There comes a time when you begin to ask yourself why you’re still playing a series of games that has somehow spawned eight main iterations and countless spin-offs while retelling the same old story over and over again. What could possibly be keeping your interest in a franchise that has done almost nothing but stick to its guns for thirteen years? How is it that Koei’s flagship series has managed to sustain such a loyal fan base for all of this time? There’s no single right answer to these questions – but it’s clear that Dynasty Warriors remains one of the only true constants left in gaming.
If you’re a fan, then you'll know exactly what to expect from this newest instalment. Perhaps that’s the main draw of developer Omega Force’s hack and slash titles – that you know what you’re getting. You know that when you decide to buy a Dynasty Warriors title, you’re acquiring what is essentially the same game as the last one that you played, but with heaps of new content piled on top. It goes without saying that the franchise is a safe bet; even if you’re not the type to read reviews, you’ll be confident in the knowledge that this latest entry is simply giving you more of what you want.
And that’s perfectly fine. In an industry where developers are constantly mocked for lacking innovation, or are striving to come up with the next big thing while their publishers relish in rebooting old properties, Dynasty Warriors has always stood its ground, refusing to do anything but please its already existent fans that are so unshakably faithful in its trademark brand of hack and slash action.
With Dynasty Warriors 8, this rings truer than ever. Building upon everything Dynasty Warriors 7 did correctly, we’re left with what is possibly the most comprehensive game to date. From new characters, stages, weapon types, and modes, to an improved engine and seemingly better production values, for many this will be the pinnacle of the series so far, providing an incredible amount of content and gameplay that will keep you coming back for more.
We’re once again placed in the shoes of famous warriors that lived and fought during China’s troubled Three Kingdoms era, where various warlords vied for complete rule over the country’s provinces. It’s the same story that’s been told since Dynasty Warriors 2, albeit with a few small changes here and there, such as the inclusion of new officers and slight variations as to how certain historical battles play out. Nevertheless, the release weaves an intriguing tale that covers the major events of the time, and is told in such a way that newcomers will at least come to know the main players who took part in this war-ridden past.
Cutscenes are aplenty, with English-voiced dialogue providing the bulk of context regarding current affairs. The first time that you play through one of the five available campaigns, the process is very much a predictable one, with cutscenes occurring before and after battles as you’re led from one warzone to the next across a map of China. It’s a simple approach to storytelling that gets the job done, although the cinematic quality can vary greatly. Some are nicely choreographed action scenes, while others are little more than awkward standoffs that threaten to get in the way of the gameplay. It’s also jarring to see your character – who a moment ago was mowing down enemies by the hundreds – now struggle against a group of peons for the sake of the plot.
Like the previous instalment, Story Mode is split up between the four kingdoms of Wei, Shu, Wu, and Jin, and each respective storyline will take you from that kingdom’s inception to one of its final moments of glory. Each chapter is told through the key warriors of each battle, and it’s up to you which of these officers you’ll control on the field of war. Depending on your choice, your role within each stage will change – for example, as one character you’ll be tasked with guarding a certain location, while as another it’ll be up to you to flank the enemy and deliver a crushing blow. It’s a mechanic that brings a lot of replay value to the mode itself, especially if you’re torn picking between two of your favourite fighters.
To top off the already gigantic mode, you’ll also be able to unlock and take part in hypothetical battles. Here it’s possible to change the course of a particular skirmish, creating ‘what if’ scenarios. While these alternate realities rely on the same gameplay as regular stages, they do offer interesting new perspectives when it comes to the cast, and fans will no doubt enjoy seeing how situations could have changed.
Playing through different levels in Story Mode unlocks them in Free Mode – a feature that was absent from Dynasty Warriors 7, much to the disappointment of fans. Here it returns with a vengeance, allowing you to replay any stage as any character, lending your strength to either opposing side. This means that while you may have been desperately defending a castle from an invasion in Story Mode, you now have the opportunity to see that same battle from the enemy’s point of view, and vice versa, essentially doubling the amount of content on offer.
The final gameplay mode is the entirely new Ambition Mode, in which you’ll be tasked with building a town and increasing its popularity enough so that the emperor himself pays a visit. It’s a strange premise, but it offers a refreshing alternative to following the epic story or manically slaughtering thousands in Free Mode. You’ll still need to take part in brawls in order to gather resources and increase your character’s fame, but the overall goal creates a nice sense of progression outside of making your chosen warrior more powerful.
Speaking of which, progression proves to be a key component of the game, as character levels, weapons, skills, and player records all carry over between each mode of play, resulting in a title that feels unified no matter how you choose to enjoy it. Whether you’re experiencing the plot or mindlessly slaying entire armies, you’ll always be working towards something – be it that next level up or that one elusive rare weapon. As such, Koei’s latest will constantly reward your valorous efforts with so many loot drops and experience point boosts that you’ll start wondering whether Christmas was an everyday celebration back in ancient China.
When it comes to actual gameplay, Dynasty Warriors 8 is very much the same as its predecessor. Weapon switching and outrageous, simple combos are still the crux of combat, but everything feels more refined, from the fluidity of movement to the weighty blow of each attack. Horse riding has also been vastly improved, as you can now quickly saddle up by holding down the L2 trigger, making rapid escapes a viable alternative to getting your head smashed in. Meanwhile, difficulty settings range from the super-easy Beginner to the deadly Chaos, allowing newbies and veterans alike to take part in the mayhem.
Since the seventh instalment, the moves that you pull off in battle have been determined by your equipped weapon. By using an armament that your warrior specialised in, it was possible to perform character-specific EX attacks – and it’s no different this time around. By switching into a secondary weapon of your choice, you’re able to keep your combos going, although now, weapons are also assigned one of three elements: heaven, earth, and man.
The affinities work in a triangle, identical to rock-paper-scissors. For example, when you’re wielding a ‘heaven’ sword, you’ll have a distinct advantage over an officer that’s making use of a ‘man’ spear. Not only will you do more damage, but you’ll have the ability to trigger a storm rush, which in addition to being flashy, causes massive damage. On the flip side, if you’re at a disadvantage, your attacks won’t stagger or deal much pain to the enemy and you’ll have to make use of a switch counterattack which requires careful timing. Because of this newly implemented system, duels with named opponents are now far more tactical and varied – especially when you’re up against more than one at a time. Ensuring that your two weapons each boast separate elements is also crucial to success, adding importance to pre-fight preparation.
Despite this thoughtful inclusion, however, musou attacks still manage to steal the show. With over seventy playable characters each sporting three different destructive musou attacks, there are more than enough over-the-top demonstrations of sheer power to gawk at with a single tap of the circle button. They look fantastic, they decimate anyone who opposes you, and they sum up everything that the series does right. And just when you thought that things couldn’t possibly get any more overpowered, you’ll now be able to make use of the unoriginally-named rage gauge. When it’s full, you’ll enter rage mode, where you’re then able to perform an unstoppable rage-musou attack that’s capable of wiping out entire fields of grunts and generals alike.
All of these fresh mechanics keep combat feeling familiar, but bring welcome depth to just about every nuance that the franchise makes use of. In that regard, it’s difficult to tell how things can evolve from here without becoming unnecessary. However, the systems in place still aren’t perfect: some movesets simply pale in comparison to others, while enemy AI can flick between running into walls for minutes at a time to juggling you in the air with perfectly executed, almost cheap offensives.
Despite always being criticised for doing nothing but hacking and slashing, the Dynasty Warriors series is usually at its worst when it attempts to add variety to its gameplay. Unfortunately, this is where the eighth instalment falls flat, sometimes forcing you to take control of unwieldy, woefully undeveloped siege weapons that do nothing but distract from an otherwise relentless experience. Likewise, coming into contact with catapults and ballistae just isn’t fun – they’ll interrupt your attacks, stagger you into submission, and leave you wide open to your opponents. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between, and it’s likely that they’ll only cause you real trouble during your first foray into certain environments. Still, they’re an unnecessary component in a game that usually refuses to do anything outside of its own tried and tested formula.
Gallivanting across huge, open maps has always been a staple of the franchise, but number eight introduces a more linear path through the raging battlefields. While numerous maps still feature some wide open areas, most of your time will be spent wading through relatively narrow canyons, corridors, and caves full of enemy soldiers – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Stages are still gargantuan in size, and their linearity ensures that the action rarely lets up. It also means an increased number of adversaries can be rendered on screen at once, resulting in absolutely monstrous battles at times.
Impressively, the game manages to maintain a solid frame rate no matter how much chaos unfolds, only showing noticeable dips when playing split-screen co-op. Fans will also be happy to know that there’s much less pop-in than in previous titles too, removing annoying instances where entire squads of troops would appear in front of you from nowhere. We did, however, notice a massive improvement in performance after optionally installing the game to the console’s hard drive – and it’s no surprise, given that you’ll have to install close to 10GB of data.
As previously alluded, co-op can play quite a substantial role if you're willing to share the spoils of war with a friend, both offline and online. Splitting the screen means that the draw distance can take a hit, but combining musou attacks with another human ally adds yet another layer of tactical depth to combat, and can be especially helpful during tougher battles.
Regardless of the title’s technical achievements, though, it’s disappointing to see that the series still doesn’t look on par with the majority of recent releases. Apart from the detailed playable character models, everyone looks like they belong on the PlayStation 2. Blurred, low quality textures are abundant throughout each stage, although you’ll probably be too busy concentrating on the colourful, exaggerated effects that come with almost every successful attack to notice. That said, this is without a doubt the prettiest Dynasty Warriors game yet, with the lightning having been improved massively since last time, giving way to some surprisingly atmospheric environments.
In terms of audio, the game does its best to find a balance between cheesy, energetic rock and the more momentous sound its predecessor strived for – and it works. The majority of tracks provide solid tunes that complement the intensity of what’s happening on screen, while several remixes of old classics will really hit home if you're familiar with the older titles. Meanwhile, the voice work ranges from decent to laughable, although sadly, this is all but expected of the franchise at this point. Until the quality of the writing improves, it’s always going to be difficult to take the discussions between characters seriously.
A stunning amount of content and a plethora of improved mechanics ensure that Dynasty Warriors 8 takes its rightful place as the ruling lord of Koei's flagship series, despite suffering from some minor recurring issues and poor presentation in places. This is the definitive Dynasty Warriors title, even if it continues to roam the battlefield the only way that it knows how.