Revising History With A Katana

HIGH Riding through a field on horseback, leveling enemies with a spear.

LOW The war-loving take on Japanese history.

WTF They’re gay-coding a historical figure who had 20 children. Weird choice!

It’s a rare thing to feel like one is playing propaganda. Not so weird if one is playing an American-made military shooter, of course, but feeling it with the latest Samurai Warriors game was a surprise.

Here’s the thing about Nobunaga Oda, the star of Samurai Warriors 5 — history tells us he lost. He was a villain, and he lost. The man was a brutal warlord who almost succeeded in conquering all of Japan, but then a general turned on him, and he was killed.

This real-life betrayal was generally considered to be a positive thing for Japan overall — there’s a reason so many pieces of fiction portray Nobunaga as a literal demon that needs to be slain. However, Samurai Warriors 5 takes a very different angle on this man’s story and presents him as someone so great that he shamed the rest of Japan, and he had to be stopped because he was too effective a general.

It’s… strange.

The latest title in Omega Force’s Samurai Warriors series aims to tell the entire story Oda’s life, from his earliest days as a minor warlord considered a fool by the upper echelons of Japanese society, all the way to his final status as the first man to almost unite the entire country under a single leader. In addition to the campaign, Samurai Warriors 5 offers a parallel story in which players control Mitsuhide Akechi, the general who started out as Oda’s enemy and gradually turned into one of his closest retainers before finally betraying and killing him. This is all handled, in traditional Musou fashion, with a series of third-person realtime battles in which the player controls one or two heroes who have to wade through hordes of foes, slaughtering dozens with each swipe of their weapon.

While Samurai Warriors 5 doesn’t offer anything fresh in the gameplay department, the combat is absolutely smooth and well-tuned, as one would expect from developers who’ve made essentially the same game dozens of times already. The secret of Omega Force’s success is not in innovation, but in fitting existing franchises and historical events into their incredibly practiced formula.

With this in mind, I can easily say that Samurai Warriors 5‘s gameplay is fantastic. There are dozens of characters, over ten weapon types, and enough special attacks and supers to make them all feel like individuals when brawling with hordes of enemies or when dueling officers. The combat system works great for either battle type, as every character can swap out skills and upgrade special abilities to fit the situation.

In addition to the main and alt campaigns, SW5 offers a challenge mode where a character must defend a castle from wave after wave of enemy attackers. It’s a simple construction, but there’s enough variety in the maps and enemy arrangements to justify the dozens of different missions the mode offers. It’s repetitive, of course, but that’s the curse of all musou games and the devs try to keep things from getting tedious by making these challenges far shorter than missions from the story mode. Where a regular battle might take 15-20 minutes, challenge missions start with a five minute clock and encourage the player to shoot for the highest possible score in that time window. Completing these gives resources the player will need to level up weapons and characters, those who want to max their favorites out can expect to spend a lot of time in challenge mode.

The developers have also gone out of their way to make SW5 playable in co-op. In split-screen mode this works perfectly, with players able to divide the work and complete the numerous optional objectives that every battle features. However, two playable characters aren’t any more difficult to manage in singleplayer mode — the AI will always run towards the most important objective, freeing the player up to explore while knowing they can swap back and forth between characters with the tap of a button.

While the gameplay is finely constructed, the story was a sticking point. I don’t expect realism from my historically-flavored musou action, but SW5 moves beyond revisionist history and into hagiography. This version of Nobunaga Oda is a stern but fair general who people keep betraying over and over again. While the real Oda was the victim of political machinations, the game posits him as unfailingly moral, eliding over the many, many massacres he was responsible for. While it’s true that nearly every general in this period was responsible for wiping out huge numbers of people as they conquered territories, SW5 leaves this almost completely to the side, presenting Oda as so fundamentally decent that I found it baffling to see his own family and friends turning on him. The characters keep talking about Oda going mad with power and being too vicious in his attempts to unify Japan, but the player never sees any of that brutality happening. As such, the backstabs and twists seem to come from nowhere.

This lack of rationale is also notable in the Akechi storyline. Because the real Akechi was killed soon after the death of Oda, history has no clear answers on why he did what he did. Theories range from thinking he could take over Oda’s armies, to being bribed by a rival, all the way to Oda making Akechi promise to kill him if he ever became such a monster that he couldn’t honorably lead a unified Japan into the future. Continuing its trend of going easy on Oda, SW5 goes out of its way to make sure that even when he’s being killed, Oda comes off looking like a hero.

From a gameplay standpoint, Samurai Warriors 5 is an easy recommendation. However, the political content isn’t as easy to sign off on. While there’s always going to be some celebration of military action in a title like this, the way the script goes out of its way to portray the bloodthirsty as heroes in defiance of true historical facts feels like a step too far. Samurai Warriors 5 isn’t a depiction of Japan’s violent past, it’s a celebration of it.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Omega Force and published by Bandai/Namco. It is currently available on PC, PS4/5,XBO/S/X. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS5. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. Approximately 5 hours were spent in multiplayer modes.

Parents: The game was rated T by the ESRB, and it contains, Violence, Mild Language, and Mild Suggestive Themes. The swearing is no worse than ‘hells’ and ‘damns’ – the suggestive themes mostly refer to a couple of not-really-scandalous costumes. The violence is completely bloodless.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be be altered and/or resized. I played most of the game without sound and encountered zero difficulties. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls are not remappable.

Daniel Weissenberger
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