Retrospective: Dynasty Warriors

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DW8 Zhou Yun

Love it or hate it, Dynasty Warriors is one of the most divisive gaming franchises out there. Some regard it as the pinnacle of cathartic action, mixing strategy and hack & slash action in a neat little package. Others, meanwhile, refer to it as a dumb button-masher where you keep pressing one button until all the Chinese peasants are dead. Both are kind of true, and after having tackled eight of these games back to back I certainly feel like zooming out and taking a look at the series overall. This is our retrospective of the Dynasty Warriors main series. Hope you enjoy it!

What is Dynasty Warriors

Set in ancient China, Dynasty Warriors is all about the conflict between the three kingdoms of Wei, Wu, and Shu, led by the ambitious Cao Cao, the noble Sun family, and the benevolent Liu Bei respectively. Players are asked to pick a character, which are all well-known heroes from this war reimagined as unstoppable super warriors with all their traits and eccentricities exaggerated to the max. Zhang He is portrayed as a bumbling, flamboyant pretty boy that assaults his enemies with claw weapons, Guan Yu is this massive tank of a man with a majestic beard, that is the kind of character design we are talking about here.

dw1-guan-yu

After picking a character players are thrown in large, 3D maps and asked to fulfill a series of objectives, usually killing the enemy commander. The selling point here is that besides you, the other officers, and your respective commanders, there are a few thousand soldiers roaming around the place looking to impact the battle. While they can’t stand up to you on their own, their sheer numbers can really turn the tide of battle and are satisfying to fight against. This is where the strategy comes in: you can just head straight for the enemy commander and get it over with, but it’s more likely you’ll end up riding around the field, helping out in random skirmishes and thinning the enemy force, only to then besiege the enemy’s main camp together with your NPC allies. 

Interestingly the very first Dynasty Warriors game was another matter entirely, being a semi-3D, 1-on-1 tournament fighter. After this the format was changed drastically for the second game and then stuck. A common complaint towards the franchise is that it’s too stale, with each entry in the series innovating little to nothing. Add in the frequent releases, Xtreme and Empires editions, as well as other spin-offs and cross-over games, and it’s easy to see how this may be an issue.

Unique strengths

There are a lot of elements to like in Dynasty Warriors across pretty much everything we focus on at Legacy of Games. The story & setting are really interesting, taking players to the battlefields of a conflict not many would otherwise be interested in and getting people invested by presenting more colorful versions of the historical characters that played a part in it. I certainly know I went in without knowing much about Chinese history when I bought Dynasty Warriors 5 years ago, but afterward I wanted to google my favorite warriors and learn about what became of them. While the games did need some time to find out what works for storytelling, when they finally figured it out it lead to the phenomenal storyline of Dynasty Warriors 7.

DW6 castle

Contrary to what you might expect from a game about a historical, Chinese setting, the presentation is much more bombastic than one would expect. Sure, the occasional soothing tunes and beautiful vistas sneak their way into the games, but most of the time you are wandering the countryside to the tune of wailing guitars and fighting fun characters with attacks that either outright employ magic or just disobey all laws of physics. All the games just look and sound so rad and this mixes well with the eccentric characters and the action-heavy gameplay.

Which brings us to that “keep mashing 1 button to win” allegation. Sure, the gameplay of Dynasty Warriors is easy to learn, as you string together a series of simple attacks and then do a heavy attack to perform a variety of combo moves. It’s not rocket science, but in the better games it’s easy to get familiar with a moveset, after which you get to enjoy slashing through large mobs of enemies and duking it out with more powerful officers. It’s rare for the moment to moment gameplay to be specifically hard, even the officers and commanders are quick to surrender if you put any effort at all into building up your characters, yet it can be a real challenge when the battlefield isn’t in your favor and your health bar begins to drain under the weight of a hundred smaller fights you were part of. I have definitely been in situations where I completely lost control of the battlefield and all my allies routed, or I was otherwise left stranded and running from enemies with just a slither of health left.

The games can be spicy and hard, it’s just that most of the time they are more comfortable with letting the player go on a power trip. It’s not common to find a game where you can rack up hundreds of kills per minute with seemingly no effort, and still claim you are struggling on this mission.

Struggles

So let’s talk about that nasty “innovation” business that Omega Force seems to be so scared of. It’s not that the Dynasty Warriors games never change, in fact, if you stick to the main entries there are a lot of gameplay elements that change around with each release. The issue is more that Omega Force can never seem to stick to anything and many bold, new steps it takes are thrown out the very next game. The dueling mechanic from Dynasty Warriors 4 was an interesting feature to bring something from the very first game back into the series, but it was discarded almost immediately. Another good example is the Renbu fighting system from Dynasty Warriors 6. It was far from perfect, yet rather than tinker with it any further the old system was immediately put back into place for the next game.

DW6 fort

You could argue this is done to keep a very solid “core” experience with elements that are guaranteed to work well, but my argument against that would be that the series has been unable to preserve much of its former complexity, resulting in the later games being vastly more simplified and monotonous than their successors. The much-criticized Dynasty Warriors 6 brought with it a large, branching upgrade tree with interesting decisions to make, which was reduced to just 10 boring upgrades in Dynasty Warriors 7 before being removed entirely in 8. In fact, let’s count the features that have been removed from the game up until 8.

  1. Dueling
  2. Siege battles (DW 6)
  3. Random weapon drops
  4. Weapon leveling (DW 4)
  5. Complex camps
  6. Bodyguards
  7. Leveling your horse (DW 6)
  8. Upgrade tokens
  9. Item drops
  10. Character-specific upgrade trees
  11. Different horses
  12. Complex morale system
  13. Renbu fighting system (DW 6)
  14. Tomes with character-specific special moves (DW 6)
  15. Conquest Mode (DW 7)
  16. Character creation
  17. Character-exclusive weaponry

DW7 Lu Bu

That is just what I can think up on the fly, and the main issue is not that all of this has been removed, but that we got very little back for it. Dynasty Warriors 8 just has a fancy counter move if you switch weapons at the right time and the different weapon types to compensate for all that. Stripping all this complexity away leaves you feeling like the series has advanced very little, putting aside the presentation and technical aspects. If you were to play Dynasty Warriors 2 and 8 side by side, you really wouldn’t say that there are this many games, and this many opportunities to learn from mistakes between the two. In fact, you could reasonably argue that the former feels like the more complex and developed game.

Where to start?

There is very little reason to follow my example and play all of the games in the series. If you prefer the more deliberate and weighty style of the Playstation 2 games, then I can recommend either Dynasty Warriors 2 or 5, with the former being more challenging and interesting, whereas the latter is just all-around more developed. If you prefer a more fluent and faster experience, then I would say Dynasty 6 and 7. With the sixth game you get the most complex gameplay the series has ever featured and with the seventh you get the best story. If you went with this advice, then feel free to skip the eighth game, as it adds very little to excuse having you play the entire storyline again.

What about the very first game? It’s not bad if you enjoy a fighting game from time to time, but overall it’s more of a novelty.

The future

Dynasty Warriors 9 is already in development at the time of this writing and I feel the series will continue for a while yet, even if the numbers in the title begin to get kind of crazy. The often-suppressed optimist inside me wants to say that it looks like Omega Force is working on their bad habits and looking to make the games feel more like an improvement over their predecessors. After all, 8 was already very similar to the game before it, opting to just polish stuff up without throwing out too much. This could be a hint of the studio adopting a healthier attitude towards its sequels.

To be honest, I don’t trust the optimist inside me very much these days.

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