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Samurai Warriors: State of War

Platform(s): PSP
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: KOEI


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PSP Review - 'Samurai Warriors: State of War'

by Hugh McHarg on March 9, 2006 @ 2:43 a.m. PST

Set amidst Japan’s most volatile era, Samurai Warriors: State of War give players control of famous samurai and legendary ninja in an ever-unfolding war. Gamers will use classic Japanese weaponry including swords, longbows, and sickles to fight their way through wide-open battlefields and trap-laden castles. Samurai Warriors: State of War comes complete with 19 playable characters, all-new stories, and competitive multiplayer challenges.

Genre: Action
Publisher: Koei
Developer: Omega Force
Release Date: March 7, 2006


A Small Man Agrees for the Sake of Harmony

It's not uncommon for games to milk drama out of the superficial relationships of major characters – often playing out through melodramatic dialogue – while countless NPCs perish without a hint of ceremony. Huge-scale slashers like Samurai Warriors: State of War are particularly prone to this dramatic conceit. Let the foot soldiers die, for what's really significant is the banter between their commander and his nemesis. And we tolerate it as long as the game delivers the action.

One of the effects of this approach, while maybe not such a huge deal for fans focused entirely on scoring kills, is to take the responsibility for creating a sense of achievement away from the story, away from finding out what happens next, and to hand it over to your heroes' feature lists. Accumulating strength, speed, bigger moves – all the attributes that make characters so formidable and stylish in battle – becomes your reason for carrying on because the story's expressed entirely in chunks of overwrought dialogue.

The setting for State of War's take on sending legions to meet their maker Dynasty Warriors-style, while their commanders discuss post-war leisure plans, is a historical-but-fictionalized Japan. Any warrior with the mettle to unify the feuding clans needs to be savvy enough to manage the egos of many leaders long enough to maintain a strong alliance. It's a useful setting, allowing for a large roster of playable, squabbling commanders, subofficers and entertaining battle scenarios.

Text passages set the big-picture stage for each battle story and add concluding notes to the inter-clan drama once you've dominated, explaining, for example, that upon successfully routing the enemy, your alliance partners no longer felt much need to return to their infighting ways and decided to maintain their friendly allegiances. Often-comical dialogue helps you get a feel for the warriors' personalities in exchanges like, "So Yoshimoto, what are you going to do when these wars are finally over?" Replies Yoshimoto, "Me? Oh, I'll just go back to the capital and play kemari. That's all I ever wanted." Deadly and humble. Occasional, curiously toned word choices – "scumbag," a formidable female warrior referring to herself as a "bad girl" – add to the entertainment and keep the dialogue worth reading. When the entertainment value runs out, or if you just don't care, you can skip the story elements and get down to business.

You begin your assault with the strategy phase of State of War's gameplay, which in practice is just a grid map of the battlefield. It reveals locations of enemy strongholds and forces, terrain types, your allies and the paths available to you as you begin your onslaught. The map provides a decent amount of decision-making, though the choices you get to make are limited in scope. The most basic of these is simply figuring out the best path toward the enemy main camp. The shortest path, of course, is not always the easiest or most profitable, as gold, skill scrolls and other loot await discovery throughout the battlefield.

The map is also essential for monitoring the progress of your allies in secondary battles and keeping tabs on their health and morale. If enemy officers are advancing on an allied square occupied only by one of your majors whose health is at 50%, you either ride to the rescue or accept the loss. Brute force isn't your only option in these situations, though, as charms are also among the spoils you win for soaking the fields with your enemies' blood. Attack with the Paralysis charm, and those enemy forces can't move on your major until the effect wears off. Solid, all-purpose Thunder dampens enemy spirits and limits their mobility. Boost extends your own ability to move and can turn the tide of battle by giving you the extra reach you need to attack the enemy main camp earlier than you otherwise could.

What really gives the charm system it's, uh, charm, though, is its capacity to alter the condition of the battlefield itself in your favor. Fire burns enemies, but also reveals forces hidden among thickets, while the Valve charm regulates marsh water levels to make the terrain passable and open new avenues of attack. These kinds of charms boost the game's epic factor by giving you the impression that your warriors wield powers greater than their swords, and while the structure of many battles forces you to track down an enemy holding onto a key charm just to pass a gate or some high water, it's the simple Poison, Paralysis and other straightforward attack charms – and how you choose to use them – that provide what strategic possibilities State of War has to offer.

Opposing commanders can use charms, too, so it pays to keep a Cure All and a Mute in your inventory to repair your stats and dispel negative effects. Enemies also have a way of calling in reinforcements. You may have routed a handful of enemy armies, but somewhere fierce Nobunaga Oda is waiting to unleash a couple more healthy officers to attack your strongholds while he makes his stand at his main camp. Not the stuff of deep strategy, exactly, but challenging enough to encourage you to claim more enemy territory in hopes of finding charms, and unbalancing enough to keep you engaged even if your zeal for combat eventually fades behind the repetitious action.

When you're ready to engage the enemy hand-to-hand, you enter the action phase, which makes up the full-forced, buttoneering essence of State of War. When you fight for possession of a square, it's all action, and the first thing practiced dynastic warriors should do is crank the difficulty. Hordes fall before your low-level blade with little resistance. Only at higher difficulty settings does it take a significant number of hits to do serious damage and fill your musou meter.

It's also much too easy to fall back on your basic attack at normal difficulty and not make much use of the combos and charge attacks that are both deadlier and more fun to watch. Abusing musou attacks is a temptation at any difficulty, given the ease with which they lay out tens of enemies at a time and the fearsome glow that comes with them, but conserving musou power for stronger foes becomes both a necessity and a challenge when you up the difficulty.

Battlefield goals change with each turn – sometimes requiring you to rescue allied reserve captains and free a stronghold under siege, other times simply setting you loose to kill as many enemy soldiers as possible in 60 seconds – but the core mechanic remains the same: Mass slaughter as quickly as possible. The enemy's tendency to gather in ripe-for-the-picking clumps helps you out, though the camera balances that advantage by occasionally hanging up around the corners of stronghold walls and complicating your efforts at tracking specific enemy soldiers, even though State of War uses the entire PSP screen during the action phase.

Many missions have you hunting majors and other unit leaders amid the throngs of lesser ranks, and if one appears directly behind you or immediately to your left or right, the slowly adjusting camera forces you to recenter constantly. Other than that mechanical difficulty, the simple controls perform with acceptable speed – letting you easily pull of many-buttoned combos – if not admirable precision as far as striking targeted attacks goes.

If witnessing the next dopey exchange between your many playable warriors isn't enough to drive you through the story mode, the A-B-C grading system and character development help keep up your follow-through. Scoring an A wins you three-square mobility on your next turn at the strategy map, while the number of enemy KOs and amount of gold you swipe from enemy caches builds up your XP. Your musou, life, attack, intelligence and other familiar stats increase with each level-up, and found skill scrolls improve your Might, Prowess, and Guard skills as well as Element combos. Many skills have passive effects, like Rage for filling your musou meter more quickly and Ward to protect against enemy elemental attacks, but the Element skills grant you the punch you need to down enemy commanders as you make your way to each story's end game.

Unlocking new warriors alone is enough to keep you in the fight for the long haul. If you bother to read the dialogue, many of them emerge with shallow but distinct characterizations and voices. From even-tempered Shingen Takeda to stern-visaged Kenshin Uesugi, your hero options are plentiful. Weapons enjoy a decent variety, too, though the hacking and slashing standbys deliver the most satisfying experience. Ranged choices like Magoichi Saika's kunitomo musket and Ina's bow feel underpowered compared to melee weapons that butcher with such rewarding efficiency.

State of War lets you jump into freeform battles if you're not up for the drama of story mode. You can save mid-campaign, though, making advancing the story perfectly manageable for the impatient. An ad hoc multiplayer versus mode accommodates up to four players, but the match types – Vanguard and Bandit – only pit you against AI versions of your opponents to kill opposing captains faster or collect more gold before time runs out.

The playable characters stand at the forefront of State of War's visuals. Kunoichi's half-shirt and head gear and Magoichi's ammo belt lend their wearers a presence on the battlefield a significance that complements their overblown characterization. Even though they're not as fun to play, the ranged weapons launch a satisfying burst of fire. Everyone moves through the environments with solid speed, though the environments themselves – whether you're fighting alongside a rushing river or charging around the walls of an enemy stronghold – create an overpowering sense of sameness with the soil-toned color palette that dulls many types of terrain.

Slashing through enemy flesh sounds solid enough to make it feel like you're actually hitting something, even if your sword cuts through half an army with one swipe. The score doesn't fill you with martial energy as you head into battle after battle, but the shimmering musou-is-full sound effect is a continually satisfying signal that you're about to do some more serious damage to the enemy ranks.

A Wise Man Harmonizes for the Sake of Agreement

Samurai Warriors: State of War often reminds you that you're participating in some trumped-drama for the sake of justifying mass slaughter, but it benefits more than it suffers from its familiar setup. With a large cast of warriors and a diverting map system, character-building and charm-casting effectively replace storytelling to encourage continued combat, even if a slow-to-react camera and under-decorated environments make it a less-than-perfect execution of the huge-clashing-armies formula. If you're a fan of the formula, though, State of War does it up with respectable speed, variety and longevity.

Score: 7.9/10

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