Along with Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, Dynasty Warriors 3 (and its Xtreme Legends variant) was one of the games I played the most in my youth. It had a 3D Golden Axe/Streets of Rage vibe that kept me entertained for hours. So despite rumblings across the internet that this latest entry in the franchise was somewhat sub-par, to say the least, after such a long hiatus I was keen to wade back into the fray to unite China under my gloriously benevolent iron rule.
A pity then that I was disappointed almost from the moment that I was allowed to control my previously favorite character, Cao Cao. It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly the problem was. The game just felt off somehow. I wasn’t expecting a massive graphical or gameplay overhaul. I wasn’t expecting a richly detailed exploration of the series’ wonderfully farcical take on Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel, and with 2018 shaping up to be a bumper year for games I certainly wasn’t expecting a GOTY contender. So what exactly was I anticipating? Something a little more than what I got, that’s for sure.
By no means is this a bad game. In fact, if all you’re looking for is to switch your brain off and save yourself from doing much thinking for a few hours then Dynasty Warriors 9 might be exactly what you’re looking for. There is a remarkable amount of mindless joy that can be had in moving from one objective to the next with little regard for your own safety, unleashing martial and mystical fury on all those who dare to stand in your way. Unfortunately, that’s all that this game has to offer when it comes to its core gameplay experience. The character progression system is rudimentary at best and the crafting mechanics appear to have been implemented just so that the developers could check it off their to-do list. The story mixes camp acting and cheesy rock music in typical 80s/90s Saturday morning cartoon style, which does have a certain appeal but I suppose in the intervening years my tastes have changed and evolved to where that’s not enough to hold my interest like it used to.
The rest of the game may be objectively lacking but the combat is far from disappointing. It’s the same button mashing free for all that I remember so fondly, and carving my way through hordes of enemy soldiers is as satisfying as you would imagine. Watching entire formations crumble before me with just a few deft sword swipes and juggle combinations never really gets old. Without question, the combat mechanics are incredibly simplistic but there is a surprising amount of finesse required to successfully navigate through any given engagement.
Well, as much as is possible hammering a couple of buttons. The various officer types and named characters that support the troops around them are integral to morale and eliminating them results in a much faster and more efficient victory. It is entirely possible to play the game as if you’re a one-man army and, in truth, your own soldiers are little more than fodder. Yet if you follow them along the lines and assist them when necessary in capturing bases and outposts, then not only do the battles feel more similar to previous games but you do get the impression of being in a gigantic province-spanning war. It’s by no means perfect but it does at least try to expand the gameplay outside the stage-by-stage design philosophy that I remember.
For all that though the game is sadly let down by its many failings. Yes, there’s a certain rustic charm to the graphic and art style that immediately triggers waves of nostalgia for the older games, but that fades quickly when you realize how flat and featureless the landscape of the game world really is. Open worlds may be popular on the modern market, but their popularity can only carry them so far. Don’t get me wrong I’m always glad to be presented with the opportunity to explore strange new worlds, but in order for them to grab my attention, they have to be more than just drab backdrops. Essentially that’s all the environment is in this game. It’s just there. The developers have paid lip service to the basics that we have all come to expect from such experiences.
There are towers to climb, animals to hunt, resources to gather for crafting, and locations to discover but none of them ever really feel significant or worthwhile. They’re only present to tick boxes on a design brief and nothing more. Which is such a huge shame as when I first heard that Dynasty Warriors 9 was going to be an open world, I was more than just intrigued, I was genuinely excited. The chance to roam around the provinces of ancient China was a captivating idea. Unfortunately, it’s an idea that failed miserably to live up its promise. On the whole, I would say that’s the worst thing about this game. There’s nothing wrong with a game not being big budget or cutting edge, but there are ways to do it without the end result feeling so comprehensively lackluster as was recently seen with Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
It’s not just the environments that are bog standard. Buildings and strategic emplacements seem to just spring up out of the ground in the middle of nowhere like unexpected traffic bollards. Trees look like they have been dropped into the world with no concept of how to make vegetation and foliage seem like they belong in a particular location. There is variation in terrain types and weather patterns but they never approach being anything as atmospheric or engaging as they should be, and are of such low quality that they might as well be from two generations ago. The game can’t be faulted for its sense of scale though, with the huge tracts of land opening up between objectives actually going some way to giving a legitimately decent impression of true geographical distances. It’s just a shame that there is so very little to take up all that needless space. On the whole, it seems like the designers over at Omega Force went to all the right classes but just didn’t learn anything. The sheer number of missteps in this title makes me wonder why they didn’t take more cues from the generally well-received Hyrule Warriors when considering the best approach to their flagship series.
Progress through the campaign is broken down into individual missions that entail little more than running from one place to another, killing a particular enemy and then moving on to the next with little to no variation beyond the odd escort quest and the like. You could argue that’s essentially the premise of all such open-world titles, and I would, in part, agree with that assessment, but the devil really is in the details and without variations on the theme or anything to catch the eye or endear the heart to the world, it’s difficult to feel anything other than frustration and ambivalence toward it. Having said that though, I’m under no illusions that Dynasty Warriors 9 is anything other than an arcade pseudo-simulation of large-scale warfare and, as such, expecting anything other than the basics that apply to that particular style is a little unrealistic. Would it be nice if the game was a little more feature rich and fully fleshed out? Yes, of course it would. But this is the series’ first attempt at making the transition to an open world format and such a massive undertaking was bound to present a hurdle that even the mighty and fearsome Lu Bu would stumble over.
Can I recommend this game? Yes, if you’re a fan of the franchise. Would I suggest that you purchase it at full price? Definitely not. My advice would be to wait for the retail price to drop or buy it on sale when you can. For what it’s worth, a game like this could never be considered a AAA title, and I doubt that the developers would ever hold to such pretensions, but in that case, it should have definitely been released at a more realistic price point. Given the series blatantly obvious degradation over the years and the plethora of obtrusive bugs, it would have been more fitting for this game to have been available as a budget release. I hope that Omega Force learn from the justifiably negative press that the latest outing of the franchise has received almost across the board and abandon their production of endless sequels, tie-ins, and spin-offs in order to reallocate appropriate talent and resources to make the next main entry in the series a game truly worthy of its own dynasty.