While “Persona 5” stuck to its turn-based combat roots, “Strikers” adopts the popular but not-quite-mainstream-yet Musou genre, the shorthand name for a type of Japanese hack-and-slash game that involves fighting thousands of enemies across a battlefield. Musou games are all inspired by Omega Force, the developer behind “Strikers” and similar titles such as “Dynasty Warriors.” The studio has spent decades pumping out hundreds of titles in this genre, which is wildly popular in Japan.
Over the years, the “Dynasty Warriors” franchise and its countless spinoff titles have evolved this genre to include more real-time strategy elements, which basically meant making sure you’re at the right area of a map before you kill as many bad guys as your computer can handle on screen.
Particularly in the West, the genre has a reputation for being repetitive. But like punk rock or dance music, the repetition is the point. Fans of the Musou genre want to hear the same three power chords played over and over again. Musou games whittle action games down to their very essence: quick decision-making and immediate results. Like a DJ looping the same amazing sample, why not just spin the best part ad infinitum?
It’s in these strange, left-field branding partnerships that Omega Force seems inspired to innovate. Games critic Tim Rogers once said Musou games have more in common with Hello Kitty and pachinko than regular action games, acknowledging that the genre is as much about collecting and using fun characters as they are about seeing thousands of colored lights explode in a repetitive and predictable fashion. “Strikers,” which released Tuesday on PC, PlayStation and Nintendo Switch platforms, captures that vibe. Here are all your favorite characters from a beloved game, and now you get to control them directly and bash them against the bad guys.
But in trying to retain the spirit of “Persona 5,” “Strikers” feels closer to an action role-playing game like the “Kingdom Hearts” or “Final Fantasy” series, both of which try to mesh real-time action with long, complicated tales of teenage angst and trauma. Like those titles, “Strikers” is packed with lengthy story sections. After a brief combat tutorial, the game doesn’t throw you back into another fight for at least another hour or so.
When you finally do get to the meat of the game, gone are the sprawling battlefields of previous “Warriors” games. Instead, “Strikers” keeps the same dungeon design of the “Persona” series, with thoughtfully placed enemies, hidden routes, puzzles to solve and even a few platforming sections. It’s just like “Persona 5,” except you don’t have to wait your turn to hit something. In fact, the game was so much like “Persona 5,” every time a fight started in “Strikers,” it would take me a second to realize that I’m playing real-time action.
The only things missing from the “Persona” experience are the famous “social link” mechanics, where your party members would get various stat boosts based on how often you interact with them (or the rest of the world) on a day-to-day basis. Instead, “Strikers” takes the kids on a cross-country trip across Japan. Now almost completely over the trauma of the first game, it’s refreshing to see a story of the group as fully-formed individuals, more confident in their identities than they ever were before.
This makes the cases they solve a bit rote, however, as each destination ends up being merely a weird reflection of a party member’s past. The story also feels shorter than the hundreds of hours required in a “Persona” game, as the focus is more on roaming dungeons and fighting enemies, as would be expected of a Musou game. But the story has almost as many highs as the first one, so unless you’re vehemently against action games, “Strikers” will be a hard one to miss for any fans of the series or these characters. Even an uneven “Persona” experience is miles better than much of the writing in the industry.
Omega Force now has a track record of innovation when given the license to various brands. “Hyrule Warriors” and its 2020 follow-up, “Age of Calamity,” saw Omega Force adopting the collect-a-thon mechanics of “Breath of the Wild” into its game. Its “Attack on Titan” series also uses the same Musou premise, but instead of spamming the same combos on the ground, you fling yourself across the skyline just like in the anime. Sony’s “Spider-Man” games get plenty of deserved love for their swinging mechanics, but Omega Force’s “Attack on Titan” games are too often overlooked for capturing the feel of a swashbuckling and speedy anime episode.
Omega Force’s marquee titles like “Dynasty Warriors” and “Samurai Warriors” are still popular, particularly in Japan, but have stumbled when trying to broaden the genre’s appeal and reach. But through branding deals, the studio has forced itself to create visceral, creative and new works. In an ironic twist, corporate deals seem to be Omega Force’s most effective artistic inspiration.
“Persona 5 Strikers” is probably the most innovative Musou game in years, thanks to its closeness to the core “Persona” formula. If it takes branding deals to push Omega Force to get creative, so be it. Forget “Fortnite” skins, here’s hoping for a Musou game for your favorite brand.