How to Improve the Venerable Dynasty Warriors Formula

A quick Arcanum update: I've not played too much to warrant much comment here over the past few days, so I'll set a post aside until I do. I've been pushing the main plot forward, which meant getting to know the Dwarves.  Would be nice if THEY had a rapid transit system in their abode, but I got to be genuinely helpful to them a while back, which was a nice change of pace from stomping on everyone's toes.  Got a few messed up errors, too.  I also wonder if the screen update problem is directly related to how much junk I leave behind on corpses (if so, that's similar to the problem you get in Morrowind when you do the same thing too often. If not, I have no clue what's causing it, but it seems to happen irregularly).   

How to Improve Dynasty Warriors:

 
It's easy to pick on this game, and there's a good reason to do so.  The formula doesn't change much, and at least on lower difficulties, your strong dude whupping on a bunch of weaker dudes who often just stand there by slamming on one button really doesn't do the franchise any favors.
 
I still love the hell out of the series though, because at least in the earlier ones I played it gave me some of the better 2P co-op experiences I've had.  A friend of mine and I would build up our characters, do the secret item triggers we knew about, and try to stay alive taking on bosses who were maybe a bit too strong.  I remember one particular battle it was basically us against a really powerful enemy leader, and we had to keep at him, concentrating on not letting that guy get a firm footing because we would be screwed.  Was pretty epic when we won.
Even with those fond memories, though, a lot of the cool things about DW still could have been much better.  I've mind just to dump my ideas here for anyone who's interested.  I won't talk about DW specifically, though, more about that style of game, and how that could be altered to make it a bit more fun.
 

THEME

 
First of all, thematically, I'd want to justify a strong-guy-vs-tons-of-weak-guys formula by saying you're, say, a bunch of vampires. Vampires are done to death lately, I know, but it was the first thing that came to mind because there are different ways in which vamps deal with their victims. Players would be part of a clan, and each clan, sorta like White Wolf's take on vampires, would be different, have different powers, characters, emphases.  You would have an army of thralls that you would have to keep alive, being just as weak as the poor mortals you're fighting against. 
 
As for a time period (for weapons and armor) I can see it happening over several time periods (maybe three (or less), to keep the game assets low).  Your dude would be immune to most ranged attacks, so even an age of rifles would still boil down to guys trying to pierce your heart with blessed bayonets or whatever.  I imagine one pre-history one, one Napoleonic warfare one (bright colors of the uniforms would make it pop, and rifles wouldn't be too rapid fire to keep thrall/mortal casualties low), and a post-apocalyptic war with whatever sort of stuff sounds good. A few machine guns, armor fashioned from junk, wasteland with all these weird end-time landscapes and portals opening up that make things a lot more colorful than usual brown-gray you come to expect from apocalypse stuff.
 
(That said, I'll say parenthetically that I love the legendary Chinese stuff behind the Dynasty Warriors series, especially when they try to portray them as factions rather than evil vs. good or whatever. It's just interesting to me, but I've always been a bit of a sinophile, I guess.  Anyway, back to vampires.)
 

HEALTH


This leads me directly to the next problem I have with the DW formula and my solution for it, within the theme of this vampire idea:  in DW, you replenish health by eating the yummy-looking floating meatbun things that are scattered throughout the battlefield.  While I had fun playing DW, that was one of the worst parts of even the funnest campaign; you spent maybe ten minutes, while your friend was wailing on enemy commanders, looking for a meatbun you hadn't already found to recharge your health, sometimes going very far out of your way to get there.
 
An easy solution to this is your own thralls.  In my concept of the game, there are no endless army generators.  What you have is what you have, and if you lose troops in battle they don't get replenished except for reinforcements.
 
Thing is, you also get your health from your thralls.  You run up to them and consume them for health, leaving your army one unit weaker, but you fully replenished.  There's another obvious way to gain health, which I'll cover next.
 

ATTACKS


One big issue people have with DW is that often, you can just slam on a single button and get the job done.  With the later games there's another attack you can combine with to mix things up and unleash pretty powerful combos, but that's not enough for most people, and I see why DW gets a bad reputation based on this.  
 
Here I take a lesson from some fighting games, and games like Valkyrie Profile (which maps a button to a specific character. Not the same, but similar in basic concept), where I say that each weapon represents a type of attack.  The basic attacks, about as cliche as you can get, are:
 
  • Feed: Takes a lot longer, much more dangerous, but you get a bit of health from it.
  • Slay: Go crazy, rip people apart, gore aplenty.  Easiest of the three to pull off, but one of my bigger ideas that follows this section will show why the best solution isn't to just pound on this.
  • Enthrall: The most dangerous of the three in terms of personal defense, but you actually recruit victims into your army this way.

 The fourth button in the standard four-button control pad would go to a general avoid or block.
 
 The initial press of any of these attacks would start a sequence, and once a sequence is started it refers to the initial type of sequence regardless of which button is pressed.  So if you choose Slay, any further button presses are different types of follow-ups to the combination.  So in a sense it branches out into a lot more commands.  You could press, on say a PS3 control scheme, the Triangle (Feed) followed by an X (Slay) and a Circle (Enthrall), which would mean use the shriveled corpse as a blugeon on the next guy, followed by a quick entrall to stun anyone who is about to make a counter move.  Each attack would still follow the general pattern of the initiating attack type, but you could add nuance to it that allows things to be different.  They HAVE to be different, though, as I'll explain next.
 

ANTI-PATTERNS


Even when there are multiple button presses, when we find a combo that works we tend to rely on it.  I'm guilty of this in fighting games when I feel I'm better than my opponent; I just flip one or two nice combo attacks and rely on them exclusively.  In this game, it'll pay attention to your button combinations, listing them internally.  If you wind up using a move you've relied on way too much during the battle, the enemy will get wise.  The more you do it, the less effective it is, and the more open you are to even a plain old soldier doing you some serious damage.  In a sense, I guess, this is sort of like the Director in Left 4 Dead, only instead of it responding to player ability being too high, this keeps the player from exploiting combos.  Thus the combination I suggested above, Triange, X, Circle, if used too much, means you're going to wind up dead. 
 
I'd also allow for shoulder buttons or triggers to help vary attacks enough that you can get away with things straight button presses would not, but you wouldn't get much leeway in this.  The shoulder buttons/triggers might also be mapped to items you find, which help give limited enhancement to attacks (fire artifact adds damage over time, but again, if you use it too much you weaken the artifact and strengthen enemy reactions).
 
Mixing in Avoid/Block moves with normal combinations also will help reduce the chance you'll get hit, since you can actually avoid some of the counters that come up when you do too many patterned moves.  There would also be a break-combo button you can use to cancel your current string if you don't think it's going to work, or find yourself falling into patterns that might prove deadly if you have low health or are up against a lot of troops.
 

ENEMY BEHAVIOR

 
This one's short, but it almost goes without saying: DW is famous for the enemies sort of just standing there ineffectively, waiting to die.  I say reduce the total number of combatants, but increase their intelligence, both as individuals and as a unit.  Kill a sergeant, and you have a bunch of angry soldiers from his unit who fight more erratically but with marked ferocity.  Kill the soldiers instead, and the sergeant's orders (not voiced, but manifest in the way the unit reacts to you) get smarter.  If you don't finish off a unit you've been fighting and they escape, overall the enemy gets slightly smarter when they report to command what you're capable of.  
 
Make every squad, then, like an enemy just a bit below presumed player ability. Remember, since they aren't endless, this doesn't have to be exhausting, but it should be a bit tiring because you are, even if you have supernatural powers, taking on an entire army.
 

ITEMS


I'm not sure, since they're all sort of blending together in my memory right now, but I think it was DW 3 that had variable item stats.  This was probably the most fun of the item systems that I managed to play.  You found an item or weapon that had stats that varied based on how difficult the game setting was, and how much damage you did to the guy who was holding the item.  That way you always had incentive to look for new items and weapons.  Have this sort of thing, where the vampires are all looking for ancient artifacts but they're unable to know 
 

CAREER MODE WITH GENUINE CHOICES BASED ON BASIC PLAYER BEHAVIOR

 
Instead of making a choice about dialog trees (as in some games) or major acts on the part of the player, just have it be about how many people they choose to enthrall versus feed on, or whatever else.  Let it be about the sum of statistics the player racks up through the course of the game, and also allow them to lose a battle and keep going (if you remember games like Wing Commander did that, let some objectives be lost but still provide you with several different branching scenarios to play through). They may lose their character, but they can pick up another main as a sort of survival mode only stretched to campaign length.  If they want, they can redo the campaign, or they can choose to carry on from there.  Either one is viable, and losing some of your vamps will lead to more interesting endings than trying to be a perfectionist (but both are viable).
 
Often in DW you would have branches that often were obscure, as obscure as some of the item generation events, such that you basically had to look them up online to know what was going on.  Here you could just have these things be an outgrowth of what's apparent, with the stakes of each battle laid out for you, and hints about things that you can take advantage of that might give you bonus artifacts or even bonus characters.
 

END NOTES


I have further story justifications for a lot of these things, and ideas why stuff is happening, what the clan differences are and what sorts of characters and stats you can build up and unlock, and also who you're fighting and why, but these I could use in my own fiction or whatever, and they're not really important to the mechanics.  I hope you sort of see where I'm going with this, even if you hate the series with a passion, and I have to say I totally understand where you're coming from if you do hate it.  I still like some aspects of it, and I want that feel of plunging into the middle of a war not to be abandoned completely just because creators have fallen into a safe rut that doesn't seem to encourage change.  Happens when you have a franchise that's popular, unfortunately.  If nothing else, consider this a sort of vote of encouragement for those who want to try something new.
 
This was actually inspired by a review of a DW-like game I saw recently, Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes. It both came up with some interesting stylistic choices that looked like they would freshen up the old Dynasty Warriors formula, but it also seemed to tread a lot of the same ground slavishly, as though these sorts of elements were NECESSARY for this kind of game.  They totally aren't, and I hope these ideas suggest how things can be mixed up a bit to provide a different kind of experience.
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