In a generation when Japan-developed games are seeing a return to global success, Koei Tecmo has a bright future to look forward to. In the last few years, collaborating with Nintendo on high-end titles such as Hyrule- and Fire Emblem Warriors has seen Koei Tecmo’s critical and sales profile rise around the world. Even better, 2017’s Nioh proved that the publisher’s internal teams and IP can stand toe-to-toe with Bandai Namco and Square Enix.
Now, reflecting Koei’s initial push into action games with the original Dynasty Warriors titles, developer Omega Force has leapt forward again to compete in a radically different genre space. Dynasty Warriors 9 (DW9) retains many of the features of its predecessors, but adapts its traditional combat and mission systems to a brand-new open world structure, closer to Assassin’s Creed than an arcade hack-and-slash.
Unfortunately, the final product cannot quite handle the job. With this project, talented developers are offering wild new options—some unabashedly devoted to player satisfaction, too much so to be simply torn down by cynical prattle. However, a review is not about defending good intentions, and the game is clearly wanting in terms of the point its existence, while also suffering from a myriad of technical and presentation issues.
A game that truly understands itself (for example, Breath of the Wild or even Mario+Rabbids, famous Nintendo polish or not) can be compared to a singular work of art: tell a story, depict a world, convey meaning. Conversely, although one refined idea lays at Dynasty Warriors 9‘s core—attention to over-the-top, superhuman action set during the Three Kingdoms period—many, many tracings of other games are stapled on at every possible angle.
For the uninitiated, Dynasty Warriors (specifically the second in the series) more or less invented the ‘Musou’ genre, where the aforementioned superhumans wade through armies of hapless soldiers using a variety of weapons and attacks. Every game tells of the events surrounding significant battles from Romance of the Three Kingdoms (usually without changing too much entry-to-entry), with dozens of playable storylines that follow different characters from the novel.
Traditionally, these storylines are mission-based, taking place on big square battlefields resembling blown-up versions of PVP maps in ’90s shooters (corridors, cramped courtyards, wide fields, gates, blind alleys, et cetera). Plenty of brawler or hack-and-slash games had done similar work with this formula; what made Dynasty Warriors 2 so incredible at the time was the dedication to portraying soldiers in sheer numbers—a legitimate technical feat on the PlayStation 2. As the Dynasty Warriors series went on, more and more options were added without the core battlefield action changing, leading many critics to decry the series’s calcified structure.
DW9, on the other hand, is nothing if not distinct from its predecessors, boasting a fully open world map with a wealth of missions and side-quests. Rather than entering these missions right away, players can explore towns, craft items, shop, go fishing, or just explore the game’s enormous, sporadically populated map of ancient China. Approaching each of the main missions is gated by certain requirements in the open world and soft-gated by a level cap that can be reached by completing some of the many side quests (though on Normal difficulty, level caps mean almost nothing against the player’s mighty hack-and-slashing). This increased scope and variety, however, raises three co-dependent problems.
Problem One: a formerly action-based title adopting the RPG-style crafting, questing, and even levelling systems of popular open-world games makes DW9 less of a legitimate sequel to the series than a slow-paced spin-off without a core design concept. Almost none of the optional RPG-style elements are necessary for an initial playthrough. Even the open world makes itself partly useless by offering fast-travel to mission starting points—whether or not the player has been to that location previously.
Problem Two: for long-time fans of Dynasty Warriors, these RPG features dilute the action formula that has served the series in the past. Though the open-world map makes for much of this problem by increasing the time between the satisfaction of smashing through crowds of soldiers, DW9 also counter-intuitively revamps its combat controls. Much as Sega’s RPG series Valkyria attempted to approach the Musou structure, resulting in the risible Valkyria Revolution last year; DW9 tries to make the musou game more akin to an action-RPG with similarly muddy results.
The game eschews the series’s spectacle-fighter controls—think the ‘light attack, light attack, heavy attack’ combo systems of Devil May Cry and God of War—for a shift-key system (hold R1/RB to access special attacks) similar to those found in Kingdom Hearts, Dragon Age Inquisition, and countless MMOs. Though this alteration ultimately means the game is more approachable by non-fans than, say, the Monster Hunter-esque Toukiden, it might as well be a useless change if the vast majority of prospective players are series fans in the first place.
Problem Three: the dubiously entertaining side-content, glitched traversal animations and hilariously cheap cutscenes of DW9 are clunky in comparison with any other game in the open-world genre. Swathes of countryside go by between the battles (the meat of the game) and in between is nothing to do with Dynasty Warriors: collecting altogether too many ingredients for crafting, Skyrim-ing up slopes, climbing towers to reveal points of interest, and struggling with the awkward objective marker system. All are features intended to draw new fans to the series at the expense of, for example, true refinement and advancement of the formula that already existed in umpteen numbered entries and spin-offs. In other words, gamers who want to play Assassin’s Creed or The Witcher will do exactly that, not jump into the ninth entry of a series they have not previously cared for—especially without a key value proposition such as mechanical innovation or an appealing level of polish.
Yes, Koei Tecmo, fans who appreciate the simulation aspect of the game above all else will always exist, and a few will be genuinely excited by the move to an open-world setting. Visually, too, despite not matching up to any other franchises in the field, DW9 is still an advancement within its own series. The typically over-the-top Three Kingdoms storyline is always interesting, and the voice acting is as good as ever—that is, bad, if one chooses English, but enjoyably bad. The possibility even exists that through some unique transmutation of expectations, a group of fans will find herein an experience they never knew they wanted: they might consider this review a “PASS”.
However, the majority of prospective customers—wishing for a core Dynasty Warriors experience—will find DW9 lacking, for all of its stapled-on features and vestigial systems. At the same time, the audience that Koei Tecmo is seeking by abandoning its core will find little that is not better experienced in half a dozen other franchises. Dynasty Warriors 9 is a valiant effort, certainly more worthy than Valkyria Revolution, but a game that does not know itself is nearly impossible to recommend to others.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.