At first blush, Koei Tecmo’s Touken Ranbu Warriors appears to be something of a "My First Dynasty Warriors", or a "Diet" Musou. It’s based on DMM’s (popular in Japan) free-to-play browser-based collectable card game, targeted at Japanese women — specifically a subculture of otaku known as “katana women” – ladies who like to pose with historical Japanese swords. Ironically, this trend more or less began with Capcom’s frankly superior Dynasty Warriors clone, Sengoku Basara, which became wildly popular and span off into all manner of media, becoming something of a cultural phenomenon on its home turf. Now Koei Tecmo, via developer Omega Force and co-developer Ruby Party, have carved out a niche of a niche of its own. So what’s the end result like?
For a game based more or less on a formula established over 20 years ago, Touken Ranbu Warriors – in terms of core gameplay – is nothing new to Musou veterans. It’s an almost excessively lax variation on the template, though, in which the actual ‘Easy Mode’ offers almost no resistance at all. It feels less like wading into a battlefield teeming with bloodthirsty enemies and more like sweeping an endless succession of floors littered with trash. If you let your character – out of a variety of 15 playable characters – stand around on the battlefield, only very occasionally will an enemy step up to poke you before quickly returning to its original position. If it wasn’t for the odd time limit, there would be almost no pressure to compete at all.
But it’s still worth a cursory glance. At the very least the fresh cast of characters and Japan-based setting offers some respite from the usual Yellow Turban Rebellion regurgitation that the mainline Dynasty Warriors franchise relies on. Touken Ranbu Warriors also puts in the work to supply loads of fantasy-based lore and character development to justify the game’s ridiculous premise.
The game's time-travelling conceits finds Touken Ranbu's heroes appointed by the 'Government of Time' to protect history against the game's antagonists, the 'History Retrograde Army,' whose mission it is to... well, alter history, which is an ironic plot device given Japan’s own tendencies to retcon its history books to suit a preferred narrative. Real-world governmental hypocrisy aside, this Government of Time awakens the game’s heroes, the Touken Danshi, to hold back this preposterously-named army and stop them from altering the course of history.
The Touken Danshi are organized into five teams. The first team features three characters, the second features four, the third and fourth teams both offer three characters, and the fifth team features two. Each team leader is the personified representation of a historical Japanese katana (sword) pulled from various points in Japan’s history. This time-travelling fantasy-based framework allows Omega Force/Ruby Party more leeway to play with the Musou formula than a standard Dynasty Warriors game could, but unfortunately, this blank canvas is put to little creative use.
While we’ve all witnessed the Musou template ruthlessly applied to franchises as diverse and, occasionally, ill-fitting as Gundam, Fist of the North Star, Berserk, Warriors Orochi, The Legend of Zelda, One Piece, Fire Emblem, Dragon Quest and Persona, Touken Ranbu Warriors hews closely to the default Warriors-style of gameplay. While the controls differ from Dynasty Warriors – particularly in Easy Mode, which reduces the game to a simple button-masher – the game removes things like ranged attacks in favour of normal, strong and dodging moves.
Clearly, this is designed to make things simple for more casual gamers who are here to continue their experience from the browser-based CCG, but this also makes Touken Ranbu Warriors a milder entry point for younger gamers as well. The real issue here is that the rest of us will find little meaningful value in a game whose characters we’re not familiar with (the success of the various licensed Dynasty Warriors clones relies on the built-in fanbase of each individual IP) and whose time-travelling conceit yields little engagement on the battlefield.
At least the enemies in the Dynasty Warriors series reap the benefits of being historically relevant, providing real heroes, differing viewpoints and perspectives in which to sink your teeth. But Touken Ranbu’s foes are much less distinct than any Yellow Turban Army. Here you’re treated to endless waves of mundane, floating insect-like invaders, often accompanied by surly, green humanoid enemies. They start off human-sized, and periodically increase in size until you come face to face with larger, hulking variants (still green).
There’s rarely much in the way of dialogue, leaving you with a rather empty experience. The best games have memorable antagonists with distinct personalities. Touken Ranbu Warriors dumps the player on the field to do battle with faceless avatars of little distinction – hardly the greatest motivator to see the game through to the finish line.
In an age where vastly superior third-person action games of various flavours like Elden Ring, God of War, Devil May Cry, and Breath of the Wild exist, with current-gen advancements in physics, animation, and control methods, Touken Ranbu Warriors still feels like a PlayStation 2 game in every aspect of its presentation. The game loop finds players mowing down hundreds of generic enemies, who occasionally telegraph stronger attacks with a bright red rectangle indicating the enemy’s range of attack.
These are easily dodged or interrupted. Bosses are handled in almost exactly the same way as regular foot soldiers, the difference being their larger health bars. The most challenging foe in the game are the stages with time limits, but even these are especially forgiving. For casual gamers, this may very well be enough, but for those of us with higher expectations and experience with Warriors games, this is less-than-compelling. Minor inconveniences, like enemies occasionally tying you up in a web, add a little variety but do little to interrupt the game’s flow.
Visually, this is a solid-looking title. It won’t win any awards for cutting edge graphics, but the time-tested Musou engine is put to good use here, with plenty of sakura flowers on display, and the game bearing a mostly bright and colourful style. The game’s most unique visual element is each character’s destructible clothing. Suffer enough damage and you’ll be shown a brief cinematic of your character moving in slow-motion as their garments shred. This may appeal to the thirstiest of gamers, but it otherwise has little impact on the game.
In its favour, Touken Ranbu Warriors offers a substantial amount of content to those interested in the lore. There’s little to distinguish the time-travelling aspects of the game, though, as you’re primarily stuck on ancient Japanese battlefields, with only between-level loading screens indicating when you’re in the future.
Touken Ranbu Warriors is a game best suited for players with little experience with the Dynasty Warriors series in general. If this is meant to appeal primarily to fans of the free-to-play games – with far lower expectations when it comes to action games – as a great big slice of Touken Danshi fan service, this will be a great addition to their collection. For players less versed in the world of Touken Ranbu, this is a much harder sell, offering a rote, repetitive game loop that does little to slake your thirst for a more meaningful, evolving game experience. This criticism could arguably apply to all of the Warriors games, but where the bigger license-based games add to the formula, Touken Ranbu Warriors feels like a distillation. In a lot of ways and for certain audiences this is perfectly fine. By this point in time, the Dynasty Warriors machine is a well-oiled, refined and polite product; the video game equivalent of a Honda Civic. But even with a well-loved product as reliable as that, there comes a point when it's just time to get with the times.