If Western gamers were given a chance to vote on franchises they’d like to see crossed over with Koei Tecmo’s Warriors series, it’s a good bet that The Heroic Legend of Arslan would be somewhere near the bottom of the list — if it were even going to be included at all. That’s not to say anything negative of Arslan’s quality, of course; it’s just that, up until very recently, the story of the Crown Prince and his friends was not much of a known entity on this side of the ocean. Originally a series of fantasy novels, then interpreted as a manga by Yoshitaka Amano of Final Fantasy fame, Arslan came to our shores in 2015 as a 25-episode anime series courtesy of Funimation. It’s this specific interpretation that serves as the basis for Arslan: The Warriors of Legend, which is — beyond being a pretty stellar way to experience the story for the first time — right up there with Dragon Quest Heroes as one of the most enjoyable Musou crossovers.
A Story Worth Telling
As mentioned, don’t worry about having seen the anime or read the manga before starting The Warriors of Legend: the game actually follows the full 25-episode story arc from start to finish, so you’ll be all caught up by the time the credits roll. In fact, unlike a lot of other Warriors games, narrative is likely to be one of the main draws for newcomers to the franchise. It begins as Arslan, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Pars, is taken hostage by one of the gholams (slaves) in the capital city and forced to help them escape. Speaking with the gholam during their getaway, Arslan discovers that maybe other kingdoms are not as foreign — and his homeland not as incorruptible — as his father would have him believe. Just as he begins to consider what sort of successor he should be, disaster strikes: the neighboring kingdom of Lusitania, made up of religious zealots and led by a maniacal guest general known simply as Silver Mask, invades Pars and takes King Andragoras III hostage. Forced into the leadership role he’d only begun to imagine, Arslan begins to gather a trusted team of friends and advisers, hoping to reclaim Pars — and maybe make it a better nation in the process.
To have a story this rich in a Warriors game is a thing to be savored. As with other stories of this ilk, it’s not so much the plot that holds things together — that’s your typical blend of alliances, betrayals and negotiations — but the characters, whose sense of camaraderie is infectious. Arslan is actually a pretty appealing hero; sure, he might be a little too perfect and goody-goody for some players’ taste, but it’s nice to see a character celebrated for his humanism rather than the number of people he kills. Likewise, the ragtag group of friends he gathers is endlessly endearing in their efforts to help him become the leader they know he can be, even when supporting his choices flies in the face of their own instincts: the end result of one particular gamble, in which Arslan mercifully gives the order to release a prisoner arrested for double-crossing the army during an important mission, is quite touching and inspiring. There’s quite a bit of humor, too, which keeps things from getting too heavy-handed; the lukewarm reception of tactician Narsus’ artwork always made me laugh, as did the competition to impress said painter between two of the group’s younger members.
Solid hack-and-slash gameplay is the core of any Warriors title worth its salt, of course, and Arslan: The Warriors of Legend doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Like other games in the series, you set out on a massive battlefield and receive a number of different objectives to complete to turn the tide of battle in your army’s favor. For example, one scenario sees a character stealthily sneaking around the enemy’s camp to cut their archers’ bow strings, then switches to another character to reap the rewards of that initial mission (specifically, you can say goodbye to having trouble from those pesky archers). As you complete the primary objectives, you’re often given the secondary tasks of a) trying to finish them as quickly as possible and b) knocking out as many enemy soldiers as possible in the process, getting a letter grade based on performance mid-scenario. The latter task, obliterating enemy ranks, is easily accomplished using your basic normal and charge attacks, but naturally you’ve got a few more tricks up your sleeve.
For one thing, you’ve got the screen-clearing Musou attacks that give the Japanese version of the series its namesake, and these versions are no less crazy and impressive than any other version. And while we’re on the subject of crazy, let’s talk about the newest addition, Marsdan Rushes. By standing in the special blue tornados called “Rush Zones,” you’re able to execute a group attack using all the members of one unit in your army (Cavalry, Infantry or Archers, depending on the context). These attacks, which back the camera way up to show your forces swarming en masse, can wipe out enemy hordes and obstacles in seconds, often building your chain into the tens of thousands. It’s a rush, all right, and one of the game’s most viscerally satisfying original ideas. If that weren’t enough, each character has their own special skill; most of these are combat-oriented, but a few — like attendant Elam’s super-high jump — can help you nab extras from new routes and tricky-to-reach areas. These collectibles include Recipe Books, which allow you to prepare food before the start of battle for an extra benefit (such as increased attack or defense), and Skill Cards, which can be equipped to a character to increase their prowess in certain abilities. The pursuit of these scattered goodies is a great incentive to replay scenarios, which often reveal hidden depth the second or third time around.
Flawed? Well, Technically
While the mechanics are solid, the technical foundation they rest upon can sometimes be a bit shaky. It likely won’t be enough to outright turn players away, to be sure, but it’s worth mentioning anyway. The first of these issues are performance-related; given the number of soldiers onscreen at one time, it’s not exactly a surprise that the framerate sometimes dips below its intended 60 frames per second in the chaos. Still, it’s disappointing that difficulties like this haven’t been worked out considering just how many games there are in the series, and that includes the pop-in of enemies and allies as you traverse the maps. The other problem I’d like to highlight could really only have been avoided with dubbing, and that’s the constant presence of subtitles during battle (the game’s voice work is Japanese-only). It’s not exactly practical to attempt reading the dialogue while you’re multitasking in so many other ways — checking the map, fighting enemy soldiers and avoiding obstacles — so there may be a few times when you actually miss a line or two. The subtitles also disappear outright when you initiate certain cutscenes mid-battle, such as those upon completing a Marsdan Rush. Thankfully, almost none of the dialogue during gameplay is completely critical to your success or understanding of the story, but it’s still a shame that it can so easily be missed.
Presentation-wise, there’s mostly good news and a bit of bad news. On one hand, the main character models look absolutely fantastic, sporting a colorful cel-shaded style that brings Hiromu Arakawa’s interpretations of these lovable lugs to life in gorgeous 3D. As an added bonus, the animation is really smooth; when the game isn’t having some of the previously-mentioned framerate problems, it’s really a sight to behold. On the other hand, the “movies” that do a majority of the narrative lifting — which basically take the form of slideshows with extremely simple animation — are a disappointment, reducing the drama and impact of some of the story’s biggest moments. It’s understandable that budget constraints or time limitations might have affected this part of the presentation, and it’s true that some players might not mind the static storytelling, but these still suffer by comparison when you consider just how beautiful the in-battle cutscenes are. Luckily, the game’s soundtrack does a great job at backing up epic moments with sweeping, rocking renditions of the series’ themes. Not everyone is crazy about Warriors’ over-the-top, guitar-heavy arrangements, but come on — they provide a burst of pure energy that perfectly complements the collection of cascading corpses.
For the Future of Pars
Arslan: The Warriors of Legend is an exceptional crossover with the Warriors series, standing just behind last year’s Dragon Quest Heroes as the best the franchise has to offer. It wouldn’t be surprising if this was the first entry to pull players in with a heavy focus on narrative elements, as its retelling of the 25-episode anime arc is filled with interesting details and lovable characters. It plays well too, brushing off a couple of frustrating technical issues with more of the outrageous hack-and-slash military action players have come to love — including the revival of combat on horseback and a few new elements, such as the over-the-top chain-building Marsdan Rush. Whether you’ve been a dedicated fan of the anime since the first episode or haven’t yet been exposed to the wonders of Arslan, there’s a ton to see and enjoy in Koei Tecmo’s interpretation of the Crown Prince’s kingdom.
Review copy of Arslan: The Warriors of Legend provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information about scoring, check our Review Policy here.