After the disappointment of Dynasty Warriors 9 and its cardboard open world, we desperately wanted Dynasty Warriors 9: Empires to be good — to finally get Koei Tecmo's flaship franchise back on track. And while Empires is easily a better game than its predecessor, it still suffers from many of the issues that Dynasty Warriors 9 introduced.
Reversing the series' fortunes was always going to be a tall order when Empires is built on the same foundations as Dynasty Warriors 9 — both in terms of gameplay and technical performance. Empires' injection of slightly strategic warfare can only paper over the cracks so much, and it isn't long until you're reminded of why 9 was such a stinker.
But let's start with the positives. This version of Empires does what Empires has always done best: it allows for enjoyably dynamic, highly customisable campaigns that encourage role-playing. In each campaign, you're tasked with conquering China, either as an officer under the guidance of a chosen ruler, or as a leader yourself. The whole thing's based on a month-to-month calendar system, and you spend your time either selecting kingdom-expanding actions from a menu, or marching into hack-and-slash battles alongside your allies.
As your character gains notoriety, you move up through the ranks and you can make use of more and more actions. You can manage your territory's economy by trading or — if you're feeling a bit evil — pillaging the region's peasants. You can dedicate your limited time to fortifying a castle's defences, or you can help out with harvests to ensure everyone's well fed. All told, the management side of Empires is pretty basic — you are just picking options from a menu, after all — but seeing your kingdom grow at a steady rate can feel quite rewarding.
Establishing relationships with your fellow officers is also a big part of the process. You can go for a 'stroll' each month in order to meet with your brothers (and sisters) in arms — and you can even enlist wandering warriors who might be paying your current city a visit. Hang out with characters often enough and you can swear blood oaths, or, with members of the opposite sex, you can get married and have kids.
You don't have to 'stroll' through menus, either. Instead of simply selecting who you want to meet up with, you can exit the menu and take direct control of your character in the open world, which will be populated with officers from your army. It's actually a thoughtful touch, since it lets you soak up the peace and quiet of your conquered territories away from the carnage of combat.
Speaking of which, combat in Empires is removed from the open world that plagued Dynasty Warriors 9. We're back to battling on set maps that aren't utterly exploitable, in which your goal is to capture (or defend) the castle. You fight for control of the battlefield by eliminating enemy officers, seizing base camps, and destroying siege weapons. It's pretty standard Dynasty Warriors stuff, but after 9, it honestly feels good to have straightforward objectives again.
The only problem with Empires' tug-of-war battles is that every map ends up feeling very familiar. Aside from the local scenery, there really isn't much to separate each skirmish. All maps are boxed off in a big square — usually with the main castle on one side and a bunch of bases on the other — and the process of hopping from identical camp to identical camp never really changes.
Combat itself is only slightly more involved than it was in Dynasty Warriors 9, which isn't quite the level improvement that we were hoping for. It still feels rigid and surprisingly shallow — even for a Warriors title — thanks to the square-mashing 'flow' attacks making up about 80 per cent of your arsenal. Special attacks are still thrown out by holding down R1 and hitting a face button, but at least Empires introduces stratagems — cooldown-based abilities that add a little spice to encounters.
Collecting stratagems is one of the game's more addictive qualities. They're unlocked through forging relationships or performing well in battle, and they bring a much needed additional layer of customisation to your character's toolkit. As was the case in Dynasty Warriors 9, combat isn't bad, but it does feel rather weak when compared to the hacking and slashing of previous titles — and it's certainly not on par with the likes of Samurai Warriors 5, or any of the recent Warriors spinoffs.
It's a shame that the action is lacking, because Empires does weave an interesting and often engaging player-driven narrative. We're not saying that there's an amazing story here — we're just saying that you do get to carve what feels like a unique path through the choices that you make, and the allies that you side with. There's always been the potential for some really cool, completely dynamic twists and turns in an Empires game — and this instalment still has that.
What really weighs Dynasty Warriors 9: Empires down, though, is the technical side of things. On PlayStation 5, it runs at a mostly smooth 60 frames-per-second in its performance mode — but boy does it look ugly. Another remnant of Dynasty Warriors 9's ill-fitted move to an open world map, the texture pop-in is astonishingly bad. The game's so poorly optimised that newly-loaded cutscenes are often missing environmental details to a shocking degree. Trees become blobs of green. Rocks are just big brown lumps. Buildings are just totally flat, grey surfaces. It's the kind of stuff that has to be seen to be believed.
Just to hammer this point home: not once, throughout our entire time with the game, did the texture on our weapon properly load. For over 30 hours, our character's sword featured a blurred mess instead of an elegant-looking pattern. Crazy.
Screen tearing is also rampant even outside of combat, and there are short, fade-to-black loading screens all over the place. Again, it's abundantly clear that Empires just isn't optimised — basically all of the technical problems that crippled Dynasty Warriors 9 are present here, except the PS5's power is enough to brute force the all-important 60fps.
Dynasty Warriors 9: Empires is a definite improvement on its predecessor — but that's not saying much. The return of set maps and straightforward objectives is welcome, and in typical Empires fashion, there's so much potential for interesting player-driven storylines. There is an addictive hack-and-slash loop at work here, and it's tempered by some decent tactical tweaks. But to fully enjoy it, you've got to wade through a mire of shockingly ugly visuals and boring battlefield design.