Unknown to many, the Sengoku Basara franchise has a huge following in Japan and appeared back in 2005 on the PS2. In an effort to capture an audience outside of Nippon, Capcom released it under the Western title of “Devil Kings” and it has since been followed by a variety of sequels. The entire Sengoku Basara series is based around the Sengoku period of Japanese feudal history that took place during the 16th Century. A time of blood-shed and political uprising, it saw Japan divided up into different warring regions commanded by legendary fearless warriors.
As you can imagine, it’s an inspiring chunk of Japanese history as a back-drop to any video game. However Sengoku Basara certainly takes some creative liberties with the setting. History scholars will probably fail to recall the Sengoku era ever having magical flying suits of armour, emo-style haircuts and robotic walking boats. But the art direction in Sengoku Basara is everything fans of Japanese hack’n’slash games will expect. You’ll find bold, colourful characters with swords the size of small children, super-sized boss battles and ludicrous combo moves that can fill an entire screen with epilepsy inducing blasts of light.
The game could easily be mistaken for Dynasty Warriors in almost every respect. Players start off selecting their character of choice, with each one being more over-the-top than the next. For example, Mitsunari Ishida, who wears purple strips of fabric over his armour and had a head of foot high, rock hard bleached hair shaped into a helmet. Or pretty-boy Yukimura Sanada who has a fetish for racing flames on his pants and looks like he belongs in a pop band. All of the ten playable characters (many of which need to be painfully unlocked) possess their own abilities and weapons, ranging from katana and bo-staff through to guns and magic.
Just like with Dynasty Warriors, your character leads an army across Japan, completing a series of missions along the way. You only control your chosen character, but your actions on the battlefield will determine the overall victory of your lesser men. The mission select map and the battle sequences will feel instantly familiar to fans of Dynasty Warriors. However Sengoku Basara does have some subtle differences to its closely related cousin. The combat system, for example, feels a lot more complex and advanced than Dynasty Warriors. All of the characters feel more balanced and all possess completely different fighting styles that encourage you to try them all out.
The battle sequences are fast-paced and totally outrageous; aspects that these games excel at. Even with the combat taking place almost entirely on one button, players will be able to perform fifty hit combos and fill the entire screen with a flurry of swords without breaking a sweat. Although it’s a shame that the combat controls haven’t evolved much, there does appear to a decent amount of variation to keep people interested. A strong attack lets you add a bit more oomph to your sequences and chaining together attacks fills a special power meter at the top of your screen. Once full, players can initiate an über cool Hero Time mode that slows down time and allows you to meticulously slaughter your helpless slow-motion enemies. Players can also activate a special attack when their gauge is filled that unleashes a ridiculous array of damage to any poor sucker who’s standing next to you.
But unfortunately the similarities to Dynasty Warriors only accentuate the game’s shortcomings. Sengoku Basara feels old and rehashed. Although I love hack’n’slash, pseudo RPG games like this I can’t help but wonder, “is this all the genre has to offer now?” Minus one or two subtle improvements, we’ve seen games like this for the last five years. Even the RPG aspects haven’t seen any improvements. Although players will get a chance to upgrade and equip new weaponry after each mission, you’ll often end up selecting the newest or biggest, heaviest clubbing thing in your inventory. There is little thought required and no strategy elements to any of the decisions you make when conquering fictitious feudal Japan.
Even the graphics on the PS3 seem a bit dated. Although the main characters and their animations are pleasant on the eye, all of the backgrounds and basic enemy types are lacklustre and dull. The end of level boss encounters pick up the pace with their impressive size and mad art direction. But the overall presentation is let down by mundane repetition and a lack of polish. Sadly even the enemy AI is equally boring and will often just stand there waiting to get pummelled by one of your elaborate combo moves.
Sengoku Basara has one little feather in its cap; a decent co-op mode that lets you take to the battlefield with a friend at your side. Of course, on one hand you can relish the fact that your mate is sharing the suffering of wearing their thumb down to a nub like you. But having a human team-mate does help make smashing cardboard cut-out baddies a lot more enjoyable. You can also taunt people with the press of a button for some cocky showmanship.
However Sengoku Basara still feels like a blast from the past. Games like this might have a place in today’s market, but developers need to seriously envisage a new direction for the genre. The Wii version of this game is almost identical, except for the graphical downgrade, and all things considered, is probably more excusable on the ‘weaker’ console. But it feels like Sengoku Basara doesn’t come anywhere close to pushing the boundaries of the PS3 and fails to inject new life into the hack’n’slash experience.
Note: Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes was reviewed on final code on a debug console, but not the retail version of the game.