Dynasty Warriors’ unique selling point has always been that unlike other hack and slash games, they were not a single gauntlet that you pushed your way through, but a deliberate, fanciful recreation of a chaotic battlefield. Wherein you must rush from flashpoint to flashpoint to ensure not just your own victory, but the victory of a whole army of which you were simply the most powerful officer.
With its ninth main instalment, Dynasty Warriors took its gameplay into an open world. Now the battles take place on a large evolving map with mountains, plains, rivers, cities, plains, rice paddies and yes, even more, open plains. Some with the highest population of wolves I have ever seen.
The real core problem with Dynasty Warriors is that at every level it fails at implementing this new open-world idea into a game of its genre.
To begin with, the game visibly fails at showing things at a distance, something important in a big open-world game where you ride from one place to another on a horse seventy percent of the time. Texture pop-in is what might come to mind and that does happen. Many a time were soldiers talking on smooth featureless stone for a while before an intricate pattern flickered into view below them, grass suddenly grew two feet in one second or a messenger flickered into being from nowhere.
But Dynasty Warriors 9 goes beyond even that. Perhaps one of the most important game objects to see from a distance are the units of marching soldiers that you will either cut down or act as protective fodder for you. The game uses simpler models that have more limited and horrible animation, but as you get closer they fade into the normal soldiers that you fight in the game. However, the two models look so different and take so long to fade between each other. Instead, the people you see in the distance seem to fade away completely as you approach only to snap into being when you finally get within hitting distance.
Sounds bad right? Well, that only happens sometimes, when everything is perfect. There are plenty of times people wink into being with no warning at all but the mini-map. Other times you will be running towards some distant troops only to have them disappear completely. If you think that only seems disappointing and mildly irritating, wait until the same thing happens to the animals you need to hunt or the resources you need to gather. Thankfully they at least appear in large clusters around the map, but with so little interesting to do or see in the map, trying to gather them is just a chore so that you can build new items and weapons without gold.
There are also side quests if you need to build up experience or more resources. When I first found a cluster of these in a large city I thought it was a good bit of fun as they were all localised around the same area and seemed to be focused on what was going on so it initially felt like I was improving the area. Even if some of the missions felt a bit… sinister.
However, these missions all appear in about the same numbers in all large cities and not only feel similar some are literally just the same mission in a different city. Even worse after you finish them and collect your reward not only does nothing really change about how the city ties into the rest of the game the missions reset after a few in-game days so you can grind them over and over. So they are just there to grind up your character and equipment rather than any meaningful connection to other parts of the game other than levelling up.
Well even if the open-world idea doesn’t work at least the map is nice so that the larger battles have a nice sense of scale right?
Sadly the game spreads these battles too thin on a too-large map. What each engagement then amounts to is a set of small side-missions leading up to one large mission at the end to cap it off. This would be fine if these individual beats felt in any way connected but they are spread so thinly across the map that you will either be riding through barren emptiness or fast travelling from one flashpoint to another like you are teleporting in the most violent episode of Dr Who ever made.
Thusly it doesn’t feel like you are settling skirmishes ahead of the final battle at all, you’re just moving from one small smash up to another. It doesn’t help that the big climactic fight is often just another bigger than average siege. These battles are ridiculously easy because every character has a grappling hook that renders nearly all walls passable. A good idea for making the world easily traversable but also made me realise that it was pointless to spend time escorting battering rams when I could just hop over the wall and open the gates from the other side. When I started doing this and realised how useless the friendly officers were, I started making a run for the boss. Transforming what should be a climactic final confrontation with the enemy into a chore that I had managed to shave some time off.
All of this messing around with both the density and importance of the battles removes what made Dynasty Warriors better than other hack and slash games. In each map in the old games, it was not just important to fight the enemy in one place but to fight them in the best place. Dynasty Warriors 9, however, separates out all the best places to fight the enemy into their own little niches that are linked together by only the most tenuous of design elements. Takedown this fort and more friendly officers get to the main battle, close off this supply line and the enemy will drop in level. No longer are you dashing in at the right time to tip the scales in your favour. You are simply ticking off boxes in the right order.
There is a game based on this same part of history that you can buy that lets you move around a big map, fighting enemies, building armies and doing everything that Dynasty Warriors 9 tries to do but better. It was called ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII’ and it came out two years ago and was made by the same company. Do yourself a favour and buy that instead.
Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo