Everyone’s favourite ancient Chinese hack and slash has returned, with Dynasty Warriors reaching its 9th entry this year. Dynasty Warriors reminds me a lot of sports video games, in that the core premise and setting never changes, with each new entry only adding gameplay alterations and more characters to the roster each time.
For those of you who have never played a Dynasty Warriors game before, the series adapts the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical epic set during the Three Kingdoms era of China, and turns it into an over the top, anime style hack and slash murder fest. You play as an assorted range of heroes from each of the three sides of the conflict and fight your way through very loose interpretations of actual battles. This period of history is incredibly fascinating, and luckily the game does actually offer real insight into this rich world. Well, it does this in loading screens at least, since when gameplay starts all the genuine historical figures don their worst fancy dress party outfits and start launching fireball and ice attacks at each other. The games feature an enormous array of real-life generals and courtesans reinterpreted as flashy magical twats, and the player has to level them up and unlock new equipment for each of them.
The story is the same as always: China begins in turmoil, with the Han dynasty failing to maintain order in an Empire rife with rebellions and warlords. Out of the chaos (a fun drinking game is to take a shot every time someone says “chaos” in an overly dramatic voice), three ideologically opposed nations arise. There is the kingdom of Wei, who strive for order, Shu, who strive for equality, and Wu, who strive for… err… family? Sadly, Wu have always struggled to gain a convincing motive beyond just not liking the green or blue uniforms of the other sides. The last time Dynasty Warriors saw any real innovation in the story department was in number 7, when the Jin were added, and sadly the new game fails to really add anything upon that.
While the game fails to innovate in the story, it more than makes up for in the gameplay. While the core mechanic of ‘slash everyone up till they stop moving’ has not changed, the combat has been improved on significantly. Instead of only having a light attack, heavy attack and special move, now the player can do stun attacks, knock enemies into the air and do counter moves. All of these attacks flow seamlessly together to make chaining combos a joy to watch on screen. Similarly, the battles themselves have been reworked, with each map feeling like its own mini-sandbox arena. Each level has a ton of side objectives you can complete for XP or special items. The battles themselves feel extremely fluid as you strive to capture specific forts and settlements to help your army push onwards to the main enemy encampment. Additionally, the environments have now been made almost entirely destructible, so no longer will the almighty God of War Guan Yu be embarrassingly foiled by a chest high picket fence and a couple of pots.
Koei Tecmo have also expanded upon the RPG elements of previous games. While in earlier entries each character levelled up automatically through each slain officer, the player has much more control this time around. Now you gain XP and get to choose which attributes it goes into. It’s an extension I am unsure of a bit, as this is a game in which you will want to experiment with as many of the nearly 100 characters as possible, so dedicating yourself to tailor each one seems time consuming. Similarly, items play a much bigger role in Dynasty Warriors 9 than in previous entries, with you purchasing healing items, attack and defence buffs, and much more. This removes much of the tension for me, as rather than trying to kill an enemy officer while surviving on a sliver of health in the hopes that he drops an all-important healing pork bun, you simply ensure you have purchased enough healing powder prior to the fight.
A weakness I have felt has plagued the series since its fourth entry is the total ineptitude of enemy soldiers. In Dynasty Warriors 3, my personal favourite of the series (it’s not because of nostalgia, shut up!), enemy peasants posed an actual threat if you were a far lower level than they were. Now each soldier is weaker than a gnat’s fart. You can gleefully slice your way through them like a molten knife through non-corporeal butter, and they take around half an hour to even think about attacking. So where does the threat lie? Obviously, it’s the enemies that have as ludicrously terrible wardrobes as you. Yes, enemy officers also went to the Anime School of combat, since they too can perform outrageous special moves and also have no compunctions about actually using their bloody sword. While many of them can be challenging, it’s really only due to them possessing more health and higher damage than you do, and all too often fights become a competition of who can land their special move first.
One flaw that has thankfully not been improved upon is the voice acting. Koei Tecmo seemed dedicated to picking the worst actors in the industry and making them deliver terrible dialogue in the most melodramatic fashion possible. Listen, for example, to the way that Xiahou Yuan says “watching you really gets me worked up” each time you kill over 50 enemies, sounding like a teenage boy attempting to flirt with a picture of his crush stapled to a mop. This is all part of the charm, however, and I am glad to see they have made no efforts to change. Indeed, I think they may have gone too far in the other direction, with some of the performances being so terrible it edges on cringe worthy. The music is another part of the series that makes Dynasty Warriors incredibly charming. While Dynasty Warriors 9 is steeped in J-Metal as usual, several of the tracks stood out and will soon have you bobbing your head along as you cut through hordes of innocent Chinese peasants.
The biggest issue I have found is exclusive to the PC: Optimisation. Before all you PC nerds slither out of your parents’ garages like maggots wriggling out of a rotten corpse, I just want to say that: yes, I need to upgrade my computer. There’s no debate there. The problem arises when I can run Dynasty Warriors 8 at top settings with no slowdown, but as soon as I attempt to play 9 on the lowest setting the frame rate drops faster than your mum’s knickers on payday. It doesn’t make any sense; 8 looks like your typical next-gen console title, but on my PC 9 looks like I accidentally put the Age of Empires 2 disc in by mistake. Sort it out Koei, even Rockstar North got it right with Grand Theft Auto V, and they treat PCs worse than Jennifer Lawrence treats the concept of basic human dignity.
In spite of all the niggling issues I have raised, I would recommend Dynasty Warriors 9 to all newcomers of the series. It’s fun, fast paced, and rewarding way to chill-out after a long day’s work. It will make you laugh and give you a decent challenge, and you are unlikely to find yourself getting bored of it anytime soon. As for fans of the series, my opinion doesn’t really matter. Us Dynasty Warriors fans will just keep on coming back to the series time and time again, if only to see just how much more effeminate they have made Zhang He this time.