If you're even moderately interested in Japanese video games, the odds are you'll have at least come across the Dynasty Warriors/Samurai Warriors/Warriors Orochi series, if only in passing. Mostly emanating from Japanese developer Omega Force, the semi-historically themed series usually revolves around large scale, button mashing battlefield brawls, with a focus on mowing down as many enemies as possible with as many flashy moves as possible, with a bit of light strategy thrown in for good measure.
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Having been thrust into a much wider limelight thanks to their last two Nintendo collaborations - Zelda Hyrule Warriors, and the upcoming Fire Emblem Warriors - the folks at publisher Koei Tecmo and developer Omega Force have decided it's time for a zany mash-up of their own, ditching the historical pretence in favour of a game that takes characters from oodles of Koei Tecmo franchises, and dumps them on the battlefield to duke it out. There's the bouncing ninja bosoms of Kasumi and Ayane from beat 'em up Dead or Alive, the somewhat jarring English/Irish voice of demon slayer William from Nioh, and even an appearance by Sophie Neuenmuller, the ditsy (and titular) alchemist from Atelier Sophie, to name but a few.
Of course, there's at least an attempt at explaining why all the characters have been brought together. A fantasy world is in danger, and in an effort to revive its ailing Spring - a large lake that acts as the source of all life - the high priestess has summoned a bunch of outsiders to help fix it. As you do. But, as is always the way with these sort of things, the magic spell goes horribly wrong, and rather than getting a plumber, she ends up scattering a load of heroes far and wide, making rounding them up a bit of a pain. Add in the fact there's a civil war going on, as members of the royal family fight for the throne, and the disorientated heroes soon find themselves recruited by different factions, as the priestess' plan goes totally pear-shaped. Oh, and did we mention that the entire world is inhabited by a strange race of anthropomorphic dog-people? Yeah.
Depending on the character you choose at the beginning - and there's about a dozen different ones to pick from - you'll find yourself landing in a different area of the map, facing different enemies and being recruited by a different side. This means there's effectively three main story lines to play through, although even within that, different characters will have their own unique missions, story segments and interactions too, so it's well worth a replay as a different character if you want to see each of the unique endings. From start to finish, none of the main campaigns are especially lengthy - there's a trophy for completing one in under three hours after all - but there are a number of side quests and bonus missions you can undertake for extra experience, gold or materials that take up more of your time.
However, the story itself is really little more than an excuse to plonk you into some seriously large scale battles against huge enemy armies, a la the Dynasty Warriors/Samurai Warriors series the game is largely based on. Each is set on a sprawling maze-like map, with clusters of enemies dotted around for you to take on, generally congregating around set 'bases' they're defending, alongside a key 'general' or important character. Usually, your main objective will be to take out a particular boss character or two - but you can't just waltz in unannounced. Where the game's light strategy comes in is that you'll usually have to plot a course through several minor bases first, taking each one in turn to both strengthen your forces, and weaken your enemies ready for the final showdown. In general, it's very much like taking part in a large scale historical battle, except with more spiky anime hair, oversized swords and strange dog-people.
Battles are fast and frantic, with your character's attacks - be it magical spells, straightforward sword slashes or squashing someone with oversized dice - being pretty over the top, often hitting whole swathes of the enemy forces at once, easily taking out ten, twenty, thirty enemies in one go. Throw in a gamut of special moves and screen-clearing super attacks, and Warriors All-Stars is a rather flashy way to get your hack and slash on. Different characters have different battle styles too, from the relatively standard swordsmanship of Dynasty Warriors' Zhao Yun, to the long-range shotgun-wielding moustachioed cat, Nobunyaga Oda, who summons a group of armed cats to take down enemies, and everyone's favourite ditsy bomb-throwing alchemist, Sophie (of Atelier Sophie fame), who likes to chuck various bits and pieces into the crowds with rather explosive consequences. Oh, and her Atelier co-star Plachta can summon a giant fish to squash her foes, just because.
But all the light-hearted silliness in the world can't make up for the fact that the game itself can be rather overwhelming, especially if it's your first foray into the world of Dynasty Warriors-esque games. Rarely does your objective stay the same throughout a battle, often chopping and changing between different boss characters, bases to defend and areas to move towards - which in and of itself isn't too much of a big deal. Where the trouble comes is that you'll sometimes get various less important missions - 'sub-missions' - pop up, most of which are optional, mixed in with some more mission-critical messages about various commanders and bases being in trouble. While it's not immediately obvious - and the game doesn't alter your objectives to make it clear - letting these 'commanders' fall will prematurely end the mission, resulting in your defeat. But only sometimes - other times you can safely ignore them and nothing bad will happen.
Add in the fact that the map itself is pretty rubbish at showing you where such significant mission-changing events are taking place, and you'll often find yourself failing out of missions for no obvious reason. All you really get is an overview of whose bases are whose, and in order to get a better look at which commander is in trouble, where bonus boss characters are lurking or which enemy messenger you need to stop, you need to go into the rather hidden 'Info Log' section on triangle, then try and figure out where on the map you need to head, which sometimes faintly flashes, sometimes shows you a bunch of arrows and sometimes does nothing at all, with seemingly no rhyme or reason behind which it chooses.
Likewise, there's generally an optimum route through each of the enemy bases, and taking a wrong turn can see your level 1 character end up face to face with a level 6 Kasumi, getting your backside handed to you as you struggle to get a move in edge-ways. You see, Warriors All-Stars has a unique 'bravery' system, where characters start each stage at a paltry level 1, and by defeating various bosses, capturing bases and completing certain objectives, your level will rise. The opposing commanders also have similar levels, with the final boss guy usually at around level 8 or 9, meaning you'll need to take on a number of his underlings first to raise your level before you can take them on. As the big boss is usually up the other end of the map to you, it's not normally too big a problem - but a wrong turn on the map could see you coming up against much harder opponents than you're ready for, some of which will then decide to pursue you all across the battlefield, much to your annoyance.
It's because of issues like this that Warriors All-Stars is a lot harder to get into than it should be - and while you can dial the difficulty down if you're struggling, it can still feel a bit too overwhelming at first. What initially seems like a fairly happy-go-lucky button-mashing battle-a-thon can quickly become more than you bargained for as you start to fail missions for what feels like rather random reasons. It's also somewhat disappointing that there's no support for two player co-operative play, given many games in the related Dynasty Warriors-type serieses have featured it historically. However, it's undoubtedly pretty fun smashing enemies with a giant fish, and once you've got your head around the basics - and make sure you always, ALWAYS rush to your commanders' aid when you get he message they're in danger - it can be a blast slashing your way through the hapless enemy hordes. A bit marmite perhaps, but not a bad game either.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4