Koei Tecmo's Samurai Warriors finally returns after a seven year hiatus with a soft reboot that takes the long-running saga back to its roots, focusing on a brash young Nobunaga Oda's unwavering determination to unify Japan whilst zeroing in on his relationship with Mitsuhide Akechi. Samurai Warriors 5 is a slick and stylish addition to the long-running Musou series that tells its tale well, introduces a beautiful new art style, makes a bunch of smart additions to the franchise's standard hack and slash action and, perhaps most importantly for Switch fans, manages all of this whilst delivering impressively solid performance on Nintendo's console.
Starting off with that new art style; the rather bland, po-faced visual direction of older entries in the Samurai Warriors series has now been replaced with a fresh and colourful look that's been heavily inspired by traditional Japanese ink paintings. From the moment you boot this one up it's a real feast for the eyeballs and even on Switch, where the graphics have absolutely been pared back in comparison to other versions of the game, things still look really slick. In battle there's a surprising amount of vibrant and flashy particle effects on screen as you slice and dice your way through the thousands of enemies that stand in your way; the narrative cutscenes that book-end missions now look uniformly superb. Yes the draw-distance still stinks a little - a problem not unique to this Switch port - but overall this is one tasty looking addition to the franchise.
The reworked presentation really does feed into how enjoyable the narrative is too, with those stylish cutscenes presenting the various characters, plot points, perspectives and incidents in a way that just feels more captivating than it has done in the past. Yes, as long-time fans we were sucked in more than usual just checking out all the new character designs, but even for newcomers this is a campaign with a story that's brought to life in a rather gorgeous and, perhaps most importantly, easy to follow manner.
Some hardcore fans may well take issue with a storyline that doesn't seem quite as expansive in terms of its historical timeline as previous offerings in the series - as they may also do with the fact this new game has cut the character roster down from its predecessor's fifty five to thirty seven. For us, though, it's all in keeping with a reboot that's looking to freshen things up, excising a lot of the bloat - in terms of both long-winded narrative and various fiddly combat mechanics - in favour of a game that generally feels lighter on its feet, is easy to get to grips with and doesn't hold you back from getting blasted right into the thick of its hack and slash combat. In fact, if you've ever fancied trying a Musou game but have yet to take the plunge, this really does feel like a newcomer-friendly place to dive into the action.
With this in mind, getting started here there's even a surprisingly restrained tutorial period that sees you gently introduced to the game's mechanics while limiting your choice of characters to just Nobunaga Oda himself. It's a well paced opening and an informative introduction to how the series' trademark combat works that takes its time and slowly layers on new elements, ideas and mechanics before then opening up the roster and letting you get down to the action proper.
Of course that action is the beating heart of the entire endeavour, and with regards to the changes and additions that Koei Tecmo has made to the standard Musou template, Samurai Warriors 5 feels like a real winner. This is still very much a traditional Musou game, and you'll still spend the vast majority of your time hacking through impossibly large hordes of - let's face it - braindead enemies, but what has been added elevates the entire experience over what's come before in this samurai spin-off series.
On top of the usual strings of light and heavy combos, hyper attacks and powerful Musou attacks that you can dish out as you blaze a path of destruction across the game's various battlefields, Samurai Warriors 5 adds excellent new cooldown-based "Ultimate Skills" that can be deployed as and when you see fit. These new skills give the general flow of combat here a real lift, adding so much more in the way of choice and spectacle in how you go about savaging your enemies.
Ultimate skills range from useful temporary buffs that increase your attack or defence, instantly refill your Musou gauge and so on, to powerful special moves that see your chosen fighter able to supplement their usual attack options with a host of sexy new abilities and screen-shaking techniques that can be cancelled into at any time, giving your combos a whole new lease of life.
When combined with your Rage Gauge, which temporarily buffs your speed and attacks - and sees you capable of unleashing a super-charged Ultimate Musou - and each character's own unique weapon skills, there's a surprising amount of moment-to-moment combat choice here for a genre which is most often referenced with regards to its rather simplistic, heavily repetitive action.
Indeed, where older entries in this franchise could sometimes see you hacking away repetitively with your bog-standard combos as you waited for a super attack to refill or charge, here there's pretty much always some gauge or power that's flashing to let you know it's ready to be unleashed. As you level up through simply playing and smashing your foes you'll also constantly unlock new, more powerful Ultimate Skills and weapon-specific combos, giving you something else to work towards as you make your way through the campaign.
Combine all of these new offensive options with constantly shifting objectives that see you tasked with all manner of mini-missions as you make your way through each level and you've got a game that always feels as though it's keeping you nice and busy, pushing you around its maps and forcing you into a little light strategic gameplay to compliment the all-out action as you blitz through its story mode.
In terms of that story mode itself, it took us some twenty or so hours to blast through and comprises of two main narrative arcs that you can switch between at your leisure, that of Nobunaga and another that tells the game's tale from the viewpoint of Mitsuhide Akechi - although you won't gain access to Mitsuhide's missions until around five hours into the game. These main missions are then supplemented by unique character-specific sorties that flesh out various elements of the story and give a little more background to some of the friends and foes you'll make along the way.
Outside of the main story there's just one other gameplay option to sink your teeth into in Samurai Warriors 5, and that's Citadel Mode. Here you'll fight battles where the aim is to defend your base against incoming attacks whilst completing various on-the-fly objectives in order to get your hands on resources that you'll need to upgrade buildings in the main campaign. It's in this slightly convoluted system of upgrading that we found the game beginning to stumble for the first time, as it forces you into a situation where you'll absolutely need to grind it out in this (admittedly fun) sub-mode in order to fully unlock all of the main game's abilities and utilities.
You see, as you make your way through the story mode here you'll be returned to an upgradeable "My Castle" menu area between sorties where you can tune up your gear, train your fighters and buy buffs, skill gems and items at the shop. However all of these services, the Dojo, Blacksmith and Shop need to be upgraded several times in order to make them fully operational - you can't craft new weapons at the Blacksmith until you've raised it to the required level, for example. You have no option but to grind Citadel Mode to unlock everything here, a realisation that led to us deciding to get through the campaign on our first run without availing of all of the utilities the game has to offer.
It's a shame, as it feels like you're being forced to pad out your game time by jumping into this sub-mode to collect boring materials, an aspect of proceedings that surely could have just been implemented into the main campaign, but this grind is at least somewhat mitigated by the fact you'll be wanting to hit Citadel Mode as much as you can anyway in order to level up your roster of characters.
In another slight stumble, the campaign here often inexplicably restricts who you can choose to play as, often letting you hit the battlefield with two characters to switch between at a time but limiting your choices to just a handful of your currently unlocked fighters. This means, of course, that you'll find yourself with a bunch of completely under-levelled fighters who you'll need to buff up by taking them through Citadel Mode, until they're fit to take on the challenges of the main campaign whenever the game sees fit to let you choose them.
You can also upgrade fighters exclusively in the main campaign mode by using stocks of XP that you're awarded at the end of each mission, but you'll find you never have enough of this XP to get underused characters completely fighting fit. It's an oddly restrictive system, especially given the choice the game affords you with regards to swapping character weapons and moves as you see fit. It leads to a situation where, especially on your first run through the campaign, you may find yourself just sticking to a few fighters who are available in most missions and therefore adequately levelled up - as we did with Nobunaga and Mitsuke, one of the game's blazingly fast new ninja characters.
It's not an issue that's going to particularly affect you if you're intending to enjoy this game on every difficulty or really take your time - you'll likely have your roster fully powered up on your second go-around. For casual players, though, you may find yourself running into brick walls in terms of what you've got unlocked and which of your fighters are strong enough to take into battle without making things difficult for yourself.
Away from this slightly convoluted means of upgrading, however, Samurai Warriors 5 rarely puts a foot wrong. This is a highly polished, fast and flashy addition to the franchise that's arrived on Switch in fine form. After the niggling performance issues seen in Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity we definitely had some concerns about how this one would play out - especially given how good it looks on Nintendo's console - but, we're happy to report, we experienced nary a bug or notable framerate drop in our time with the game. Even in the little bit of time we spent trying out two player split-screen, things always felt surprisingly solid.
Whether you're slashing your way through enemy hordes with Nobunaga, ninja-kicking and flipping around the battlefield with Mitsuki, using No's bow for devastating ranged attacks or blasting all and sundry with Hisahide Matsunaga's great big cannon, the action here is always captivating, always frantic and always engagingly addictive stuff. Levels are highly replayable, with lots of hidden objectives to complete and perfect S-ranks to achieve. Switching between characters on-the-fly gives you lots of options with regards to keeping those impossibly long combos going and even that Citadel Mode - apart from the materials grind - offers up plenty of ferocious battles to keep you and your roster of thirty seven fighters well and truly busy.
With ten fresh new characters to get to grips with, a strong story mode, excellent new Ultimate Skills and a flashy new art-style, Samurai Warriors 5 is, all things considered, a slick new outing for the series and another strong addition to the Switch's impressive line-up of Musou games.
Samurai Warriors 5 takes the long-running franchise, gives it a wonderfully vibrant lick of paint, throws in some excellent new combat mechanics and fills its story mode with well-directed cutscenes, resulting in a slick and stylish addition to the series that's sure to please fans and newcomers alike. Yes, it makes a few fumbles here and there - we aren't fond of its grindy system of upgrading your Dojo and Blacksmith, it limits your character choices at times in the campaign and that stripped back roster is sure to irk some - but, overall, what's here is a fine addition to the Switch's line-up of Musou titles. This is a fast-paced, flashy hack and slash effort that looks and plays fantastically well and, most importantly, performs almost perfectly whilst doing so.