Review: Samurai Warriors: Chronicles (3DS)

Shogun fun or just ho-hum?

Tecmo Koei's Warriors franchise is a bit of a strange beast. While many entries in the series have garnered little critical acclaim, the games have a dedicated fanbase and continue to support the series after countless entries. It's no wonder, then, that the company decided to bring its hack-and-slash franchise to the 3DS in Samurai Warriors: Chronicles, a game that retains the same basic button-mashing formula familiar to the series while adding in some new elements in an effort to instil much needed depth into the series.

The first thing you do is design your own character. Instead of simply playing through as fantastical versions of famous Japanese warlords, you'll create a character to fight alongside them in their historical battles. There isn't very much in the way of battle customisation here though, with no different classes or RPG stats to dole out. Just male or female. You can customise your appearance though, and whatever character you create stays with you for the rest of the game, so choose wisely.

Attacking in the game is pretty simple, with each character having their own attack style and weapons. There is a basic attack and strong attack, which can be combined in a variety of ways to build combos. The jump button can be used as a dash attack while fighting, sending your enemy into the air and opening up the opportunity to air juggle them. Battling enemies earns experience, which levels up your character, but this mostly happens automatically and doesn't require much input from the player. New items and weapons can be acquired too, which can then be either equipped or combined to forge better weaponry.

As you fight, your Spirit Gauge increases, allowing you to do special “Musou” attacks. These can be used to make you faster and stronger for a limited time, and also allow you to pull off additional super moves, which change depending on the amount of life you have left, the level of your spirit gauge and whether you are near any allies. These are supposed to be done by executing the correct button command, but mashing the buttons mindlessly seems to work just as well. You'll be busting these attacks out all the time, whether you mean to or not, and before long the fun of the combat wears thin.

The graphics in the game get repetitive too, with the same sea of identical enemies swarming across the same green and brown landscapes. The special attack effects are nice though, and the game treats you to a pretty rad slow-mo action shot when you defeat strategic enemies. This serves the 3D effects well, and while there isn't a whole lot of pop to the effect, it still does a good job at creating depth into the screen. Each menu is layered in 3D too, with text boxes sitting atop Japanese ink drawings that float in the background. It isn't amazing, but it does a nice job of setting the tone of the game while utilising the power of the 3DS. In-game cutscenes are made a bit more bearable too, since these generally consist of two static bodies standing still and talking, and the added depth and distant-looking backgrounds are welcome additions.

Missions in the game generally have one main objective, usually defeating a specific warlord. Sometimes this gets changed to protecting a certain character, but for the most part, your main goal will be assassination. Other sub-missions pop up during gameplay, but completing them is not necessary to beat the level. This feels odd, as the game inserts new challenges frequently, and for the most part they are usually a lot more fun and in-depth than simple assassinations. Some task you with not letting certain enemies breach a stronghold, while others have you carving a path through the battlefield by capturing strategic castles and armaments. If these were required conditions for winning, the game could have been much more challenging and a lot more fun. Sadly though, running around attacking enemies mindlessly until you kill the right one works just as well.

One thing that this entry has over its console counterparts is the addition of the touchscreen map on the bottom screen. Here, the entire level is laid out, and each of your four controllable characters' positions are shown. Taking control of your characters is as easy as touching their icon, which instantly transfers you to their spot on the map. This, of course, leaves the character you were previously controlling to fend for his or herself, which in this game is a very bad thing, thanks to the incredibly frustrating AI.

Though they usually don't end up killing themselves right away, characters you leave to their own devices will lose life, and it is almost guaranteed they won't defeat their target. Allies whose survival is a condition for winning commonly get themselves surrounded by legions of enemies, and none of your characters fight well unless controlled directly by you. Enemies that should only take a matter of seconds to dispatch take forever when left to the AI fighters, making commanding them via the touchscreen almost pointless. This is incredibly unfortunate, because if this feature worked it could have transformed battles into completely different strategic affairs.

Most frustrating is the simple task of telling a character where to go. If they encounter any enemy, even non-mission targets, they will stop to take up arms. This gets incredibly frustrating when you need all the characters in one space, say to defeat the final character of a level. This should be as simple as touching a character icon then touching the spot they should go to, but sadly the only way to gather them quickly is to do it yourself, one after another, basically rendering the feature useless.

Some issues aren't as detrimental to the game as the horrible AI, but still cause enough frustrations to take away from the game. The camera, for instance, can only be manipulated by hitting the L button, which quickly repositions it behind the player. While this works well enough, it basically puts the brakes on the action, as this is the same button used to block. That means if you catch an enemy warlord in an air juggle but can't see the action, fixing the camera will end your combo and place you in a defensive stance. This may sound minor but it becomes annoying as the attack combos are one of the saving graces of the game, and it is a shame that they are hindered by the poor camera. The draw distance of the camera isn't too hot either, and sometimes enemies will just straight up disappear, even when they are standing right next to you. They can still hurt you, and you can still hurt them, so it's best to take off and leave these trouble-makers be.

For the ease of narration, the game has your character fluttering from battle to battle, making and breaking numerous alliances throughout the game that are truly meaningless. You'll go from fighting back Oda Nobunaga's forces and even defeating him with your own sword to having lofty conversations with him in the next chapter about ideals and ambition. This makes the plot seem ludicrous, as your warrior seems to be fighting it out for no reason, making and breaking alliances willy-nilly, content simply on fighting dudes, regardless of the side. What is this Outer-Heaven?

There are some opportunities to choose responses that will either increase or decrease how much the warlords like you, but these come up infrequently and add little to the actual game: you're still going to end up fighting them somewhere down the road. Also, the conversations you have with these warlords are trite and long-winded, and mostly just make broad, sweeping generalisations about things like justice, duty and courage. Hint: they are all good things.

The game does at times try to serve as a soft-handed “retelling” of famous Japanese battles from the 18th Century, but it gets hard to take seriously when these guys are emitting glowing purple orbs of chi from their chest and launching arcs of energy from their swords. Oh, and double bonus: the dialogue can't be skipped your first time through. That means if this is your first time attempting a level, then yes, you are going to have to listen to the three haiku Nobunaga wants to show you about nightingales that don't sing.

Conclusion

Samurai Warriors: Chronicles is a pretty decent game conceptually: its missions have multiple objectives, there are four characters for you to manage at once and each has his or her own specific attack combos and powers. Things like the touchscreen map should have opened up the opportunity to plan out strategies and position troops about the battlefield, but your allies never live up to your demands, and organising a strategy is rendered useless by the idiotic AI. There are a lot of missed opportunities here, as strategic troop planning could have added a lot of depth to the title. Sadly though, you can do pretty well in the game by simply running around and mashing the attack button at anything that moves. That is after all what the franchise is best known for, and in this case, that is probably not a good thing.