Each general in the game plays virtually the same way. There is an attack button, secondary attack button and a "musou" button. Each general can choose from an assortment of different combos, but these combos stay the same per character. For instance, for the PS2 versions "Square, Sqaure, Triangle" is a combo for every single character. There are no combos that require the player to press the D-Pad or analog stick in any direction, and rely entirely on mixing up the attack, and secondary attack buttons. The longest combo is six buttons (Attack, Attack, Attack, Attack, Atack, Secondary Attack). A Musou attack can be activated if the Musou meter is filled. The Musou meter is filled by attacking and killing enemy troops or generals, taking damage fills the bar also and when the players health bar goes below a certain threshold the bar rapidly fills continuously for essentially endless Musou attacks at the risk of dying from a hit, alternatively the player can pick up a Musou boost item which may drop from enemies or can be found inside breakable items on the battle field. When intiated, the player is invincible for the duration of the attack, and deals massive damage to any units near by, making it very lethal. Enemy generals may also use Musou attacks, but general infantry may not.
The Dynasty Warriors Franchise is a series of games with essentially, beat 'em up style game play. With each installment only make minuscule updates to the franchise's formula. Usually the player picks (or is forced to play as) a general from one of the Kingdoms: Wu, Wei, Shu, or Other. After that they are placed in a battlefield and are given the task of eliminating the enemy general. How the player accomplishes this depends on the situation. Typically the player must advance with their army across the map taking over stronghold points. These strongholds are overcome in different ways depending on which version of the game is played. In Dynasty Warriors 4 the player must neutralize five "gate keepers" before the stronghold turns to the player's side. However in Dynasty Warriors 5 the player must kill a "gate keeper" that unlocks the gate to an outdoor fort, and then kill four gate keepers. Steadily capturing strongholds allows the player's army to advance, and assist in the attack on the enemy general, but in reality the player can just run past all enemy troops and go right for the general, without much trouble.
Every Dynasty Warrior game focuses around the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novels written by Luo Guanzhong. Each Kingdom is striving to rule over China, using military might to decipher which kingdom is fit to rule. In addition to these Three kingdoms, there are a variety of 3rd parties that also try to rule over the land. In the end of this tale (which is based on historic events) none of the kingdoms shown in the games rule over China, and are all eventually defeated by another Kingdom that rises up. The stories of these Kingdoms often intertwine with each other, including many advance and complicated subplots and storylines throughout the novel version of the story. The games never fully explain these stories successfully, often confusing anyone who plays the games.
Historically found at around 220 CE, the kingdom of Shu lies in the southwestern portion of China that also included Nanzhong (which is why Shu forces had campaigns against Meng Huo and company). Liu Bei is Shu's king and leader. He believes that ruling has to be just in order to keep the peace throughout the land, which is why he is incredibly popular among the lower classes. When Liu Bei passes away, his son Liu Chan takes over and rules for a much longer period until the historical fall of the Shu Kingdom in 264. Like his father, Chan is a man of justice but is much less competent.
Keeping Shu in working order is the Prime Minister Kong Ming, otherwise known in the game as Zhuge Liang. Often credited to be the most intelligent military genius of his era, Zhuge Liang is also a mastermind of domestic affairs. It is he who ensures that the kingdom and its business function normally. Zhuge Liang is married to Yue Ying, another playable character in some Dynasty Warriors game, and is also a smart person in her own right.
The list of generals who fought for Shu typically included warriors who served Liu Bei well before Shu was established and their offspring. The most notable fighters among them are those included in the "5 Tiger Generals of Shu": Zhao Yun, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Ma Chao and Huang Zhong. Zhao Yun is typically the cover boy of the Dynasty Warriors games, a fearless warrior who would often charge against armies many times his numbers and still win. Guan Yu is a sworn brother to Liu Bei, famous today for his long, beautiful beard, imposing stature and skills as a warrior. Zhang Fei is yet another sworn brother to Liu Bei and Guan Yu. His fighting skills are as impressive as any warrior of his era, but his penchant for drinking and hotheadedness sinks his reputation. Ma Chao was a more recent addition to the Shu army, but has shown considerable promise when fighting for his father Ma Teng and against Cao Cao before 220. Huang Zhong is the old man among the group, a proven veteran and a master with the bow and arrow. Wei Yan is also considered to be at par with the 5 Tigers, but his personality detracted much of the praise he could've gained.
The second wave of Shu generals usually were offsprings or relatives of the aforementioned warriors. Guan Yu had three sons: Guan Ping, Guan Xing and Guan Suo who all served in battle (although only 2 are playable). Xing Cai is Zhang Fei's daughter, a warrior herself, and is Liu Chan's consort. Ma Dai is the younger cousin of Ma Chao. Jiang Wei becomes the de-facto administrator after Zhuge Liang, capable of pulling off military campaigns and taking care of domestic affairs with ease.
The Wu Kingdom is headed by the Sun family. Originally headed by Sun Jian, the leaders of the Wu often fall victim to ill-fate. Sun Jian, and other Wu notable Huang Gai ran the Wu kingdom for a number of years, before Sun Jian passed reign over to his eldest son Sun Ce. Sun Ce, and his best friend and sworn brother, and strategist Zhou Yu (not be confused with Shu's Zhao Yun) successfully increased the Wu's influence over China, but this reign did not last long. Sun Ce fell victim to an illness, and died at the age of 25 or 26 circa 200 AD. Sun Quan, the next eldest son took over ruling Wu, but continued to use Zhou Yu's strategies in the years to come. Sun Shang Xiang, sister of Sun Ce and Sun Quan, was loyal to the Wu kingdom for a number of years. One day she met Shu leader Liu Bei and fell in love with him instantly. One of the many stories that are lost in the game adaptations, Sun Shang Xiang was cast out from Wu for her love affair with Liu Bei although as with many previous omissions this was added to the story of Dynasty Warriors 7.
Headed by the mighty Cao Cao and later by Cao Pi (second eldest son, the oldest, Cao Ang, died in battle in 198 AD), the Wei are often depicted as the "villains" of the story, due to their ambitious leader Cao Cao, who basks in the chaos that controls the land. Cao Cao is the most prominent leader of the three, attending, and often leading most of the historic battles that took place (as opposed to the often changing Wu rotation, and Shu which switches off between a number of important five generals). Cao Cao often looks to his strategist Sima Yi for strategic assitance. Sima Yi, who would later create his own faction known as Jin, has an obession with Shu's strategist Zhuge Liang, often challenging him, but never succeeding. The Wei Kingdom has a strong collection of powerful generals. These include Xiahou Dun (Cao Cao's cousin) a vicious warrior who ate his own eyeball after it was shot by an arrow. Zhang Liao, formerly Lu Bu's right hand man and a repsect opponent of Guan Yu, and Dian Wei and Xu Zhu, bodyguards of Cao Cao.
The Jin was a branch of Wei created by Sima Yi, who believed that he and his family can take over the land for his own. As a result, many of the Jin's generals came from the Wei talent pool. The primary cast of this faction include the Sima family (Yi, Sima Zhao, Sima Shi), Sima Shi's wife, Wang Yuan Ji. Historically, it is this faction that defeated all the others to begin the next phase of Chinese history: The Jin Dynasty.
Other notables include Yuan Shao, a descendant of a powerful family who was influential during the early periods before the rise of the Three Kingdoms. Yuan Shao fought during the Yellow Turban Rebellion and was a primary commander for the coalition against Dong Zhuo, but his ultimate downfall was against Cao Cao in the Battle of Guan Du.
Dong Zhuo was another key character. He fought in the Yellow Turban Rebellion before taking the capital for his own. His is characterized as a lazy, greedy hedonist who wants nothing but wine and women. One of Dong Zhou's notable followers and most popular franchise characters is Lu Bu, often depicted as "the greatest warrior that ever lived." Lu Bu was as capable of wielding his infamous halberd as he is performing the martial arts and using the bow and arrow (the latter two are not explicit). Factor in his Red Hare, the fastest horses in China, and he is a force to be reckoned with. Despite these attributes, Lu Bu is cruel and impulsive, often jumping into the fray without thought. Often in games, Lu Bu is so overpowered that he can kill players with little effort, and as a result players tend to stay away from him until characters grow to enough strength.
However, even Lu Bu's heart melts before Diao Chan, another important character without any kingdom affiliation. Considered to be one of the four "Legendary Beauties" in China, Diao Chan was assigned to tear the relationship between Lu Bu and Dong Zhuo apart, which she succeeds in doing. After Dong Zhuo's death, she travels with Lu Bu and aids him in his conquest. Despite capable of wielding various weapons (maces, whips from DW 2-6), she is more pacifistic than her contemporaries.
Other main characters include Meng Huo, the king of Nan Man who fought against Shu momentarily, Zhu Rong, his wife who also joins into the fighting.
Zhang Jiao was the leader of the Yellow Turban Rebellion that showcased the likes of Liu Bei, Cao Cao and Sun Jian, and set the course for the events proceeding to the Three Kingdoms Era. He's also a playable character in some of the games.