Samurai Warriors 2 Empires is the latest iteration of the iconic series based on the Warring States period of Japanese history during the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries.  Developed by KOEI and published by Omega Force, SW2E takes the hack and slash action of the Samurai Warriors series, and adds in a strategy element with numerous missions all with a common goal: unification of either a region of Japan or the entire country. 

This is the first time the Empires game plan has been brought to Japanese history, and the game reflects it, featuring a number of campaigns based on Japanese history, complete with 90 policy cards derived from Japanese history and culture.  The game features over 400 playable characters as well as the option to create your own Officer. 

Will the new additions plus the constant of hack and slash gameplay propel this title to new heights on the Playstation 2, or will it be just another title which gets shoveled out at the end of the console’s lifespan?

While SW2E isn’t the most graphically taxing of games for the PS2, apparently they’ve taken the engine from Dynasty Warriors 5 Empires and used it here, and the game is the better for it.  The game features a large number of units on screen at the same time, and while they fade out into the distance, giving the game a bit of pop-up when coming upon the units, the units themselves, especially the officers, are all well-designed and have a good amount of detail. 

The units fly through the air from your attacks, and sparks fly from weapons while blocking.  The horses generally move like horses, although they tend to run more on rails as opposed to realistically, and all of the weapons also have a solid amount of detail. 

Really, the only thing lacking about this game graphically is outside of battle, during the Strategy phases.  The map is relatively static, and while you’ll sometimes see a few cutscenes here and there, and some slight effects from the turning of the seasons, it feels like they could have done a lot more to bring the game’s map to life.  The game would also have benefited from more cutscenes.

First, the good.  The game features solid music featuring melodies which evoke historical Japan, as well as martial tunes which keep the blood flowing during combat.  The mood in the cutscenes is also appropriately set by the music.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good things end.  First off, you’ve got the voices.  As fans of the Dynasty and Samurai Warriors series know, the voices are always almost laughably bad.  Given that this is at least the tenth title that has been made with the same formula…it just doesn’t cut it any more.  The voices are absolutely horrible.  Not only that, many of the NPCs have the exact same voice.  When you hire three officers in a ten minute period, and hear them all say “My heart beats only for you,” in one of the most effimenite voices (almost stereotypically homosexual, to be honest), it’s too much.  It’s no longer funny.  Now, it’s just sad, and completely inexcusable.  Furthermore, when two characters are in love so much that they’re going to marry, the man should not have almost no tone or inflection in his voice when he tells his beloved that he loves her.  It’s almost like, “Yeah, yeah, I love you, so shut up and gimme a sake.”

The sound effects, honestly, aren’t much better.  The menu sounds feature an overly loud and overly annoying sword ‘clang’ sound which is only worth hearing … once, at most.  None of the other sounds are even remotely helpful as far as playing the game.  In fact, for a large part of the Strategy phase, the game is almost completely lacking in sounds other than the same menu sound as before.  Again, this is inexcusable.  The only reason the sound/music section is not getting a zero is because the music is rather nice, but not worth dealing with everything else to hear. 

The base controls of SW2E haven’t really changed since Dynasty Warriors, and that’s basically a good thing.  During combat, the square button performs your basic attack, triangle performs a charge attack and the circle button performs your Musou attack.  X is used to jump, as well as mounting and dismounting your horse.  R1 performs a special attack with either the square or triangle buttons, while R2 performs a rolling evade.  L1 guards and strafes while L2 switches the minimap between a close-up view or the entire battle map.  Lastly, the left analog stick controls your character while the right analog stick controls the camera, the directional pad gives orders to your armies, and start pauses the game and skips cut scenes.

This brings us to the camera itself.  First off, the placement is horrible.  It sits about three to four feet behind your character, which means that while moving (especially on horseback) it’s almost impossible to see much, including what might be coming at you from behind.  This is a huge drawback in this game.  Secondly, the camera is rather hard to control as the default angle is such that again, it’s hard to see what you’re doing, which can lead to premature death and lack of enjoyment.

Also, the horse movement is so incredibly fast that it’s hard to really effectively fight on horseback.  After all, not all horse combat is performed at a gallop, but unless you’re strafing, that’s how you fight in SW2E.

In Strategy mode, the controls are very simple, as the d-pad moves your cursor, and X selects an option while triangle backs up one menu item. 

SW2E is broken into two major game modes: Empire Mode and Free Mode.  Free mode is basically nothing but combat, where you choose any battlefield, which force you play for and who has the advantage.  You then choose your character from any of the unlocked officers or any created one, and go kill things.  This allows you to level up your characters and your weapons, which can then be used in Empire Mode. 

Empire Mode is the meat and potatoes of SW2E.  In this mode, you’ll choose from a number of scenarios from regional ones aimed at unifying a section of Japan to ones aimed at unifying the country as a whole.  Even in the regional ones, however, if you complete the scenario before 1600, it’ll move to a country-wide scenario as a bonus.  In Empire Mode, you’ll begin by choosing a fief and its ruler, then go into Strategy Phase where you’ll choose from a number of options which allow you to use policy cards to do anything from fortifying your lands to hiring new troops to even hiring officers.  There’re 90 total policies, and while you only start with a few options, if you spend enough time with the Consult command, you’ll unlock new policies.  Also,  based on how you play the game, you may unlock ones based on your playstyle, be it good or evil. 

Once you perform your alotted actions in Strategy Mode, it’s time to go choose whether to invade another territory, defend against an attack, join an ally in their own attacking or defense, or just go to the next turn, which are measured in seasons.  Of course, without building up your forces and successful planning, a invasion is a risky choice, so much of your time will be spent in Strategy Phase, which for those who don’t care for the strategic arts, can get quite boring.

Once a battle is selected, you’ll choose your generals (up to three) and lieutenants (also up to three).  Then, after a bit of loading, you’ll choose your tactics and formations, then go to battle.  For those used to any of the games in the series, you know what to expect here.  Run to a base, kill all the base captains, kill off any enemy officers you come across, wash, rinse, repeat.  There’s nothing new here, although the difficulty level, especially early on, can get annoying.  Fighting at level one only to find yourself facing off against six base captains, about thirty grunts, and two or three officers can be a bit overwhelming. 

Once a battle is won or lost, you’ll find out how many troops each of your officers has lost, as well as how much XP has gained (only if victorious), and then you’ll have the chance to modify your weapon somewhat.  If you’ve won the battle, you can then choose to either hire, release, or execute (once the option is unlocked) your prisoners.  If you lose, your officers will either be released, hired, or also executed once the option is unlocked.

If you lose a defense and run out of territory, you lose the game of course.  In fact, early in the game, it’s possible to lose one territory out of your lot, and lose everything in one fell swoop if that one territory happens to be your original one.  This makes planning even more important in the game.

Unlocking things seems to be the name of the game.  This requires a successful completion of at least one scenario, and possibly other factors, before a number of menu options are unlocked, including some scenarios and a number of officers.  There’s also an Archive which allows you to unlock weapons, art, movies, and a huge number of other items.

Honestly, though, the gameplay hasn’t changed at all in a number of years, and it’s staring to show.  While the addition of the strategic gameplay is nice, the game’s reliance upon repeated replays for unlocking means that this game is really only for the hardcore DW/SW fans, even at the low price of $30.