This week, I was lucky enough to get my hands on the latest installment of an old favorite series of mine: Dynasty Warriors 9. With promises of renewal and innovation, the title has been attracting the attention of not only niche fans, but curious newcomers as well.
Each Warriors game covers the same span of historical events—a growing pile of prequels that requires no previous exposure to enjoy the current release. Being that this is a long-running series, however, I’ll disclose my personal experience, anyway.
Entranced by an in-store demo, I tore into Dynasty Warriors 2 and continued until the fifth installment before becoming weary of the repetitive release cycle and pricey expansions; in essence a biannual subscription to aesthetic and mechanic polish—a facelift. Diving in after a three cycle absence, I was hopeful to shake off my jaded perspective and at the very least ride a wave of nostalgia to a critique of the latest enhancements.
I got more than I bargained for on the “change” front.
If Dynasty Warriors 3–8 were facelifts, the 9 is reconstructive surgery. Nigh every mechanic of the game has been refurbished, so let’s break it down facet by facet.
Anything long divided will surely unite…
Dynasty Warriors now has an open world. It may be simplified and to scale as far as a map of 262 A.D. China is concerned, but as a video game setting it’s massive. Dozens of cities and castles are connected by roads across a landscape peppered with camps, outposts, watchtowers, and piers. Even on horseback, it can take hours to run from one corner of the map to another.
Accordingly, a number of conveniences are available from the get-go. One may fast travel to map anchors or whistle for a horse on a whim. One may swim across the narrower rivers or boat across the wider. Even a trusty grappling hook prevents one from getting lost within a city too long (which can also be used to infiltrate castles and throw the gates open yourself).
An underfoot compass continuously displays a best-guess at a (road-based) route to the next objective, including manually placed flags, and horses will auto-run these routes on command. Like a recalculating GPS, this system constantly trips over itself (and steeds constantly crash into obstacles) while always eventually making it to its destination—I couldn’t manage to get it permanently snagged.
The trade-offs are a marked decline in aesthetic variety as well as a general loss in the subjective scale of the battles themselves. Some areas may have more flowers or snow, more cliffs or fields, but the effect is underwhelming compared to when each stage was developed for its own sake. Likewise, enemy forces are spread out in a way that makes more sense from the perspective of waging a war but at the cost of the epic-gauntlet feeling of stages.
Whether the open world enhances or undermines “Dynasty Warriors-ness” will likely be a polarizing topic.
…and anything long united will surely divide.
As conflict engulfs the map, it falls into a certain equilibrium. Assets held by each faction continually dispatch troops along adjacent roads and settle into stalemated supply and front lines incapable of overwhelming one another without assistance.
Under such circumstances, there is rarely pressure to act swiftly. You could dive into the mission, sure…or…you could ride back to the capital, resupply restoratives, have a stat-boosting snack at the teahouse, and hunt the forests so the blacksmith can craft you a better weapon. Set animal traps, go fishing, track bandits, or take requests from camps for bonus experience—the war isn’t going anywhere. (Though, depending on the player, the novelty might.)
Even after interacting with an objective, one can usually disengage to heal, level up, or better wear down enemy combat capability—though rousing missions to activity may “advance time” and put other units involved at risk (if morale is low).
Inversely, rushing to the final objective will likely see you swiftly cut down, as enemy leaders will maintain high morale and an inexhaustible supply of relief troops. Tackling sub-missions will drive officers from their footholds and capture supply route hubs, thus whittling away enemy morale and influence while your own officers advance. Even joining common units on the road to assist in capturing bases can tip scales and cause dominoes to fall, compromising the enemy army’s integrity and besieging their castles.
As a side-effect, this more complex build-up further diminishes the old-school epic-factor of the final battle. Taking out supporting captains and officers (causing their subordinates to surrender) is an efficient—but subjectively unimpressive—endeavor.
Harmony in Chaos
And yet for all that’s changed the core mechanics remain intact: identify where a few hundred fewer soldiers will facilitate your conquest, charge into the fray, and mash buttons. Snipe captains with arrows and cause their units to flee. Deprive the enemy general of functioning officers while protecting your own. Become the one (wo)man army fueled only by raw ambition, pilfered meat buns, and the infectious synth-rock soundtrack one grows to expect from a division of Koei Tecmo, all accompanied by comically melodramatic dialogue.
▢ , ▢ , ▢ …
Normal Attacks behave as always but are now called Flow Attacks. However, Charge Attacks have been replaced by React Attacks. Rather than mere combo diversifiers, Reacts are woven into the Flow to ambush, counter, knock-back, rush towards, and finish off enemies in a more efficient manner. Taken alongside Trigger Attacks (which stun enemies, cast them into the air, or slam them back into the ground) and Special Attacks (one-off skills unique to each character), the battle system gains a bit of depth without necessarily gaining complication.
Story Mode is comprised of roughly thirteen chapters with each character entering and exiting respective to history. For example, Cao Cao’s scenario begins with the Yellow Turban Rebellion, but concludes after only eight chapters. Completing a chapter with one character unlocks others who begin journeys at that juncture, allowing the player to move forward. Completing all 90 characters’ scenarios requires a significant time investment.
However, because player progress and present story circumstances are saved separately—and because there are so many recipes to unlock, weapons to craft, horses to develop, hideouts to buy and furnish, and so on—tasks balance one another out. The game as a whole will grow stale long before a minority of tasks turn into a miserable and focused grind. Especially taking into account the glorious return of Free Mode, the only true goal is to play onward as one wills.
Familiar Functional Flaws
All the player-environment focus and occlusion culling in the world can’t save Dynasty Warriors 9 from the same performance issues that have plagued it since its (true) inception on the Playstation 2.
Frame rate momentarily grinds to a halt as hundreds of clone soldiers flock to the slaughter. Graphical quality varies radically as one moves from location to location, from field to cutscene. Visual glitches compound as the system heats during a long campaign. For a while, every time I summoned my horse, it arrived invisible. (Guess how long it took me to solve that mystery.)
Not quite what I meant by, “My flag shall cover the land.”
These are the tolls exacted when one pursues a body count outnumbering the descendants of Genghis Khan. To those jumping into the franchise here, such performance issues may be an instant turn-off in a 2018 release. However, I labor to believe that the eighth such cycle is where a significant portion of long-time fans will draw the line (at least over dropped frames and cooling breaks).
After more than a decade of mostly cosmetic and functional polish, Dynasty Warriors 9 is a sincere attempt at renewal and growth. Set in an open world, no longer does one arrive mid-battle with narrative footnotes. One must lead their army, expanding supply lines and besieging castles to set that stage themselves. The experience becomes more realistic, tactical, and (arguably) addicting. However, so too does the mission rhythm grow tedious and the scenery bland, and fans of the way things once were may view this as merely “fast travel, kill officer, repeat”, with truly legendary confrontations few and far between.
As a game, it stands and falls as a monolith—a rubric of tasks that promises to wane as a whole before any one becomes an eclipsing grind. Objectively, frame rate collapses and glitches compounding under system stress cost the game some points and perhaps the patience of new inductees, but long-time fans of the series will likely remain numb to them whilst evaluating the boons and banes of the reconstruction.
This is a juncture where each player must decide for themselves: Even if overall a decent video game, is this a decent Dynasty Warriors game? Such is the risk of renewal; change that seems necessary to some is not even desired by others. The fans of yesterday won’t always be the fans of tomorrow.
~ Final Score: 7/10 ~
Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for Playstation 4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.