Dynasty Warriors 9 Review
A once mighty franchise reinvents itself with disappointing results
I still don’t remember how I came to own Dynasty Warriors 2. I blame the soft drinks and sugary breakfast cereal for making my early teens a hazy mush. But I do recall my first battle. Before the PlayStation 2, I’d never experienced large-scale, sandboxed battles, aside from a few PS1-era games with Fog of War everywhere. So, little me was blown away when I could run out, hacking my way through dozens of NPCs with abandon. Since then, the Dynasty Warriors franchise (and its spinoffs) has been my junk food, my mindless escape into games that require little brain power but offer a lot of fun. I was hooked.
Over a decade later, Dynasty Warriors 9 is the latest game in Koei Tecmo and Omega Force's mainline hack-and-slash franchise. It loosely follows the story of the Records of the Three Kingdoms, a turbulent time in China, covering the history of the late Eastern Han Dynasty. In the game, you typically choose a character from one of the prominent factions of the era—Wei, Shu, and Wu—and follow their story through several historical battlefields. Gameplay boils down to using your chosen character to plough through soldiers, completing simple objects, such as targeting a specific general or an escort mission, until you reach the commander at the end.
My first words upon starting the game were "Oh, no…"
Dynasty Warriors 9 takes a significant break from an enduring design ethos that ran through not only itself but its spinoffs, too. The game is now open world, presenting a large chunk of China for a player to battle across from different character perspectives. Battles now consist of an overall mission with sub-missions nested underneath that make the ultimate battle easier. You can also partake in resource collecting, crafting, hunting, fishing, scouting new locations, capturing bases, and slowly losing the will to live.
The biggest problem with Dynasty Warriors 9 is its open world. Firstly, it’s like the developers hopped into a time machine, went back several years, and examined the blandest MMOs for basic gameplay mechanics. Secondly, I fear that somewhere along the development cycle, someone deleted the original overworld and was then forced to concoct an Ocean’s 11-style heist to infiltrate a historical preservation society (who had been recreating China in the 3rd century AD) and steal its files.
As soon as I dropped into the game with Cao Cao (my go-to general in any Dynasty Warriors game), I was tasked with acquiring a scroll and then crafting a gem. "Fair enough," I thought. The game wants to introduce its new mechanics, shops and all. "At first, they came for my equipment upgrades and I said nothing." I did what the NPC asked, and was then finally allowed to stab something. After this, when we had captured a base, the mission list spat up various tasks, such as getting to know what the various "MMO" features were. These ranged from speaking to someone about hunting animals, finding safehouses, visiting certain landmarks, trading, and crafting.
For contrast, previous games just drop you straight into the action. Here’s your sword, now off you go, slaughter hundreds. I went back played the opening of Dynasty Warriors 8 with Cao Cao and I was immediately in combat, slashing my way through objects and enemies alike, levelling up, collecting new gear. It’s night and day.
The open world direction is a massive change, but if feels lifeless. You spend most of your time riding from one destination to another. Your mount literally has an auto-run feature so you can just sit back and do something else for five minutes until you reach your destination. Or, if you’re going through a particularly rough patch in your life, take your horse into one of the palace cities, hit the auto-run button, and watch your mount go absolutely mental running into walls and stalls, unable to escape its concrete prison.
The fact the horse even has an auto-run feature is warning enough. China is pretty big, I get that. Problem is, despite what’s scrawled on the wall of a pub in my city, bigger is not always better. Trees, lots of trees. Grass, lots of grass. Small outposts that all look the same. You can climb up watchtowers and it does the Assassin’s Creed thing of swinging the camera around so you can stare at the bland army of trees. "And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept." Yes, mate, I empathise.
There is no impetus to explore, which should be one of the backbones of any open world game. Yes, you can capture locations for resources... so you can craft things... but you need the scrolls first... and you only have one out of three... so you can make that thing that increases your health by 1%. I wondered why this was so, and I think it may be the prominence of mobile gaming in Japan. I feel like a design team member said, "MMOs have these types of mechanics, and they’re popular. However, when implementing them in our game, we have to be caref-". And he was never allowed to finish.
The sense of accomplishment is minuscule. I feel as my Dynasty Warriors experience is not about epic battles any longer, but being forced to complete a set of mindless, unengaging busywork. Select a mission, fast travel there, kill a few soldiers, report back—and 90% of the missions follow that pattern, whether they are sub-missions or random tasks.
In previous games, battles were a lot more engaging for several reasons. Primarily, all battle arenas were different. The Yellow Turban Rebellion, one of the first missions you’ll encounter, is a prime example of this. Once, you were effectively barred from reaching their leader because of things like powerful hurricanes and falling rocks. You were encouraged to take out his generals, which meant you had to tackle their powers separately, such as rushing up an incline and dodging rocks. It was fun and gave a level variety. I would have rather seen a smaller map that managed to blend the different terrains and features of the previous games’ maps to make each encounter unique. As it stands, every battle in DW9 plays out the same. You can run straight to the boss by hopping over the walls with your grappling hook—even on hard and chaos difficulties.
Perhaps if there was a sense of an actual pre-battle plan that had a tangible effect. I’m not talking about doing a mission where you kill people and then receive a siege weapon. Say, if you could actually give people orders and possessed a greater sense of micro-management to make it difficult to head straight to the enemy and defeat them. A blend of the original game and some of the decisions from the more tactical Empires spinoff game, for instance.
There is a term in gaming, which most designers try to perfect: flow. The reason why previous games were enjoyable, in my mind, was because they perfected mindless flow. Battles were not long enough to try your patience. There was a loop established: kill enemy fodder, kill general, complete objective, be rewarded (with weapons/experience), rinse and repeat, all the while moving towards your destination. The sense of flow is absent in Dynasty Warriors 9. Go here, hit on things for a minute, go to your next destination. No interesting levels or missions or general battles, no sense of epic scale.
But hey, if the world is bland, at least they got the combat down. Right?
Well, in previous games, there were normal, heavy, and musou (special) attacks. You may have a unique officer action, too, in later additions. As you progressed through the game, you unlocked more attacks. Off the bat in Dynasty Warriors 9, you have your entire moveset and it is generally divided into four styles of attack—launch, special, guard break, and area attack. You can chain seamlessly between these, making short work of any who enter your killing range. The animations are quite smooth and appear authentically drawn from martial arts. However, they are not as bombastic as previous entries, thus conveying less of sense of a bringer of death marching around the battlefield.
Dynasty Warriors 9 also introduces a counter/finishing system. Similar to games like the Batman Arkham series—you see triangle (for PS4) and you hit the button. This gives the finishing blows a real crunch and hopping around foes to stop those charging up their attacks is quite satisfying. But the more realistic (and I use that term extremely loosely) take on characters' movesets tends to make them blend into a mush of stabbing or swinging.
Another issue with new battle mechanics is that Dynasty Warriors 9 wanted to have its pork bun and eat it. It’s all well and good saying that there are 80+ selectable characters, but when many of them share the same moveset (with minor, superficial changes) it means very little. You will find diversity, however. You have spears, swords, fans, balls and chains, giant maces and more. There are quick fighters and slow bruisers. If you have a certain play style, it is sure to be accommodated. But I would have much preferred a handful of interesting, diverse characters and let them speak for themselves. This, combined with the overworld, is like giving me a garage full of high-powered sports cars, and then only giving me a short, straight road to drive them on. It’s just limiting my enjoyment.
And while we’re on the subject of things speaking for themselves—the voice acting. I feel there are two directions you can go with Dynasty Warriors: camp or serious. I don’t think both works. The audio team seems to be different from previous instalments, and I believe there is a real lack of voice direction in characters. Lu Bu doesn’t sound as rage-filled and bad-ass as before. Cao Cao is okay, but some of his retinue sound extremely sarcastic. Guo Jia, I think, feels like he’s begging me to execute him on trumped up treason charges. I’d just slaughtered hundreds: "Oh, that was wonderful. I wish I were as good as you." I can imagine the rest of my faction back at camp, laughing to themselves: "Yeah, we just got him to do all the hard work for us and we do nothing." Then they all slap themselves on the back so hard they break each other’s spines.
Dynasty Warriors 9’s UI is passable. My "Oh, no" moment from the beginning was rooted in the screen, for some reason, not being the correct resolution. It was boxed, disrupting the framerate—which is poor to begin with. My PS2 Dynasty Warriors games played better. The workaround for this was to head into my system settings and manually increase the "app" area. I have never encountered a bug like that in any other game I have owned. Unfortunately, though it improved things slightly, a noticeable lag in heavy battles and when the musou animation played was still an issue. The textures and some of the effects also leave much to be desired, and in some ways this title could probably fool you that it's running on a PS3.
You can check the world map and missions in a simple menu. The former is slowly revealed as you explore areas and the number of things, such as missions, loots, etc., assault your eyeballs, but you can tone them down. Items appear in your surroundings with little icons, which reminded me of Metal Gear Solid 5. I rarely kept track of what I was picking up, or what chests spat up. Running around the map to go resource collecting isn’t really my jam. Graphically, there is not much to shout about. I’m sure locations are authentically reproduced, but they are boring and flat. Castles feel interchangeable, as do bases and the general environment.
Well, we might as well end it on a positive note. The music is still excellent. The blend of authentic Chinese instruments and epic power-metal riffs cause me to regularly listen to Dynasty Warriors soundtracks while I work. It verges on ambience, because music will transition from when you are simply milling around to encountering a group of enemies. It was always a welcome distraction when Lu Bu’s theme came rushing in whenever the man himself appeared on the battlefield.
There is a lot of "content" in Dynasty Warriors 9—I’m talking hundreds of hours. You can go through the timeline with dozens of characters (to varying length), and outfit them as you see fit. But because something requires a large investment of time does not mean it is worthy of the effort. Trying to clamber up a mountain blindfolded and hopping on one leg would take an age. I don’t know if I’d particularly call it an enjoyable experience.
The strange emphasis on realism in Dynasty Warriors 9 is its undoing. I am not sure who it is meant to appeal to. As a die-hard fan, it is an experience that alienates me. Its MMO stylings feel poorly thought out and lazily executed, creating a shallow journey. Its open world is barren, devoid of colour, and unappealing. While its adherence to the text it is based on is admirable, I do not care enough about the characters or my missions to become invested. Perhaps, as a long-standing fan, I am in the minority. Perhaps this is the Dynasty Warriors that breaks through and clicks with most of the western market. If you know nothing about the franchise and are searching for a game with a great deal of play time and characters to fight with, it may hold more for you than it did for me. I’m not angry, Dynasty Warriors 9, I’m just disappointed.