All The Swords Are Pretty Boys Now
HIGH Absolutely dominating bosses with two-man super attacks.
LOW The lack of an interesting antagonist.
WTF The scene of a sword sexually harassing another sword.
There’s a particular joy to be found in watching a game fully embrace an utterly bonkers premise.
As far as I can tell – and there’s details I could be wrong about, as it doesn’t do a fantastic job of explaining itself – Touken Ranbu Warriors is about a collection of blades that were wielded by great heroes of Japan during the late Sengoku period. At some point in the 23rd century, scientists – or possibly magicians – gain the ability to bring forth the personalities of these swords, shaped by the experiences they had participating in legendary conflicts, and then embody them as human men who are sent by the government through time to battle malicious forces trying to change the past.
If that sounds crazy, it’s only because you’re paying attention.
Once the absurd premise is accepted, TRW is a fairly run-of-the-mill musou game — it’s essentially the gender-swapped version of Senran Kagura, with a group of handsome young men who battle together, flirt with one another, and even have their clothing torn apart when they receive a particularly fierce strike. While it’s not as overtly leering and lascivious as an SK game, TRW isn’t ever shy about making it clear that presenting beefcake is just as high a priority as the actual combat that makes up the majority of its gameplay.
Levels are structured in the traditional way Omega Force has been building them for more than two decades now. The player watches a cutscene establishing the stakes – here it’s that a group of zombies and giant bugs are killing people at key points in history – then players pick one character to control, and another to act as a support unit, and jump right into the battle.
There’s an interesting innovation in that a good number of the levels have special investigation-based objectives, though. Where most missions ask the player to accomplish nothing more than killing every enemy on the field, occasionally doing so will result in a game over, as the members of the HRA (the game’s villains) can set temporal traps to trick the player into doing their work for them, killing people who absolutely must survive to shape the future.
Touken is never devious with its objectives, however – whenever there’s a secret to be uncovered, the player will be presented with a percentage meter at the corner of the screen, letting them know how many of the true objectives have been completed. The player can even get their supervisor – a magical talking fox – to help them track down the right locations so they won’t have to spend minutes wandering around every corner of the map.
While Touken‘s fighting is largely indistinguishable from other musous – simple combos based on alternating light and heavy attacks, bars to charge up super attacks and power modes – the scale of battle is what sets TRW apart from other entries in the genre. There are no huge fights between armies to be found here, the maps are smaller than usual, only taking a minute or two to run all the way across, and the player will only fight handfuls of enemies. The narrative justifies this – the magical sword boys aren’t there to team up with armies, they’re only tasked to ensure that history doesn’t go awry. Every now and then this entails taking part in a larger conflict, but for the most part, battles are more intimate than musou fans might expect.
While the melee is solid, if small-scale, one place where Touken Ranbu Warriors stumbles is the story.
Fighting to keep the past intact is less narratively compelling than trying to change it, and because the player never gets the slightest idea what the HRA is trying to accomplish by wrecking history (other than general chaos?) the plot never managed to hook me. Status quo isn’t the most compelling thing to battle for, especially when the story offers no insight into what the status quo actually is.
Touken is more successful when dealing with the personal stories of the swords themselves. One highlight was a team made up of identical twins, because the original was such a famous sword that a copy of it was made. There’s even an intriguing plotline about one blade taking part (as human) in the actual battle where its owner become a famous hero and started its legend (as a sword). However, other than a few solid character moments, the story feels perfunctory, partly due to the fact that the characters never give a sense that they’re in actual danger. After every mission, they head back to their mansion in the future where they chill, arrange flowers, cook rice balls, and do other similar minigames to earn resources and upgrade their skills.
The fundamentals of Touken Ranbu Warriors are fine. Great controls, a good variety of playable characters, and the bite-sized missions are a nice change of pace. Also, after Samurai Warrriors 5 it’s refreshing to see a game that doesn’t treat Nobunaga Oda like a misunderstood saint. The story doesn’t impress, though, and despite how intriguingly bonkers the premise is, the experience never manages to rise above being a perfectly serviceable musou.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Koei Tecmo Games and published by Koei Tecmo and DMM Games. It is currently available on Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 35 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains Violence and Mild Language. There’s nothing scandalous here, beyond some pretty men flirting with one another and lots of torn shirts revealing muscled torsos. The combat is bloodless and the swearing its limited to ‘hells’ and ‘damns’.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played most of the game without audio and encountered no difficulties. All dialogue in the game is in Japanese, and there are English subtitles. Text cannot be resized. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls are not remappable.