"Musou" is a blanket term for a series of action games crafted by Omega Force for Koei Tecmo, Bandai Namco Entertainment, and other publishers. The name began in 1997, with the launch of Dynasty Warriors (Sangokumusou in Japan), a fighting game spinoff of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms strategy games. That was followed up by Dynasty Warriors 2 (Shin Sangokumusou), which established the general Musou style: the player takes control of a powerful warrior and seeks to turn the tide of battle by defeating a large number of soldiers on the opposing side.
The entire series has been a rousing success for Koei Tecmo and Omega Force. There's been eight Dynasty Warriors games so far, many with an Xtreme Legends expansion and an Empires version that brings Musou and Three Kingdoms strategy together in a single title. In the early 2000s, Omega Force also found that the Musou gameplay style could be expanded outward into other worlds and properties.
First up was Samurai Warriors (Sengoku Musou), which traded in the Three Kingdoms era for Japan's Sengoku era. Then there was Warriors Orochi, a fictional crossover that brought both eras together. The start of Omega Force's collaboration games seems to have been Dynasty Warriors: Gundam (Gundam Musou) in 2007, bringing together the Musou gameplay with the long-running mecha franchise. 2010 saw the release of Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage (Hokuto Musou), 2012 began the One Piece: Pirate Warriors series (One Piece Kaizoku Musou), 2014 had Hyrule Warriors (Zelda Musou), and 2015 kicked off with Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below (Oddly enough, no 'Musou' in the title. The Japanese title is "Dragon Quest Heroes Yamiryuu to Sekaiju no Shiro").
Which brings us to Arslan: The Warriors of Legend (Arslan Senki x Musou), which is a game adaptation of an anime adaptation of a manga adaptation of a novel. Arslan: The Warriors of Legend is the second anime based on Yoshiki Tanaka's The Heroic Legend of Arslan (Arslan Senki), a novel series that's been ongoing since 1986 (with illustrations by Final Fantasy character designer Yoshitaka Amano!). The novels tell the tale of Arslan, a young Prince whose country is invaded after treachery within the ranks of his father's army. Thrust into battle, the young Arslan must assemble a ragtag army to fight the invading Lusitanian army.
The first manga started in 1991 and ended in 1996, with Tanaka giving the manga an original ending. That was turned into OVA, which is how many knew of the series before. Hell, I still refer to the new anime and game as "The Heroic Legend of Arslan" despite that not being the title.
The second manga adaptation is the inspiration for this game. Long-running anime fans will probably recognize the mangaka's art style as being remarkably similar to Fullmetal Alchemist's art. That's because the current manga adaptation is done by Hiromu Arakawa, who found her breakout hit with Fullmetal and later went on to create Hero Tales and Silver Spoon. Thus we have the second anime adaptation and this game.
Enough History, What About The Game?
I've never played a Musou game. All of the information above was background, because the entire genre is largely new to me. I had love for the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, so Dynasty Warriors had no real appeal for me. Musou existed at the fringes of my understanding: I knew it was popular and I probably should try it, but all gameplay videos looked rather repetitive. I almost broke on Dynasty Warriors: Gundam and One Piece: Pirate Warriors, but never pulled the trigger. I have an unopened copy of Hyrule Warriors sitting near my desk that I've been meaning to play, but it fell behind in the queue.
I know Arslan though, at least in its original OVA incarnation. So when the chance to try Arslan: The Warriors of Legend crossed my desk, I took it. This was my entry into the world of Musou. I even watched the first half of the new anime to prepare me for the world and the characters.
Surprise, I think I may like Musou games.
The revelation came a few hours into the experience, when I was smashing my way through through one battle on my horse. As the combo counter rose to 800 and then 900, I found I was getting excited. Could I destroy enough of the opposing army to reach 1,000? (No, my combo broke.) Sure, there was no real challenge in mowing down the hordes of soldiers, but it felt pretty awesome.
The Musou genre is what the old beat 'em up evolved into. Remember Double Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Streets of Rage, and Alien vs. Predator? That heyday of games where you'd march in one direction, punching or slashing all foes the game threw at you? Musou takes all that into the realm of 3D, vastly increasing the number of enemies, giving you some objectives, and adding RPG elements.
You're still pulling off the same combos over and over again against an overwhelming force. That's the magic of Musou for me, wading into a sea of enemies and tossing them in every direction. You feel powerful, no matter if you're using Arslan (who should really be a scrub at this point), the mighty Daryun, the bow-wielding Farangis, or the magical artist Narsus. Want to feel even stronger? Call in your horse and simply trample the opposing forces. It's not very efficient, but it is enjoyable. This feeling of strength culminates in the Mardan Rush, which sees your chosen character call out an immense cavalry to utterly stomp anybody on the battlefield.
And surprisingly, there is some strategy to Arslan: The Warriors of Legend as well. There's a decent combo system, including the ability to string together long chain combos. There's elemental attacks (Fire, Water, Wind, and Miasma in this game) that weaken certain foes. Outside of the bosses, there are enemies you need to target to turn the tide of battle; it's pretty cool to see a Defense Captain or Gatekeeper, ride through the army to reach them, and then stomp them directly with your martial prowess. Bosses tend to require breaking their guard to do any real damage, with blocking and dodging being the key to bringing that guard down.
I wish there was more of a strategy feel to the game, a feeling that you're moving your army towards your chosen goal, but that's seemingly something that's aimed at the Musou Empires games. This is more of a straightforward retelling of the current anime, fleshing out the conflicts that take place in the show or adding additional combat to other scenes.
As a retelling it actually does a great job. I said before that I watched the anime to catch up with this, but that wasn't really necessary. Arslan: The Warriors of Legend pulls actual stills and voice acting (Japanese only) directly from the current anime. It's not fully animated and the game misses some smaller character moments, but it's good enough to get the story across. If you've watched the anime, you can probably skip a number of cutscenes in this game and if you're playing this first, you're spoiling much of the anime's plot.
What's impressive is that Omega Force is pretty good at faking anime art with 3D models. (They're not up to CyberConnect2's mastery over in the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm games, but who is?) The models are convincingly used to recreate certain scenes for the anime and they look great. Arslan: The Warriors of Legend may not be the best looking game at times - backgrounds are rather simple with poor textures - but it focused its visual effort on where it's needed.
I'm not done with the game yet though, I'm still plumbing the depths and seeing what else Arslan has to show me. (Review next week!) Despite that, I've come away from Arslan with an appreciation of the Musou genre. I think I realized it one night when it was 3am and I was still tossing soldiers around on a digital battlefield. I'm almost tempted to open up Hyrule Warriors, or jump back and try the strategy flavor of Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires.
Musou may look repetitive, but that doesn't mean it's not fun. Arslan: The Warriors of Legend showed me that it might be my jam.