Trying to describe Dynasty Warriors' spin-off Empires series is a difficult proposition, even to someone who's familiar with the franchise's main instalments. At their core, the games are the same, in that gameplay still involves hacking and slashing your way through entire armies in a bid to conquer China, but it's everything that surrounds the property's trademark action that changes.
In many ways, the Empires titles are all about creating your own Three Kingdoms era story: they're about altering history as you see fit, and as such, they always provide a very customisable experience. Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires is the most customisable of all, however, as it throws in a plethora of new options that affect character creation, how scenarios play out, and how you develop your chosen warrior. It's safe to say that the series has never provided players with so much interchangeable content, and for fans, this latest instalment should provide hours upon hours of entertainment.
However, if you're unfamiliar with the spin-off series, there's no doubt that the text-heavy screens and menus that exist outside of battle will appear daunting. The title does its best to ease you into things by having little tutorial messages pop up now and then, but it'll still prove to be overwhelming for newcomers. Stick with it long enough, though, and you'll uncover a rich and rewarding take on the Dynasty Warriors formula.
If you find Koei's flagship franchise to be a bit repetitive, we dare say that Empires may be a decent alternative. This is mostly because it can be incredibly dynamic, as warlords clash with one another in the hope of uniting China under their banner. Presented with a map that's made up of numerous provinces, the goal of the game is to conquer it piece by piece, dipping into Dynasty Warriors' hack and slash gameplay when it's time to jump onto the battlefield. In between bouts of combat, it's up to you how to spend your time, as the months and years trudge along via an in-game calendar.
When you're not slaughtering enemies, your current role determines how proceedings play out. Unless you choose to be a character who's already the leader of an army, or one of their officers, you'll begin your adventure as a travelling ruffian who's out to make a name for themselves. You can take on bite-sized quests to raise some money or find allies, or you can introduce yourself to the local warlord and become a lieutenant in their forces. Again, the amount of options available to you right from the start can be overbearing as you decide what course of action would benefit you best, but it won't be long until you're forging your character's own unique legacy.
As mentioned, the release can be impressively dynamic. Every time that you share a battlefield with someone – friend or foe – you'll start to build a relationship with them, which is gauged by a simple friendship rank system. If you tackle a mission that sees you protect a particular officer from an ambush, for example, that warrior may track you down afterwards, and ask that you join their lord's forces. And if they're not currently bound to a faction, they might ask to join your vagabond unit instead, offering their skills to use however you see fit. You can even end up marrying or swearing an oath of brotherhood with an ally if you're chummy enough, and in turn, the relationship system instils a real sense of belonging, especially if you're playing as a custom made character.
You certainly don't have to be a good guy, though – it's perfectly possible to betray and backstab almost everyone that you meet. By attempting more morally questionable quests, or choosing to spread nasty rumours among the people, you'll start to gain a bad reputation, and in turn, you'll be able to recruit similarly despicable personalities to your cause. And if you really want a hefty dose of negative karma, you can always join up with a ruler, diligently work your way through the ranks, and then perform a military coup, stealing their lands and taking their throne.
Whether you decide to conquer China as a high ranking officer or as a ruler, though, your tale will always be punctuated by some thoughtful little cutscenes throughout. These cinematics add some personality to your hero, or indeed, villain, and fans will definitely get a kick out of seeing their own original characters share screen time with some of Asia's most legendary warriors. When you're done, you'll even have the option of saving your custom character's history, which creates their own unique timeline based on key choices from across your playthrough. All in all, as far as personal involvement in an Empires game goes, role-playing enthusiasts will love these new additions.
Speaking of which, the series' RPG mechanics have also been improved. As you expand your territory, you'll be able to construct weapon forges and item shops, and the more that you have, the better your produce will be. There's an impressive amount of weapons on offer, with the most powerful armaments sporting some great passive abilities that'll give you an edge during combat, and they all look satisfyingly cool to boot. Meanwhile, items can alter your playstyle, providing simple statistical boosts, or allowing you to saddle up on trusty mounts. Animal collars also make a return, so you can head into battle alongside a pet tiger, or a loyal hawk that'll swoop in and cause trouble among enemy troops. On top of all this, the level cap's also been boosted, which lets you develop an extremely mighty warrior by the time that all's said and done.
However, primarily being an action title, statistics and weapon upgrades don't count for everything, especially if you're playing on one of the harder difficulty settings. Combat's much the same as it was in Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends Complete Edition, as you switch armaments with a tap of R1 in order to keep up a combo count and exploit an opposing officer's weakness; although, in Empires, each battle's difficulty is determined by a number of factors, including troop numbers, individual officer levels, and the territory itself. For instance, you can try to rise up and claim a province all by yourself, but it's more than likely that the ruling lord will squash your uprising with ease – after all, he'll have a far bigger army, and his trusted retainers will probably be of a higher level.
As such, you'll find yourself carefully building up your forces before you try anything drastic. By all means, you can still try and win through sheer skill alone – and sometimes it'll work if you're good enough – but the game's tactical underbelly is meant to be explored if you're to get the most out of the release, and this is where strategies come into play. There are dozens of strategy cards to collect and buy from constructible academies, and each one will give you a different advantage when used in battle. There are basic offensive options like unleashing a flurry of arrows over a designated area, along with cards that restore the health of you and your surrounding allies. In order to seize victory, strategies aren't strictly necessary unless you're testing your skills on a tougher difficulty level, but they do allow you to control the battlefield in different ways, which can be refreshing if you're tired of cleaving through army after army.
Unfortunately, this is where the newest Empires instalment stumbles a bit. Unlike the main series, Empires sees you conquer certain bases or strongholds that are dotted about the map, which eventually link up to the opposition's main camp. Once you've established a route from your headquarters to the enemy's, capturing that last bastion or defeating its commander results in victory, but there's no denying that working your way through each base, time and time again, can get slightly stale. This is partly because you're almost always standing around in one spot as waves of opponents spawn at their respective encampment, and also due to the fact that there usually isn't much happening in areas between each base. You can quickly ride your loyal steed between points of interest, and sometimes you'll appreciate the lack of action after slogging through roughly 500 troops, but with such huge maps taken from Dynasty Warriors 8, the general lack of enemy movement, aside from officers and their smaller squads, makes for some disappointingly barren battlegrounds.
Sadly, the bad news doesn't stop there, either. On the PlayStation 4, Warriors titles have enjoyed much better visuals and smoother frame rates, even when you're utterly surrounded by enemies – but Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires will feel like a significant step backwards if you've already sampled the likes of Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends Complete Edition or Samurai Warriors 4. When the action gets suitably hectic – usually when there's a strategy in play that introduces bolts of lightning or miniature tornadoes to the battlefield – the framerate can drop rather drastically, which is the last thing that you need when enemy officers are swarming your position and pinning you in place with combos. The release also looks decidedly worse than the aforementioned Complete Edition, featuring almost none of the lighting techniques, particle effects, or depth of field options that Xtreme Legends boasted. It's a real shame, too, because outside of these flaws, the game still manages to pack hundreds of troops on screen at once.
Despite being a little overwhelming at first, Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires blossoms into an engrossing, addictive hack and slash adventure that fans won't want to miss. It's a shame that the game's bogged down by poor presentation and an unstable framerate, but along with the property's trademark combat, strategic elements add some variety to the mix, and the vast amount of customisation options and role-playing systems allow you to forge a legend that's more than worthy of the Three Kingdoms.