By Alexander O. Cuaycong and Anthony L. Cuaycong
Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada
BASED on Luo Guanzhong’s novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dynasty Warriors is a series of beat-’em-up games made by Koei Tecmo. Even with eight main games currently out on release, the franchise is still going strong, with a ninth one is in the works. Dynasty Warriors games are not historically accurate; in some cases, they don’t even bother to hew closely to their source material. Nonetheless, there’s a certain charm in seeing how Koei manages to put its own spins on the 14th century novel. Games become more entertaining — and, yes, more ridiculous — with every new iteration, and while the games themselves do play safe, their style and quality more than makes up for their repetitiveness and lack of innovation.
Samurai Warriors takes off from its parentage, featuring the same style, gameplay, and design as Dynasty Warriors. As its name suggests, however, it focuses not on the lands of China, but on Japan’s during the tumultuous Sengoku Jidai, the “Age of the Warring States.” Marked by significant internal strife and political turbulence, the Sengoku Jidai proved to be a particularly bloody period in Japan’s history. Many a great man fell from grace, and yet more still rose to power. The Sengoku Jidai was a time of struggle, but also of bravery and heroism.
Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada, a spin-off game from Koei’s spin-off series, focuses on the prominent Sanada clan. In following the exploits of Masayuki Sanada and his sons Nobuyuki and Yukimura, Spirit of Sanada retells the Sengoku Jidai and the events that led up to its resolution through the eyes of the Sanada. Play as one of the members of the clan, and follow its rise and fall throughout history. Attack and overcome castles, reenact famous battles, and duel heroic figures of its time as you play out the Sengoku Jidai and experience what it means to be a Samurai.
It’s a neat concept, and one that no other Dynasty Warriors or Samurai Warriors game has done. From a narrative standpoint, Spirit of Sanada manages to flesh out the period it covers through its liberal use of cutscenes and mid-mission dialogues. Through the use of the game’s menu system, it wittily showcases a hub area where players can speak to other NPCs, making for a dynamic and vibrant setting. And the atmosphere is impressively created; you run from one end of the hub to the other, and you feel immersed moving past other samurai while war drums beat and a castle lines the horizon.
Admittedly, Spirit of Sanada isn’t perfect. Some characters, especially supporting ones, can still feel seem utterly generic. Not much emphasis is given to them even as supposedly more prominent side stories are barely discussed, as if the developers expect you to just read about it in history books. That said, the emphasis on Masayuki and his immediate family, as well as an added, in-depth focus on the clan’s exploits, definitely serves to draw you in and compels you to invest in your character of choice. Overall, it manages to sell its setting well, not to mention make you empathize with its characters. If nothing else, it executes its ideas in such a unique manner as to make it stand out in a sea of musou offerings.
Needless to say, Spirit of Sanada’s gameplay is standard fare, albeit with a few twists. Those drawn to previous Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors releases will find the normal light attack, heavy attack, and musou buttons familiar, and the existence of Sanada Coins a welcome change. Acquired through the completion of side objectives or through talking with allied NPCs in the hub area, these coins are crucial for the activation of Stratagems, a set of optional, but useful mid-battle events; some call for allied help, while some delay enemy reinforcements. It’s a nice way to incentivize a player to do well with side objectives, and it gives you a stick by which your progress is measured; the activation of Stratagems means that you are not only doing well gameplay wise, but are also rewarded for your efforts.
All told, Spirit of Sanada overcomes its gimmicks. Surprisingly competent, it’s one of the more enjoyable Samurai Warriors games in the series — save for one thing. Its performance on the PS4 is, at times, atrocious.
Granted, lag spikes in games are common, especially in beat ’em ups with the amount of models and effects on screen. Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors diehards know this, and, as such, already expect frame drops to happen at least once in a playthrough. However, in Spirit of Sanada, the slowdowns have noticeably increased in terms of breadth and frequency. In particular, the visually beautiful hub areas are its most common victims, and it feels awkward seeing the game slow down to a crawl when nothing graphically intensive is happening on screen. It happens frequently enough that it becomes a distraction, and can severely impact your enjoyment of a game that runs smoothly in one second and stutters in the next.
It’s a shame, really. Spirit of Sanada emanates from a grand vision, but is bogged down by technical limitations. Gameplay wise, it’s a Samurai Warriors game with nice twists and an interesting take on its story, but it is held back by its performance. Those who love the Koei beat-’em-up series will enjoy the game without a doubt, while those new to musou titles can do much, much worse. They just need to be aware that it won’t run smoothly all the time. The lags don’t ruin the game, but they happen often enough as to become distractions that ultimately hamper enjoyment.
• Pleasantly surprising emphasis on the story.
• Interesting side objectives that can influence gameplay.
• Fair amount of collectibles (e.g. weapons, mounts).
• Nice design in terms of art and sound assets.
• Frequent lag spikes (even in areas where nothing happens).
• Repetitive gameplay honed in by the lack of different story modes and perspectives.
• Low replay value for a musou title.