Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes
There are few genres that divide the Eastern and Western game audiences as succinctly as tactical action games like Dynasty Warrior or Sengoku Basara (a.k.a. Devil Kings). The latest instalment in the Sengoku Basara series (subtitled Samurai Heroes) has enjoyed healthy sales in Japan, to date having shifted half a million units. Unfortunately, the title will likely be dismissed over here by an audience left befuddled by the genre’s reputation for brain-dead enemies and repetitive, button-mashing combat that overshadow any tactical nuance. Matters aren’t helped by the failure of Dynasty Warrior’s annual updates to innovative, the series having long been content in merely servicing the most committed of its fan-base. The question is, does Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes have aspirations of mass market success in the West, or is it content with just being big in Japan?
It doesn’t take long to find the answer to this question, with Sengoku Basara promptly hitting you square in the chops with an opening sequence that functions as a statement of intent, the melodrama and pounding j-pop theme tune betraying the game’s cultural origins. It’s clear that – unlike many other recent Capcom releases such as Dark Void and Bionic Commando – Sengoku Basara is happy to inhabit the more niche, esoteric end of the gaming spectrum, a fact further cemented by its be-quiffed anime inspired cast of characters.
Once you’ve selected your character and launched into battle, first impressions are that this is just a slightly glossier rehash of Dynasty Warriors, with the usual large maps populated by hordes (and we mean hordes…) of intellectually challenged troops begging to be cut to ribbons by the razor-edge of your samurai sword. Charging into groups of enemies, you pump the two attack buttons and send large groups of attackers flying, slugging your way to objective points and boss characters. In terms of technical performance, it’s all very slick with no slow-down even with the screen stuffed with foes, and this fluidity undoubtedly lends to the cheap thrills that come with feeling like a virtually invincible hero.
As is often the case with tactical action games of this type, it’s not long before you start wondering if there is any depth underlying the on-screen carnage, and the lofty claims made in the game’s press-release are eager to convince. Producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi’s involvement with Devil May Cry 4 is highlighted, as is his claim that each character has ‘a level of depth on par with a Street Fighter character’, but unfortunately the relevance and accuracy of these statements isn’t readily apparent. For starters the combat system feels far more restrained – and, dare we say, far more limited – than the wonderfully complex abilities possessed by Dante, Ken, Ryu and co. In fact, it’s initially difficult to see Sendoku Basara’s cast of samurais being little more than one-note brawlers who favour a limited number of overpowered attacks over adaptable and nuanced joy-pad juggling. In honesty the Street Fighter and Devil May Cry comparisons are not helpful; this is a very different type of game, and its focus and strengths lie in very different areas.
Succeeding in Sendoku Basara is less down to your fighting prowess and more dependent on how you approach the battlefields, the order in which foes are destroyed and the choices you make in levelling up your character. Put another way, the meat of the game lies in the broader strokes, rather than the minutiae of combo’s and special moves. With that being said, each character’s move-set can gradually be increased, with money earned in battle funding the purchasing of new abilities, weapons and upgrades, and as you level up some reasonably spectacular moves can be pulled off. The casts are also liberated by having some wonderfully over-the-top weaponry at their disposal, all of which go unhindered by the limits imposed by the capabilities of the human body. In this world, for example, one character’s decision to wield six samurai swords at the same time makes perfect sense; and when it looks as cool as it does, who are we to argue?
Unfortunately, the balance between visual spectacle, the levelling up of your character and the significance of shrewd tactical decision making on the battlefield doesn’t feel quite right. Even as a lower level character, most foes are easily despatched, and the tactics required rarely strays far beyond charging towards squad leaders, hacking them down and watching the resistance fade away. The game does its best to bring variety to the action with the inclusion of boat escort missions, re-animating foes and environmental elements (one level, for example, sees you opening gates to flood areas of the map), but such distractions don’t quite manage to disguise the repetitive nature of the underlying action.
The game does manage to find variety is in the level and character designs. Though the many interweaving plots are allegedly based on Japanese history, Sengoku Basara plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, never shying away from the realm of fantasy. Thusly, the inclusion of giant robotic samurai, heinous necromancers and rivers flowing with blood all manage to squeeze themselves into the game. These additions also help broaden the games repertoire, allowing for some reasonable interesting boss battles, such as a confrontation with a giant, burrowing tank. The eccentric and flamboyant cast also enable a fair (and surprising) degree of humour, with everything from a posh, tea drinking clan leader and a samurai with delusions of invincibility rubbing shoulders with the usual femme fatales and beefy musclemen.
There is little doubt that Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes will be lapped up by tactical action fans; it is mechanically robust, pleasing on the eye and has a vitality that has been sorely missing in recent Dynasty Warrior releases. Those not already enamoured with the genre will find less to enjoy here however. The overarching strategy map that ties the battles together – and the manner in which these clashes impact on your overall progress – feels pretty arbitrary, and the tactics required to achieve victory on the battlefield lacks depth. Many will also find frustration in the lack of mid-level checkpoints, resulting in level restarts that can really test your patience. It’s admirable that the series has stuck so closely to its original vision and avoided the temptation of courting new audiences and Samurai Heroes definitely succeeds in servicing its current fan-base. Unfortunately, it also seems unlikely that this outing will help it break out of its chosen niche and find a broader appeal.
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