Koei's hack and slash franchise returns to Nintendo platforms with Samurai Warriors Chronicles 3 – a title that provides a more personal touch when it comes to retelling the events of Japanese history. This is a game that's largely about your own custom made character, as you follow a mostly historically accurate plot that revolves around the samurai of 16th century Japan. With various warlords vying to unite the country, usually through force, you take on the role of a general who's initially loyal to the Oda clan – the family that arguably set the nation on the path to unification in the first place – and from there you flit from one army to the next, helping each achieve victory.
You're not alone on the battlefield, however. In true Warriors fashion, you're surrounded by your own allies, who play a bigger role than ever here. In each battle you'll be commanding up to four officers, your custom character included, and you'll be switching between them on the fly to get a better grip on the situation. At first it's a mechanic that can be a little tricky to get used to – especially when you're trying to keep up with the flow of battle itself – but with a little practice officer switching proves to be a great way to keep you in the action.
Warriors games tend to sport huge battlefields, and in times past many of them have seen you traverse large parts of empty map space just to fling yourself into the fight. In this case the switch system, when used correctly, allows you to simply jump to a character who's closer to combat, which means that battles rarely have any downtime. Needless to say, switching officers also provides more variety thanks to the fact that each samurai has their own unique set of moves and combos.
The character roster itself is vast, and it features all of the playable officers from Samurai Warriors 4, which released last year on PlayStation platforms. Speaking of which, Chronicles 3 borrows the majority of its elements from Samurai Warriors 4, including its combat mechanics, its dialogue system, and its character creation. That said, it does just enough to stand alone on its own merits – mostly due to the fact that it fuses some of 4's best bits into one cohesive mode.
As mentioned, story mode plops your custom character into the heart of the events that eventually result in Japan's unification. Between battles you'll be chatting to your comrades, building bonds and developing your warriors. The dialogue system's a nice touch, as it fleshes out each member of the cast quite well. You'll come to know their dreams and ambitions, all while forging a relationship with them through dialogue choices. Said choices don't have a direct impact on the narrative, but they do give you a chance to realise your own character's personality, and can lead to some rather humorous reactions from your warring peers.
Meanwhile, the bonding system itself is easy to understand, but it's clumsily executed. Each and every available samurai has their own affinity towards you, indicated by a little face icon which unsurprisingly gets happier as your relationship strengthens. By fighting alongside them and selecting the right dialogue options during conversation, your bond becomes more powerful, and enhancing your friendship with specific officers unlocks optional battles. However, as hinted, the system's a bit flawed in that it can take quite a bit of grinding to get everyone to like you. Bond levels rise slowly, and as such replaying the same battles again and again just to make a few characters happy can soon become tedious.
Fortunately, there is a quicker way to get things done – the tea ceremony. You can enact the famous Japanese tradition by heading to the town hub menu and selecting which officers you'd like to have a drink with, which, in turn, raises their affinity. The catch, though, is that it costs money to hold a ceremony, and – at least on your first playthrough of the game – you'll likely be strapped for cash, as you'll be using most of it to invest in shops which either specialise in upgrading your weaponry, or stock equippable items.
The bonding system's a little bit of an annoyance, then, but thankfully, there are other elements at work here that'll keep you playing. The weapon upgrade system, for example, is addictive. By defeating enemy officers in battle you'll nab upgrades that you can apply to your arsenal, which grant various bonuses and can help you forge your own style of play. Alongside this is a traditional levelling up system, and with so many warriors to develop there's no denying that you're getting plenty of content for your money, especially if you're keen to maximise everyone's potential.
However, low level characters do pose a problem when you advance far enough into the story. With each new battle you're usually stuck with a different set of allies, meaning that officers who you may have levelled up previously will be replaced with newcomers for story purposes – and fresh warriors start out at level 5. As such, we'd highly recommend playing on the easy difficulty setting for your first run of story mode, purely to stop things from becoming an absolute slog. What's more, the character switching mechanic means that you can only control one samurai at any one time, while the artificial intelligence handles the rest. And, predictably, the CPU controlled officers tend to get killed rather quickly if they're sitting at a low level.
Our recommendations don't stop there, either. Chronicles 3 can be a pretty complex title at times, when you're busy hacking through opposing armies and capturing specific points on the map, but things can become horribly overbearing because of the game's obsession with objectives. Popping up on the screen and seemingly always pausing the action at the most inopportune time, objective notifications point out both optional and crucial tasks that you'll need to undertake; they're so frequent that they'll likely send even the most patient player mad. Thankfully, the release's saving grace is that they can be turned off via the main menu, but it's still somewhat baffling that they're activated by default in the first place.
Of course, as with any Warriors title, the game's held together by its combat. Samurai Warriors 4 introduced hyper attacks, and they make a return here. Allowing you to carve through whole platoons of enemies with just a few elegant sweeps, hyper attacks help differentiate clashes with standard grunts and duels with named officers. For the latter, you'll need to employ charge attacks, blocking and parrying to get the best of your opponents, and while combat remains accessible - as per tradition - what's on offer in Koei's latest Samurai Warriors games is arguably the most refined that it's ever been.
If you really want to get stuck into the action, the title's second main mode is a must. Challenge mode puts you against the clock as you rack up points by completing objectives and mowing down troops. The time limit does mean that you won't be spending a huge amount of your playtime here, but you can use your collected points to purchase rare weapons and items, and all in all, it's a decent additional mode of play.
Sadly, things aren't quite as refined when it comes to the game's technical prowess. Squeezing Samurai Warriors 4's engine onto the relatively limited 3DS hardware has clearly called for a hefty downgrade. Although the art style remains attractive the graphics are muddy, and the pop-in is often instantly noticeable, which can take you out of the experience. That said, the 3D compatibility is actually quite good. Enabling 3D gives battlefields and cutscenes some real depth, and doesn't appear to negatively impact the game's performance to any reasonable degree. Likewise, the title makes thoughtful use of the touch screen, placing the map and character switching icons away from the action, allowing for easy access.
Samurai Warriors' return to Nintendo platforms is a welcome one, even if it is a little flawed in places. The combat is as solid as ever, and fans will appreciate the effort and attention that's been put into the personalised story mode. With an addictive character progression system and a huge roster of fighters, Samurai Warriors Chronicles 3 provides plenty of bang for your buck, although it is a shame that the series' trademark heaving battlefields have been toned down to such an extent in order to fit them onto the 3DS.