‘Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires’ review: royal fumble

Epically shallow

Though the prospect of new blood is always a concern for dynasties, the Empires expansion of 2018’s Dynasty Warriors 9 is surely not designed as a jumping-on point for newcomers, being approximately the 10,000th entry in a series that started back when the NME was a print magazine engaged in a culture war with the fledgling government of Tony Blair. Which is to say that it has been around for a very long time indeed. So, there are two ways to review this: one is to get a series veteran to signal to other series veterans whether or not it’s going to be worth the money they’ve already decided to spend on it. Another is to get a novice (me) to try and determine whether there’s anything in it for novices.

Having disclosed that, the answer is: sort of. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here – fans of historical action games will instantly find a lot to latch on to, as Dynasty Warriors is essentially a videogame adaptation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a 14th-century historical novel that is considered a foundational work of Chinese literature. Without having read it, and therefore not knowing if it has a bit where a scantily-clad demigoddess batters six-thousand guys with a boomerang, it’s impossible to determine if Omega Force has improved on the original text.

This is a game of two distinct but interlocking halves: the Dynasty Warriors half where you may enjoy the delightful 1 vs 1000 combat system that the series is famous for, and Empires half, where you embroil yourself in matters of court intrigue, mostly via a menu system that’s initially baffling but essentially boils down to deciding which resources your kingdom is in the most need of, be it money, rations, or manpower (that’s an oversimplification, but you get the gist). How well you do at court has a direct impact on the battlefield – on a basic level, by determining whether you have the manpower to mount a successful invasion, or prevent one.

Dynasty Warriors 9
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires. Credit: Koei Tecmo Games Co.

There are several campaigns to choose from which roughly follow the chapters of the source material. These can be played out of sequence with any one of a dizzying number of playable characters, who all feel roughly the same on the battlefield, but whose influence in court (and therefore the world) can vary dramatically with rank and status. Within the campaigns themselves, the story is largely emergent and depends a lot on player action (or inaction). As a general, the success of your nation depends on how good you are at completing set objectives. As a ruler, you decide what the objectives are.

So, there are multiple scenarios, multiple protagonists, and an ocean of player choice: in theory, there’s a staggering amount of replayability here, with cascading possibilities for the state of the overworld. In practice: it’s all a bit cack, and unless you’re a die-hard fan you’d probably find it a struggle to sustain long-term interest in whether Kingdom X controls Province Y after Battle Z, given the functional difference between each iteration of those things is about as meaningful as the difference between Heathrow and Stansted.

Once you’ve tried a few different characters and/or starting points, you’ll see the same basic set of cutscenes and world events remixed with different faces and palette swaps. This is of course fundamental to the type of game it is – it’s very similar to something like Mount & Blade – where the mechanics are solid, and the game is designed to last a long time, but the stories that emerge from the systems just aren’t interesting or varied enough on their own to justify the sheer amount of game on offer.

Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires. Credit: Koei Tecmo Games Co.
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires. Credit: Koei Tecmo Games Co.

This situation is helped, thankfully, by the battlefield mechanics, which remain exhilarating long after you’ve noticed that every single battle is a remix of the same handful of castle siege elements, thanks in no small part to the aforementioned 1 vs 1000 combat. It’s a series staple, and its main draw: there are thousands of enemy troops to cut down and you are a large weapon with a large weapon.

Nothing quite nails the balletic thrill of slicing through dozen after hapless dozen of infantry like Dynasty Warriors. Uppercutting an entire battalion of blokes into the air and smacking them to death with something long and sharp. Unleashing a range of supernatural special moves including firestorms, exploding whirlwinds, and supercharged lightning bolts that cut across the battlefield like a Tesla-powered death star.

Battles tend to last around ten minutes, and are very much a plate-spinning exercise: while sustaining the pressure on enemy troops with combos of knockdowns, stuns, and specials, you must also take out key objectives in order to reach a win state. For example, taking down all the enemy towers unlocks the grapple, allowing you to scale their castle walls and unlock the gates, allowing your troops to pour in. You can utilise “Secret Plans”, dangerous gambits which can prove decisive if successfully carried out, but deadly to your own side if you fail the objectives required to deploy them. The enemy has Secret Plans too, and you often find yourself having to thwart theirs while trying to launch your own. Managing all this keeps you firmly on the edge of your seat, and the game seems deftly balanced to always feel like the difference between victory and defeat boils down to a knife-edge.

Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires. Credit: Koei Tecmo

If it sounds chaotic, rest assured that the second-to-second gameplay is executed with a remarkable situational clarity, with objectives clearly spelled out, and the state of play easy to gauge with a quick glance at the ever-present screen furniture which is, at first, oppressively large to the point where it feels like you’re playing the game through a letterbox, even on a large 4K TV. But, once you get used to it, the benefits are obvious for a game that’s as much about controlling the field as it is about battering the men on it.

Situational clarity doesn’t necessarily imply graphical quality, however. Despite being the series’ next-gen debut, the presentation is rough. On PS5, vsync issues are ever-present in performance mode, with noticeable screen-tearing rearing its ugly head through pretty much the entirety of the game. Also, low-quality textures, PS3 era bloom lighting, and persistent streaming issues ensure that it constantly looks like the camera is smeared with vaseline. Add the constant barrage of loading screens (which don’t even load properly themselves – often displaying character bios with missing portraits) and you have to wonder what, if anything, is particularly Next Gen about this release.

So, it’s no looker, and it’s fundamentally very unlikely to hold someone’s attention for the thousands of hours they could theoretically play it for. But it’s definitely got something: the combat side of things is dependably exciting, and navigating the tightrope of court intrigue and battle-readiness is an engrossing challenge. Newcomers need not feel intimidated by its legacy, either: the basics are easy to pick up, and the rewards are immediate.

It’s just a shame that the execution is as rickety as a siege tower, and that there’s about a pamphlet’s worth of game spread over a novel’s worth of content.

Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires launches on February 15 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch and Google Stadia. We reviewed this game on PS5. 

The Verdict

It’s repetitive and ugly, but the combat is a moreish delight.

Pros

  • The basics are easy to pick up for newcomers
  • Battles are great fun and tense as hell
  • The overworld strategy and combat gameplay meaningfully interact

Cons

  • Repetitious
  • Unvaried
  • Samey
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