By Veektarius 12 Comments
I didn't always dismiss Dynasty Warriors games out of hand. I discovered 2 in college, I can't remember how, and followed it up by buying 3 and 4 new at the local Gamestop before I found that I'd lost my taste for it. This was all mostly before they started really milking the franchise by putting out Orochi Warriors and Samurai Warriors and the Gundam spinoff that never made the slightest bit of sense to me. But at some point I realized I was playing the same game over and over again and gave up this terrible habit. That must have been about 10 years ago (turns out it's 11. Fuck.) With that said, it's almost surprising than they're only up to 8 by now, even if that would be overlooking all those spinoffs I just mentioned.
I saw 8 on sale on steam this weekend - it wasn't a terribly deep discount but nevertheless I found myself curious enough to give the old warhorse another trot in the field. I played a truly unhealthy amount over the course of two or three days, then trailed off a bit, and came to some conclusions about the series that I felt like sharing. Dynasty Warriors is the subject of some heated debates around here (probably less so now that Hailinel is gone now, I hear?) and I don't think either of the sides of that dispute get it quite right.
What is the series' appeal?
I didn't play so much Dynasty Warriors out of masochism, though I will admit a certain amount of unhealthy compulsiveness played a role. I legitimately enjoy a couple things about Dynasty Warriors, and I think that the things I enjoy aren't the things that people who don't like Dynasty Warriors assume. Dynasty Warriors is all about the metagame. At the ideal difficulty, it isn't difficult to win battles, but it is a challenge to win them as quickly as the story would like you to. Rushing around the battlefield protecting the main body of your army is what the gameplay is actually all about, not just running around killing a thousand dudes.
Yes, it's true that there is more to the combat than hitting X and occasionally Y. Characters have different moves with different effects (knockups and crowd-clearers, for examples) that require a small amount of memorization and control to be applied, and there are also weapon-switches that double as counters. You can even block, if you're a crazy person. Even so, these mechanics aren't in themselves interesting. They're just simple tools that once again allow you to better improve your time, for example, by minimizing the amount of time that enemy officers spend lying on the ground, mostly immune to attacks. As such, it's possible to consider Dynasty Warriors a light speedrunning game. The fun is in determining which character you are best able to cut through your enemies with, and then using that character to achieve various optional objectives that would have changed the course of history.
What is new in the past ten years?
It would be fair to say that my memory of the old Dynasty Warriors games isn't perfect. It was a long time ago and I can't pretend to have been thinking deeply while playing them. The story of the Three Kingdoms hasn't changed, though the game has expanded to encompass other events and generally diversified the campaigns across the three main factions (there are two others now that are largely unique, too). You no longer have to suppress the Yellow Turban Rebellion regardless of who you play as before getting to the meat of things. And even when you do play old mainstays like that or the Battle of Chi Bi, it seems like the designers understand that they may be trying their fans' patience and have significantly diminished their running time relative to newer scenarios. They have also lengthened the timespan covered by the game and in so doing allowed for the addition of new characters. New characters are always welcome, and if Dynasty Warriors does anything well, it's creating a really impressive number of diverse fighting styles (it helps that it doesn't have to be balanced), though I can't say that I love the trend in character designs... it seems as if the average character age has dropped ten years or so. Some are cool, though.
There is also a new mode called ambition mode (I believe similar things have been done in previous games after 4) that adds sort of a random battle and base-building component to the game. It's neither great nor bad, though I did find that it lacked both the variety and the reward structure to truly encourage repeated play.
Has the series improved at all?
This is a tough question for me to answer because the gap in time has been so great. It's easy for me to say it hasn't improved enough. Character models have definitely increased in resolution, but the environments are still mid-2000s quality, particularly the ground textures. The gameplay style is still the same and though customization aspects have been added, the actual mechanics remain basically identical, if with a bit more visual flourish.
I would say that the main area of improvement for the game has actually been with regards to its story, which has slowly evolved to more coherently explain the history of the setting and in providing some more context for the relationships between the characters. That's not to say that either of these things are actually good, and I don't want to overstate the amount of praise deserved for finally explaining why the leaders of the factions mysteriously disappeared in prior entries (they usually died, sometimes of old age). The same respect is not afforded to the series' minor characters, however, who enter and exit the scenes arbitrarily and their roles in their armies is never explicitly stated by the story. I would say that level design has also generally improved, with battles establishing a better sense of momentum and often ending in a more timely fashion, and the constantly revolving set of characters available for play in each mission adds a welcome amount of variety. At the end of the day, if you were to ask me whether I would enjoy this game if I had just played Dynasty Warriors 4 a few months ago, I'd probably have to say 'no'.
Is there a good game in there somewhere?
I think there definitely is, and it's the anticipation of those moments where the series actually clicks and becomes something like that game that kept me playing. They happen sporadically. Your commander unit is under threat, your objective is in the opposite direction, and the flanks of your army are collapsing. You deploy your bodyguards to delay the advance, gallop on horseback across the map, leaping from parapets and weakening small bands of enemy troops who would no doubt prove a challenge to your allies if you left them unscathed. An enemy officer blocks the gate you need to open to reach your objective - you need to kill him fast to even have a chance of defeating the enemy.
That's the game that Dynasty Warriors should try to be more of the time, but it would require a great deal more thought and care to go into the stage design for such things to happen. And even while I will defend the notion that Dynasty Warriors has some virtues, I think that beyond a doubt its fans are being exploited by Koei for their tolerance of repetition. Considering the publisher's not known for its high-value productions, I think their best move would be to partner up with a different developer who might be able to make the most of what they have.