Fall of the Samurai is an excellent stand-alone experience and the perfect poster-child for Total War's struggling SAGA series

By Timothy Borsilli 26 Aug 2019 3

Even if you are a dedicated Total War fan, you could be forgiven for missing the arrival of the newest entry in the series: Total War Saga: Fall of the Samurai. If the name sounds suspiciously familiar, that's because it is not a new game at all, but rather a re-branding of the stand alone Shogun II DLC of the same name. The move retroactively places the game into Creative Assembly's new Saga series of spin-offs. So, even if you don’t own Shogun II you can still grab Fall of the Samurai, bundled with all the extra DLC faction packs, and if you do own the game than you can keep what you already have.

While it may seem like a fairly innocuous move, it has caused a bit of a stir with some fans. At the time of writing, the Steam page for Total War Saga: Fall of the Samurai is sitting with recent review score of “mixed” on steam, with only around 50% positive. This is quite a drop from the title’s overall “very positive” rating of around 80% which includes reviews from when it was mere DLC. The sharp downward turn in reviews comes almost exclusively from recent users responding negatively to what they view as a baldfaced re-branding effort on the part of Creative Assembly, an attempt to retroactively induct a critically acclaimed title into the fledgling Saga family and shore up the brand.

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While some may bristle at what they see as a weasley attempt to prop up a disappointing launch to the Saga project, the decoupling presents a great opportunity, both to get new fans of the series (who might not own the now eight-year-old Shogun II) to experience one of the best Total War campaigns of the past decade, as well as to present an opportunity for franchise veterans to look back at Fall of the Samurai in order to examine the elements that made it so successful. It was selected as patient zero for what Creative Assembly wants to achieve with the ambitious Saga series for a reason - let’s explore that.

What Fall of the Samurai did right

Fall of the Samurai takes place more than 300 years after the period covered by Shogun II - much like how the Eight Princes DLC takes place well after the main events of Total War: Three Kingdoms. The player must choose a clan and pick a side in the Boshin War, the conflict that pitted an alliance of reformist daimyōs dedicated to an imperial restoration against an old guard of loyalists to the Tokugawa Shogunate, the dynastic military dictatorship that was responsible for Japan’s more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation. Beginning well after the gunboat diplomacy of the Western powers forced open the island nation, it is a time of truly existential crisis: either Japan must undergo a wholesale restructuring of its government and its society, embracing industrialization and modernization or face inevitable subjugation by one of the expanding Imperialist powers. Historically, the war spelled the end of the floundering Tokugawa Bakufu, the re-centering of the long-sidelined Emperor, and the birth of a new, modern Japan that would completely upend the geopolitical balance of East Asia and turn the hermit kingdom into a vast, and brutal, imperial power.

At the campaigns start date, however, Japan is a land of few certainties. Adrift in a sea of hungry imperial sharks, it’s a time of great social, political and military upheaval. Whereas most Total War campaigns cover an entire era, Fall of the Samurai focuses on a single dynamic period with significant narrative heft. The Boshin War is perhaps one of the clearest examples of the kind of great historical turning point that Creative Assembly wanted for the Saga series. Plus, the strangely particular moment makes for some interesting combat that juxtaposes the semi-feudal warriors of the Edo period with modern uniformed line infantry that wouldn’t have looked out of place at Gettysburg or Sedan.

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Combat in the Gunpowder-era Total War titles Empire and Napoleon always felt somewhat paint-by-numbers. Gun-centric tactical play always seemed a little too out of place, missing something fundamentally Total War-esque. Perhaps it is the frantic, kinetic chaos of the sword-and-shield land battles or the greater unit variety that ancient and medieval warfare affords in contrast to the samishness of gunpowder-era line infantry. Whatever the reason, Fall of the Samurai is able to both find and walk a delicate middle ground.

In a wonderfully atemporal mash-up, its combat combined the standard rock-paper-scissors of infantry, cavalry, and archers with rudimentary rifle-wielding samurai, line infantry, revolver-packing mounted cavalry, Gatling guns, and steam-ship naval bombardments. Succeeding in tactical battles is dependent on finding the best way to use your new toys and integrating them into your army composition. It’s entirely possible for a sloppy general to forget about factors like line of sight and take needless losses, even when technologically outmatching a foe.

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When it does click, implementing that fancy new tech into your tactical considerations makes you feel like a daimyō sitting on the bleeding edge of a new kind of warfare. The first time you watch a Parrott gun blast a hole into an advancing enemy line or use elite foriegn marines to mop up a technologically inferior clan is enormously satisfying. In doing this, Fall of the Samurai achieves something few Total War games are able to do: tie the drama of the tactical battles directly into the narrative playing out on the strategic map.

The actual campaign leverages the same end-game mechanic as Shogun II, a realm divide feature that triggers once you have reached a certain size. Here though, this is done in the service of keeping a laser focus on the more goal driven, tighter story that the game wants to tell. Once the die has been cast, the player must choose to either declare for their side, turn traitor and back the opposite faction, or choose the semi-suicidal path of declaring a republic and going alone. The lines between the loose political blocs, scheming clans, and fence sitters solidifies and the great war for the future of Japan becomes a bloody melee where only one alliance can emerge victorious.

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By focusing the campaign on a particular time and place, a single decisive war, rather than the broader era-wide scope of the typical grand campaigns, Fall of the Samurai delivers on a vision that is less abstract and more coherent. Total War titles of the past have attempted similar, specifically the 'Great Leader' sequels Napoleon and Attila, or the shorter, more locally focused campaigns of Medieval II: Kingdoms, but few have so expertly executed on a vision or so deftly weaved the stakes of the campaign into both the tactical and strategic gameplay.

Perhaps most importantly, Fall of the Samurai is a game with a strong historical thesis influencing its design: it has a message about this period and it demonstrates this position through its mechanics. This thesis – that there is no hiding from the future and, by its very nature, the modernization and industrialization of warfare will force both sides of any conflict to adopt and adapt to new technologies if they hope to survive in the ever accelerating arms race of the modern world – penetrates both the tactical, strategic, and narrative levels of the experience in a way that will resonate with the player, even if they are not actively aware of it. Unless you're relying on some cheesy tactics, the thrust of westernization will propel you forward and force you to adopt new technologies, modernize your holdings, and implement these changes into your gameplay.

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By the late game, only a fool will have neglected the reach of railroads and steamships or forsaken the greater range and firepower of gunpowder infantry and Parrott guns in favor of spearmen and archers. Those more traditional troops still have a place – the transformation from a near-feudal territory to a modern industrial state will almost never be totally complete across all of your territory, and, of course, old faithfuls like geishas and shinobi will be as much a part of your operation as political operatives and foreign veterans – but a commander not taking advantage of the weapons at the forefront of the technological curve is making his own job significantly harder. At the same time, the looming threat of samurai revolt makes a rushed modernization a risky prospect. The old order must be torn down, but also carefully managed. If not, than the whole project could be set back as the disgruntled warrior caste seizes your modern cities from under your nose in search of short-term solutions to Japan’s long term problems.

What a Saga is Supposed to Be

Eschewing the typically grandiose scope and scale of the traditional era-spanning grand campaigns, Saga titles were intended to deliver the same strategic and real-time tactical gameplay of a Total War game, but with an emphasis on more narrowly focused campaigns centred around specific and decisive historical moments pregnant with possibilities. Perhaps more importantly, from a financial perspective they allow the developers to release new content based on some pre-existing assets and engines while work on mainline titles are still in development, like Thrones of Britannia did with the old Attlia engine during the development of Three Kingdoms, and as the rumored Total War Saga: Troy would likely do with the hero-centric warfare of the past two releases when Creative Assembly begins working on whatever comes next for the franchise.

Of course, Fall of the Samurai demonstrates that the Total War series has been doing this sort of thing for years, just as expansion packs and DLC, rather than as standalone titles. Creative Assembly even went so far as to cite Fall of the Samurai as the benchmark for the concept in their blog post announcing the Saga series way back when. If the relaunching does turn out to be more than a merely cynical PR move – if it is the start of a true reorientation back to what made that DLC so exceptional, than the Saga series might yet be saved. If not, then Saga titles may be relegated to become half-baked, but financially necessary, semi-regular offerings, the same fate that befell Ubisoft and the Assassin’s Creed franchise.

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Fall of the Samurai was critically successful because it selected a dynamic historical period with a striking visual aesthetic and a compelling narrative throughline. This flashpoint moment was leveraged in service of a more goal-driven, tighter story than is typical for the franchise, and most importantly, the whole project was guided by a strong historical thesis that influenced the design and the mechanics. Those are some pretty solid guiding principles for any strategy title, but especially so for games with the stated mission of the Saga series.

Despite the marketing flub, re-releasing older DLC as standalone games is not, in and of itself, a bad idea. Remasters and re-released collections are par for the course in modern gaming. Even as someone who owns all the base games and most of the DLC, I’d love if more people had easier access to some of the series’ more interesting spin-off campaigns, as they are some of the best distillations of the strategy genre out there. Adding some remastered features might help from a PR perspective, rather than simply re-releasing them with a name change. Though Sega and Creative Assembly dropped the ball on the marketing side, Fall of the Samurai was and is a great title based on an interesting and overlooked topic that's worth checking out if you missed it the first time around.

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