Samurai Warriors 4 Empires PS5/PS4 Review
Is Koei’s six year old action strategy game still fun?
Earlier this year, Koei Tecmo and Omega Force launched Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires worldwide to little fanfare, dropping it out right in the middle of other big games like Elden Ring and Horizon Forbidden West. The game’s Japanese release was more smartly timed at the end of 2021, where it was a modest hit. I enjoyed the game enough that I bought and played several copies, and I’m re-evaluating it right now on the PS5.
DW9: Empires was the return of Koei’s long-dormant spin off branch of their long-running Warriors/Musou action franchise. These days, the licensed titles in the series tend to do much better than the in-house original IP stuff, so it’s no wonder really that the tactical side of the series got shelved for six years.
The Empires brand used to show its face a lot more often, with a new game all but guaranteed for each installment in the main series. These take the core button mashing action of the million billion Warriors games and pair it with a layer of hardcore strategy driven mostly by menus. Not really the stuff of modern mainstream gaming excitement, maybe, but something I really enjoy.
Samurai Warriors 4 Empires was the last game in this spin-off lineage before Koei threw it in a closet for six long years. There’s nothing about the game itself that suggests that the series was about to go on hiatus. In fact, revisiting it now on a modern console, it’s as vibrant and fresh as anything else in the series, and probably should have been the model for more of their games going forward.
The game released in 2016 on the PS3(!), Vita(!!), and PS4, with no Xbox or PC releases to speak of. I don’t know that Sony paid for any kind of exclusivity at the time, so this is probably just down to Koei’s weird habit of releasing things in whatever manner they choose. While the vast majority of the graphical and combat content come directly from Samurai Warriors 4, it’s the presentation layer on top that makes this worth going back to now.
Rather than just use the same tired menu system that most Empires games employ (including this year’s text-stuffed DW9 iteration), SW4 Empires mixes things up with a lavishly produced graphical interface set within the confines of a cute cutaway diorama castle. You’ll use this neat-looking system to place officers in different roles in your kingdom, and they can offer you suggestions as to possible strategies. Taking these suggestions offers some benefit over executing actions manually, essentially doubling up the number of actions you can take per turn.
As in all Warriors games, your goal is to wage action-heavy battles across a vast area and unite the lands under your own flag. Samurai Warriors 4 sped up these battles to a hilarious degree, offering a special move called a Hyper Attack that allows your chosen character to rip across the battlefield at lightning speed, and all that fast combat goodness returns here in Empires. I know that a lot of fans didn’t like the speed of these games at the time, and indeed DW9 and Samurai Warriors 5 both proceed a bit slower overall, so perhaps the developers agreed. Still, in a day where long cutscenes and elaborate tutorials rule over all, jumping in and blasting across a battlefield has tremendous charm.
The castle menu system and the fast combat make this one of the easiest Empires games to get into. If you don’t want to worry too much about strategy, you won’t have to, but there’s still enough depth here for those that love to dig in. The game’s campaigns are punctuated by little somewhat-random story scenes, and the production value on these is dramatically higher than in this year’s newest release. DW9 Empires has some of the worst, shoddiest cutscenes I’ve seen in a modern video game. Not only does SW4 Empires feature way more story scenes than the new game, they are also better produced and much more varied.
Playing Samurai Warriors 4 Empires on a PS5, the game is locked to 60FPS at a 1080p resolution. A 4k option would have been nice, but this game released many months before the PS4 Pro, and Koei never went back to update it. For a game that’s basically just a PS3 game with a coat of extra lighting slapped onto it, it still looks okay. Characters are expressive and easy to identify by their sharp silhouettes, and the animations look nice and give the combat some weight and depth. The field of view is rather restricted, again probably due to the older systems this had to run on, and the camera has a tendency to tilt downwards automatically, also probably to reduce the rendering overhead.
These performance quirks are why I wish that this game saw the light of day again on newer consoles. It’s practically begging for a modern re-release, something that Koei almost never does. I don’t understand why this game wasn’t more of a model for this year’s DW9 Empires, save for some hidden mandate to keep using that Dynasty Warriors 9 open world they spent so much time making.
If you’re looking for a fun action game with tons of content for your PS4 or 5, and a little bit of brain- massaging strategy, you could do a lot worse than Samurai Warriors 4 Empires. Its standard $50 price (official PlayStation Store link) seems a bit high this long after its release, but it does have many different campaign scenarios as well as an editor to make your own, so you’ll tire of playing it long before you run out of content. The Empires franchise always suffers on accessibility thanks to its piles of menus, and the graphical treatment here went a long way to fixing that while keeping the core complexity of the franchise.
It’s too bad that this fell into the same abandoned pit that so many older Koei games find themselves in, because it’s a great hidden gem that I will happily keep playing after I post this.
Score: 8 out of 10
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Originally published at https://www.worldbolding.com on August 5, 2022.