Samurai Warriors 2 Empires PS2 Review

Here is a very Japanese game, set in historical Japan and featuring a Japanese style of play. Some would say it’s not a new game, since it simply adds a strategic layer to the existing Samurai Warriors 2. Can it do as well as Koei’s other franchise Dynasty Warriors?

There are two main modes available from the menu, leaving aside the Gallery of artwork and unlocked movies. Free Mode lets you create a custom battle, changing the settings and using characters you have unlocked. Most of your time will be spent in Empire Mode. Having chosen a difficulty level and a starting point, you then take control of a clan, headed by “officers”. There are four seasons to the year, each split into two main phases.

First of all comes the Strategy Phase. Here the main aim is to develop your territories, using “Consult” or “Decree” to get your officers to carry out various actions. More of these Policies are unlocked as you play, for example Mine (to hunt for gold) when you capture a territory containing underground mines. It is critical to balance military aims, such as recruiting new troops, with the need to improve the territory (by encouraging development or increasing the harvest). It is also possible to improve the strength and effectiveness of your soldiers’ weaponry by upgrading the swordsmith or spearsmith, and to hunt for wild horses to train as mounts. The maps and policy cards are all nicely drawn, and the changing seasons are portrayed with snow, falling leaves and so on.

Once the strategies are chosen, it is then time for the Battle Phase. Here the player can choose to Invade a neighbouring territory, or move troops to Defend against an attack. Once you are involved in a battle, it is necessary to pick the Generals and Lieutenants for the upcoming fight, and whether to set aside a reserve force to reinforce your army. Choosing a formation can give an advantage in battle, but they can also be changed during the fight. A player can also choose to ride into battle on a horse, which can be mounted and dismounted at will.

The action then moves into a 3D landscape, which is generally well portrayed despite becoming very repetitive. Nice touches include the way the colours change with the season or daylight/night, and the scale of some areas is impressive with large cliffs. However, the layouts often restrict where the player can go, and under a strict time limit it is easy to get disorientated and miss a vital turning. A strategic map shows where the bases belonging to both sides are, and these prove the key – capturing bases reduces the enemy’s strength, while the player must pay attention and try not to lose their own bases. Snippets of speech from allies and adversaries provide an overview of how the battle is going, but they also begin to wear thin after a short time.

The actual fighting is very straightforward, indeed almost too simple. Square unleashes a basic move, Triangle a charged move, and there is a “growth” tree for repeated presses of each button. Circle unleashes the Musou attack when its power bar is full enough (musou means matchless, and is a strong magical attack that slows down surrounding enemies allowing more damage to be dished out). Having an ally nearby, or when the main energy bar is nearly depleted, will perform a stronger musou attack. Cross lets the player jump, or mount/dismount from the horse. The shoulder buttons include R1, which changes stance and can be used in combination with the attack buttons to unleash a strong move, and R2 to dodge/roll. Pressing Start pauses the action and reveals the battle map, where a new formation can be selected.

And then it’s just a case of pressing buttons. Repeatedly. Over time you will learn the best combos and how to chain attacks together, but there really is not a lot of depth to the fighting. The enemy officers put up more of a challenge, unleashing their own special attacks, but they are soon dispatched and the bonus objects (such as food to recover energy) collected. Variety comes in the form of tasks, like making a 100-hit combo to persuade someone to switch sides. When one side is completely defeated or the timer runs out, the battle is over. As battles are won, short movies portray important events in the character’s progress or the outcome of other battles, which can be reviewed in the Gallery (along with the artwork for unlocked policies, characters and weapons). Rewards are also given in the form of improved stats and power-ups for the weapons (for example, improving the range or strength of an attack).

So, we are left with a game that looks OK, sounds fine, has some strategic depth and does start to become interesting as the campaign to take over Japan progresses. However, it can only really be recommended to die-hard Koei fans.