Edit: surprisingly quick responses from Crecente himself prompted a few changes.
Normally I open doors for women, eat all of my dinner and respect my elders. I've got no problems with authority or people that are simply above me for no other apparent reason than experience and effort, and I respect those people for those very reasons. That said, I also have no problem with making sure credit is given where credit is due, and believe in having decent games represented fairly and professionally.
For that reason, I should--no, I must--raise issue with Brian Crecente's coverage of Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes. It's completely underwhelming and has given Kotaku's readership a terrible impression of the upcoming game. My issues are not completely trivial, nor am I just needlessly hating on Crecente, nor Kotaku for publicity, click-through traffic or just to whine. I realize that the business of journalism is a business: money gets passed around, favors are pulled, and so on. While I will not make any presumptions as to whether or not that is even remotely relevant to Kotaku's coverage of Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes, I believe that games should be represented fairly when they deserve to be, especially on one of the most trusted and most widely-read outlets for video game journalism on the internet.
Now, for a trusted professional who is "fascinated with Capcom's upcoming button-smasher" and has posted at least four articles about it personally, it's somewhat embarrassing to misspell the game's title in your attempts to write about it. Twice. This is a simple mistake, however, and one that undoubtedly will be easily and quickly rectified if this story makes it to the proper outlets.
In the grand scheme of things, I really don't care about simple misspelled tags. Before I go any further, I should clarify I'm not so much calling out Crecente as I am calling out gamers in general. Were it not for him and Kotaku, none of us on the fringes of the internet would have near as much of an inspiration to write about video games as we so vehemently and enthusiastically do. For that I must give the man his well-deserved credit: he has my respect and admiration regardless of these shortcomings. In plain English: I ain't hatin', aight? Bear with me for a second while I lay down some science.
In his initial editorial, "Can Americans Love A Dreamy Samurai Game?" it isn't hard to tell that the usually-emphatic Crecente comes off a bit...lackluster in his description of the game. He states the facts, makes it sound alright, and wraps it up nice and neat. The enthusiasm we've come to expect from the man falls a bit short. It's interesting that he's touched upon how strange it is that the series did not catch on overseas, despite its rampant popularity in Japan, however. This is something I've written about at length already, and although my previous take on the whole Sengoku Basara fiasco is rather critical, I've since completely forgiven Capcom now that Sengoku Basara 3 has been confirmed for international release. They're giving it a shot this time, and I personally believe it will deliver in spades, but I digress.
What I really take issue with, and the point of all this so far, is something that Crecente can't be faulted for individually. It's more a mistake made by all Americans, or really all non-Japanese gamers not familiar with Sengoku Basara previously: by comparing it to what you already know and regarding the style of the game with a resounding "meh," you're not giving the game a fair chance. Crecente mentions in a funny little article, "A Look At the Real, Not-So-Sexy Samurai of Capcom's Latest Game" how remarkably different the characters in Sengoku Basara are to their historical counterparts. The comparisons he makes are largely aesthetic, with a few historical tidbits scattered here and there, along with some quotes of dubious legitimacy attributed to (from how I read it) the historical counterparts of the game characters. These comparisons to history are as humorous as they are informative, but the "Not-So-Sexy" title makes it appear to be a bad thing, as if these comparisons are somehow a disservice to history. Fans of Koei's Warriors franchises love their ancient Asian history as much as they love mashing the X button, so you're automatically disenfranchising this key demographic by saying "look how inaccurate these characters are!!" I'm not trying to suggest that Dynasty Warriors Strikeforce, Warriors Orochi, or even the Dynasty Warriors or Samurai Warriors franchises are any more or less realistic...but they aren't pitched to their respective audiences by their historical inaccuracy."
For all of its similarities, Sengoku Basara is often compared to Koei's Warriors series, as Kotaku's commenters have been quick to do recently. Despite the perceived similarities between Koei's Samurai Warriors and Capcom's Sengoku Basara, they are surprisingly different. The gameplay mechanics are indeed similar, I'll concede that much. When you establish this similarity--as Kotaku and literally every other gaming outlet ever has done far too many times in the past--the only aspects left to compare between the two are the games' critical content (story, characters, etc.) and the their respective publishers' track records. By completely removing the simple comparisons of how the game looks, feels and handles, all you've got left is the abstract stuff: characters, story modes, plots, voice acting, etc. This is where Kotaku has fallen short. Their wholly unenthusiastic delivery of descriptions for "not-so-sexy samurai" characters, blatant unfamiliarity with the franchise or the press content, and their blatantly negative criticism of the game's admittedly-cheesy dialogue by pointing it out with a tongue-in-cheek comparison to quotes from soap operas all works to paint an incredibly negative image of this game: comparisons made after Crecente very clearly states that he simply doesn't like this game:
Sangoku [sic] Basara Samurai Heroes may very well find it's followers here in the U.S., where strong ties to culture and local history won't have the same play as in Japan, but I can't say I will be one of them.
Furthermore, Samurai Warriors and Sengoku Basara--the latter of which is often compared as an identical knockoff to the former--are far different in regards to their actual content. Samurai Warriors holds the gamer's hand through the events of Japan's Sengoku Era, the Period of Warring States. As you progress through the game, you follow the history of Japan and fight battles that were highlights of your chosen character's military career. Though the character designs are a bit exaggerated, deviations from the actual historical content are rarely taken. The end result is that you are more or less playing a summary of Japanese Feudal Era history, which is absolutely great if you like Dynasty Warriors-style button-mashing and Japanese history!
Sengoku Basara is far different in this regard. The previous games (Devil Kings, Sengoku Basara 2, and Sengoku Basara 2 Heroes in particular) allow you to take up arms with any one character loosely-based on their historical counterpart. Their designs and attacks are absurd and extraordinary, and the overall style of the game is part action movie cheese, part Japanese over-the-top anime-style enthusiasm. Original playable characters are brought into the mix to spice up the roster, and there are many interconnecting relationships between characters that give the game an even further sense of engaging, captivating originality, despite being loosely based on Japanese history. "Loosely" is truly the operative word here, as it essentially uses history as a starting point and becomes complete fiction from then on. As you progress through the game's Conquest mode, you fight other warlords for their territory, gradually taking over the Japanese mainland in the process. Whereas Samurai Warriors simply guides you through the Warring States period, where every warlord was out to get his neighbor's land in order to unify Japan, Sengoku Basara lets you rewrite Japanese history every time you play. You, the gamer, get to unify Japan under the banner of your chosen character. There are no unexpected developments that suddenly make your victory seem completely pointless; there are no concessions made to history to try and make it historically accurate: Sengoku Basara is about you, your player character and your epic single-handed conquest of the entirety of Japan. In that regard, it couldn't be farther from Samurai Warriors.
Do you really want to know why Sengoku Basara has yet to succeed outside of Japan, Brian Crecente, Editor-in-Chief of Kotaku.com, "The Gamer's Guide?" Because of reviews, editorials, and previews like yours: wholly disparaging opinions, obvious disinterest, and completely inaccurate, uneducated comparisons; all reported as unquestionable, solid fact. If Capcom has recently provided Kotaku ad copy to reprint in order to give good publicity for this game, then I suppose I can understand the lack of enthusiasm, but I hope they didn't pay Kotaku for it because they certainly aren't getting their money's worth. Not all publicity is good publicity when it comes to video games, and Kotaku has more or less bitten the hand that feeds them in regard to this title. I doubt many of Kotaku's readers will be particularly moved to buy this game any more than they already were after reading Kotaku's coverage of it thusfar. Why?
Not because it looks like a fun game, it doesn't, but...
To make up for a lackluster preview for Sengoku Basara, I'd like to do Capcom, Kotaku's readership, and the gaming community at large a favor by giving you a fair and educated preview of what to expect from Sengoku Basara 3--the same courtesy Kotaku gives games they are actually familiar with and enjoy playing. Am I qualified to give this preview? As someone who has played both Devil Kings and its Japanese counterpart, the original Sengoku Basara; Sengoku Basara 2 Heroes and Sengoku Basara X Cross, I hope I am!! Some of the details below may have been stated above already, but they are just as relevant and worth reading the second time around.
Sengoku Basara turns the idea of "historical games" on its head by taking two elements we've all learned to love over the years and unapologetically cramming them together. It blends a uniquely Japanese sense of attitude, artistic flare and aesthetic finesse gamers have come to love from series like Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, No More Heroes, Viewtiful Joe and plenty of others, with the classic button-mashing one-versus-one thousand combat system made famous by Koei's Warriors franchise: Dynasty Warriors: Empires, Dynasty Warriors: Gundam, Samurai Warriors, Warriors Orochi and so on. In the previous games, you play a highly exaggerated character inspired by their historical counterpart from the Warring States Era of Japanese history, a bloody period of history where many powerful generals and rulers felt it necessary to unify Japan by conquering and subjugating all other generals, rulers, and people of Japan under the banner of their own familial clan. It goes without saying that there were many generals and rulers of small regions across the Japanese mainland, and as such, there was a lot of fighting: the Warring States period carried on for 200 years before the entirety of Japan was eventually united under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Sengoku Basara kiiiind of ignores that historical stuff, except for the whole "everyone is fighting" part. After selecting your character, you began your conquest out of one tiny region of Japan to retake the entire Japanese mainland by fighting other generals for their land--somewhat like Risk, you might say. If you win, you add the contested turf to your own, and both your sphere of influence and your options for which area to take next grows. If you lose, they take the contested land, and if you lose all of your held territories, it's game over. The land-grabbing strategic aspect of the game is done in a menu featuring the entirety of Japan, while the actual battles take place in the classic button-mashing combat you've seen pictures of. Sengoku Basara isn't just a simple button-mashing brawler set to a historically-based plot: in the previous games, you write your own history, and you are responsible for the strategy involved in choosing where to attack or defend next. There are plots for each character but they are lighthearted and often humorous, such as the love triangle between Sasuke, Kasuga and Kenshin (Talon, Venus and Frost in Devil Kings, respectively), the manly father-son admiration between Yukimura and Shingen (Scorpio and Red Minotaur), and so on. These games can be serious at times, but they don't really make an attempt to take themselves all that seriously: they're meant to be fun and entertaining, and they have continually proven themselves to be just that since 2005.
Technically speaking, if you've played Koei Warriors games, the combat should be nothing new to you, and in this regard I will concede that the game is often said to be "stale" or a "copycat" of Koei's popular franchise. Two attacks, a special/Musou/Ultra/whatever you want to call it, jumping and blocking are fairly standard issue for these games, and you run across wide, expansive battlefields from guard point to guard point taking territories and bulldozing enemies. Combat is fast and frenetic, you can knock entire swaths of enemies into the air with a sweep of your weapon into an aerial combo. One unique combat element unique to Sengoku Basara was the concept of "Priming" -- hitting your enemies with a certain attack would put them into a "primed" state and turn their health bar yellow. While primed, for every hit you got on them, they would take two. Essentially you're doing double damage, and it counts two-for-one in your combo gauge as well: insane combos numbering above 400, 500, and even 600 hits are not only possible, but perfectly possible--difficult, but possible--in many situations. The catch is that you can only prime enemies with one of your two attack buttons, and the "primed" state wears off after a few seconds.The end result is that you're able to better handle smaller groups of enemies, but when you're overwhelmed, the sense of danger and urgency to kill absolutely everything is all the more heightened, and you start to think about how to best go about taking everyone out. For a seemingly simple game, it provides a surprising level of depth in gameplay, and will often surprise even the most hardened Dynasty Warriors fan with just how challenging it can be sometimes.
Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes seems to take the series in a new direction. There were indeed story modes in the previous titles, and especially in Sengoku Basara 2 Heroes, but they were never as much of a focus as was straight up, simple Campaign mode. Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes seems to focus more on the storyline, but instead of simply giving individual characters story arcs as in Sengoku Basara 2 Heroes, the game follows an overarching plotline that involves all of the main characters in some form or another--not to mention one that seems more serious than the lighthearted plotlines from the earlier games. From the previews we've seen so far, the raw combat will remain the same as from the previous games: lots of enemies, tough one-on-one fights with opposing warlords, and insane attacks. The Priming system may or may not be there, I haven't personally seen enough promotional video/images to tell. (If enemy HP bars glow yellow after a hit, then Priming is back!!) There seems to be a new resource system built into the map system that ties into the progression of your character's and your army's items and capabilities, which will inevitably add a new level of strategy to your conquest of Feudal Japan and encourages strategically choosing character upgrades based on your available resources. On top of all that, it's delivering the same brand of over-the-top, ridiculous Japanese style and attitude fans of the previous games love, and all with a shiny new current-gen graphical update.
Bottom line? These games are just fun. If you have a PS2 or a backwards compatible PS3, go look for Devil Kings at your local retailer. Last I heard you could find it at Gamestop for about six bucks--a small price to pay for something as fun and as surprisingly unique as these games are. Not to mention fun. And straight up ridiculous. If you even remotely liked Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, or any of the Koei Warriors games, you owe it to yourself to give Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes a try.
Capcom will be bringing Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes to the US later in 2010. Get ready to put your guns on!