally strong challenger, kicking the ball into Tecmo-Koei's court with a level of over-the-topness that would make Capcom's own Viewtiful Joe gawk.
Samurai Heroes takes place, loosely, during the Sengoku era of Japan's history, specifically the series of civil wars within the island-chain nation during the 15th and 16th centuries. A major core theme of the events is the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate under the bare-fisted awesomeness of Ieyasu Yokugawa, and his rise after the fall of Oda Nobunaga. Meanwhile, Oda's remnants hope to revive the Demon King, and his sister, Oichi, may be the key to the Devil King's return. How things go depend on which character and story path you take.
Gameplay is split between a simple planning menu and the actual scenarios. Planning is essentially limited to kitting out your character: choosing their weapons, setting a number of modifying items on the equipped weapon, and selecting your battle or event. Your choice does matter, as it branches the plot; alliances made in one plot may not occur in another, even if you fought the same set of battles in a different order. Most of the game's 15 characters have three plot branches, each seven battles long.
At their core, the actual battles play out in the classic Warriors tradition: Here's your weapon, your array of basic and special attacks, and your ludicrously overpowered attack (Basara Attack), and here's a metric ton of enemies. The packaging includes the description of "Thousands stand before you... Thousands must die," but in reality, you'll take on slightly fewer enemies per map than in the average Warriors game. All of the core elements are here and ready to let the player rampage through them.
The only blatantly distinct gimmick in gameplay is the "Hero Time" function, which slows time for everything that isn't the player for about 15 seconds. This is a decent amount of time, but it is more useful for allowing use of the Ultimate Basara attacks, which are significantly more useful than the equivalent function in Warriors. Otherwise, the only thing that makes the game distinct is that missions involve heavy amounts of scripting and gameplay feels much faster-paced than the Warriors tradition.
Speaking of scripting, just about every mission involves a lot of it. Unlike many games in the Warriors series, your objective is almost never "Run around until the boss spawns and then you win." Instead, the game twists and turns the conditions to match the map and the opponent. Whether it's Uesugi Kenshin's ice map and three sets of false bosses before you finally face the androgynous boss, or Maeda Toshiie and Matsu's mission, which has you raiding their bases to stop them from eating life-recovering rice balls, scenarios tend to be reasonably creative twists that require planning and a good eye on the map. For players who are used to killing everything in sight, it's a challenge to know when to run to reach an objective in time versus when it's faster to use a Basara attack to slice through a crowd.
The game's tone is established both through gameplay and Capcom's top-notch translation team, who neatly capture the intended tones with nary a translation error in sight, and that's reinforced with solid English voice acting. Should you face a total fop of an enemy, he will look, sound, and choose words like a total fop. The results produce a suitably wide contrast from the haunting Oichi plot to Toshiie and Matsu's hilarious stupidity — and that's just part of the Oda faction. The game tends to be sillier around NPCs and more serious toward PCs, with occasional exceptions, but gameplay almost always involves sorcery, sumo wrestlers, and highly impractical-yet-awesome weapon choices. A few voice-over choices seem rather weird, though. In particular, Uesugi Kenshin comes across as creepy, which is fine when he's your opponent, but it's a little unsettling when he still sounds like a creepy stalker after he joins your faction.
The presentation shows that there's still plenty of potential for the Wii. While Samurai Heroes certainly isn't as nice as the PS3 version, the game's persistent sense of art style works within the Wii's limits to produce smooth graphics with hardly a visible short texture or polygon. There's also no slowdown from a wonderfully smooth 60 frames per second. This is combined with an energetic soundtrack with a range that's as wide as the game's writing, and punchy, effective sound effects. The result is a presentation that matches some of Nintendo's better efforts and is among the best graphical results to come from a third party in the system's five-year history.
There is only one theme in Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes: It more closely resembles Devil May Cry than Dynasty Warriors on the current-gen consoles. The results are awesome, pretty and worthy of attention from those with even the vaguest interest in the Warriors-style hack-and-slash subgenre. Here's hoping that Capcom brings more of this series to North America in the future — and that Tecmo-Koei can play a game of catch-up.
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