In many ways, Dynasty Warriors' long running Empires spin-off series is more refined than the set of original games that form their basis. Typically, they add in new characters, weapons, and stages, overhaul a few mechanics, and overlay everything with relatively simple strategy elements. Indeed, Empires games are known for being stuffed full of content and replay value – and the latest instalment is no different. In fact, Dynasty Warriors 7: Empires might just be the deepest and most expansive game yet.
Like the titles that came before it, the sequel puts you in control of a genocidal Chinese maniac whose main goal in life is to unite the land, either as an officer under the command of a prestigious ruler, or as a leader themselves – one battlefield at a time.
Most players will no doubt start their ancient Chinese adventure by creating their very own character. Even in edit mode, it’s immediately clear how much choice you've got when it comes to doing things your own way. There are a ton of options to alter, from hairstyles and physique, to minor things like adding scars and face paint. This creation mode is one of the most impressive things about the game – it even manages to put similar systems found in numerous RPGs to shame. Couple all of this customisation with the fact that you can make and save up to 200 original characters – which can then be transferred into the game world even when you’re not playing as them – and you’ve got the recipe for one of the most customisable experiences on the PlayStation 3.
Once you’re done making a warrior who doesn’t look like they’ve been beaten from birth (unless that’s the look that you’re going for), it’s time to jump into Empire mode. The core gameplay is still what we’ve come to expect from a Dynasty Warriors title, and here it’s identical to the seventh, barring a few small balance tweaks. Switching between weapons at the right times is still paramount, and keeping enemy officers in the air with satisfyingly simple, flashy combos is still the best way to win. However, stage progression isn’t quite as simple as it was previously. In Empires, you’ll be capturing bases while defending your own, crushing the charge of enemy officers, and even retreating when necessary. Being able to read the battlefield is essential to ensuring that fights go smoothly.
At first, Empire mode can take a little getting used to. There are almost an overwhelming amount of options for you to take advantage of, even as a friendless, penniless mercenary. Will you join a skirmish to make easy gold? Will you search the area in an attempt to find a possible ally? Will you hook up with a prospering kingdom? The possibilities are endless, and deciding what you want to do with every turn can be a time consuming process as you scan through your potential actions.
However, the early complexity paves the way for a real sense of progression. After performing well in a rag-tag battle with other travelling warriors, for example, a ruler of a nearby kingdom might offer you a place in their army. From here, you’ll work your way up the ranks of their military, growing stronger and obtaining powerful new weapons in the process. Then you might decide to stab your trusting leader in the back and lead a rebellion against them, becoming the ruler for yourself. Again, the amount of player choice on and off the battlefield is impressive.
In one way or another, your decisions always tie into your character’s personality. Each officer has their own agenda, from being a brave soldier or wise strategist to having a kind heart or being ruthlessly evil. By carrying out certain actions, the corresponding traits will increase, and you’ll steadily unlock new stratagems that can be used in battles.
The stratagem system itself isn’t too necessary on lower difficulties, but it can get you out of some bleak situations when used correctly at higher skill levels. Few things are more satisfying than placing an ambush unit on a bridge, then luring the club-wielding warlord – who moments ago smashed your teeth out – right into the kill zone. And, like most aspects of the game, the sheer amount of stratagems on offer is staggering.
Further emphasising the consequences of your actions, Empires makes use of short cinematics which usually play after decisive battles or important interactions with allies. It’s a nice touch that keeps you engaged in your character’s story, and seeing your avatar receive praise from legendary figures like Guan Yu and Lu Bu will put a smile on any fan’s face. In that regard, it’s safe to say that the title does role playing extremely well – especially if you’ve taken the time to craft your own hero with whom you can identify with.
Unfortunately, all of the game’s good points are marred ever so slightly by presentation problems. As previously mentioned, getting to grips with the many mechanics at your disposal is one thing, but being subject to a lot of tutorial text and pop-up messages doesn’t help make things any easier to take in, unless you’ve played at least one of the previous entries in the series. The in-game visuals aren’t the best either; there are few improvements to be found over Dynasty Warriors 7. A lot of textures are still disappointingly bad, and enemies still pop into view with alarming frequency.
That said, everything manages to stay at or near a respectable 60 frames per second, no matter how much chaos is unfolding on screen. Animations are also well done, with every moveset looking fluid and exciting. Special musou attacks continue to be the star of the show, however, with each main character sporting two unique and devastating techniques that are a joy to watch. And, given how fast the musou gauge can fill, it’s a good thing that they’re so pretty.
Sadly, the same can’t be said of the enemies you’ll be up against, who can also whip out a musou attack in the blink of an eye. This leads to some frustrating moments when you realise that you aren’t equipped with a speed-based weapon which bestows the handy ability to quickly jump away from danger, and you’re forced to watch as your adversary breaks your guard and takes away half of your health with a single attack. It also makes numerous balancing issues far more apparent; while heavier weapons do more damage and have more range, the aforementioned quick jump that's exclusive to light weapons is often too good to pass up on. Likewise, the combo strings of some weapons simply pale in comparison to others, meaning many feel outclassed from the start.
In terms of audio, Koei continues its recent trend of not including an English voice option. Although the Japanese voice cast appear to do a great job, it can be difficult to read the on-screen text while trying to fend off entire armies if you can’t understand the spoken language.
Like the last instalment of Empires, there’s a gigantic amount of music tracks to choose from before heading out onto the field of battle. Fan favourites from almost every single Dynasty Warriors game are included, but if you’re not a fan of Asian-infused heavy rock then there’s relatively little on offer. Still, even the haters will find at least a couple of suitably epic tunes, most of the highlights coming from Dynasty Warriors 7 itself, which retain their powerful, monumental sound.
Thankfully, the game’s flaws aren’t nearly enough to eclipse what the release does right. Sure, you’ll be annoyed when a group of grunts suddenly appear within a few feet and proceed to stab you, but never knowing exactly how battles will play out ultimately alleviates any grievances. You’ll always be left wondering what would have changed if you had decided against dedicating your martial prowess to a particular lord, or if you hadn’t decided to execute that one troublesome strategist. At the end of the day, Dynasty Warriors 7: Empire’s greatest strength is how dynamic it is. Absolutely anything can happen, and the character-defining choices available truly allow you to craft your own history.
Dynasty Warriors 7: Empires is close to being the perfect mix of role playing and hack and slash gameplay. Despite some recurring flaws, the newest entry in the series proves to be one of the most endearing and complete Warriors titles to date. Fans shouldn’t think twice about picking this up, and newcomers might just discover a series that’s been overlooked for far too long.