Beat-'em-ups are a long, fabled genre in the video game industry. In the early days they were a dime and dozen because of how easy they were to create and how popular they were for the general public. Double Dragon anyone? Thanks to the creation of Dynasty Warriors 2 over a decade ago, the genre has turned into a hack-and-slash fun fest. With Dynasty Warriors 8 releasing as the newest installment in Tecmo Koei’s renowned series, will it add something special to the franchise or just give us more of the same hack-and-slash fun?
For those who have never played a Dynasty Warriors game, it is based off the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is steeped in ancient Chinese history and legend. DW8 gives you three modes to play through: story, free and ambition mode. Story mode lets you select from the kingdoms of Wei, Wu, Shu, Jin, and other non-aligned forces to live through their historical tale in ancient China. The story has not changed, obviously because it is based on history, but it does have the option of hypothetical scenarios to be played if you accomplish certain goals in the normal campaign. Each stage lets you select from one of a group of characters.
Even if you choose the same character repeatedly the others in the same kingdom all get experience as well, which means you are not at a disadvantage when using them during later stages. Even though the mode is linear, the extra objectives to unlock hypothetical scenarios and additional stages offer a substantial amount of replayability. Free mode allows you to play through any of the stages you have unlocked through story mode, nothing more and nothing less.
Ambition mode adds a fresh, exciting element to the game. You choose a starting character from any of those unlocked and have to go through various, unlimited missions to recruit more allies, gather supplies and fame, and eventually build up a large enough city to lure the emperor into joining your cause. It does not have the depth or strategic elements of a Romance of the Three Kingdoms title but it adds a breath of fresh air for those getting bored or burnt out of story mode. It also allows you to customize the challenge to suit your play style by being allowed to select the difficulty of the battles, each and every time. Additionally you can go on an iron man streak, continuously entering battle after battle instead of returning to your base. Doing so multiplies your reward, and also unlocks extra goodies like weapons, animals, and emblems for yourself and the base. Once you've recruited more allies you have the option of changing to that character, eventually allowing you to play as anyone on the cast.
The series was always known for its rock and roll riffs mixed with Chinese themes to make the soundtrack more exciting and engaging. This time around they have outdone themselves and have given more depth to the soundtrack. Instead of over 20 generically-sounding rock riffs that could go with any stage they instead paid more attention to detail, trying to bring out the emotional impact of certain stages. One example was the Battle of Fan Castle. The track's somber cords help denote the eventual emotional ending and hammer home the struggle to fight fate in vain, for those who already know what happens.
Graphically the game looks clean and crisp. It isn't a huge leap over previous new releases in Tecmo Koei’s related series like Samurai Warriors 3: Empires or One Piece, but it does the trick. With a huge and continuously expanding cast of characters, it is a welcome sight to see they are getting the star treatment and looking different than everyone else. This can’t be said about the NPC commanders though, which is a shame that after so many sequels and spin-offs of the game they cannot add an extra half-dozen character models to spice things up. The design team puts in a lot of effort to change up all the stages with every sequel, but it is perplexing that they cannot add a little more diversity in this department in order to give it that triple-A finish and shine.
Speaking of characters, another ten new additions are added in this installment bringing the total up to over seventy to choose from. In past titles one of the problems, like with any game, is some characters are overpowered or underpowered due to their move sets. Thankfully the ability to use any weapon in the game for any character has returned, allowing people to play as their favourite character without getting depressed he or she is worthless compared to others. New attacks, the ability to use a rage attack from the ground, air, and standing, and a weapon affinity system all add spice to the repetitive gameplay. Skills also give a lot of customization to the player and are important since everything in the game crosses over from mode to mode. Level up a character in ambition mode and he is buffed out for story mode. Spend time getting skills in free mode and they are able to be exploited in ambition mode. It is a small, but important aspect of the game that helps reduce the mindless grinding.
At the end of the day though this is a Dynasty Warriors game, and it still uses the same set-in-stone formula that has made it so divisive since the second game in the franchise. You still run around a battlefield slaying thousands of enemies at a time with very little strategy and in a mindless haze of glee and ecstasy. Those are what beat’em up, hack and slash games are about. Fans of the series will automatically love it, and haters will automatically hate it. For those who are undecided there are enough tweaks and new additions to this release that you should give it an honest shot.
Dane Smith is the Japan editor for PlayStation Universe. When not out on the streets of Nagoya wondering why no one is looking for a Yakuza-style showdown, he can be found cracking open the newest RPG to hit the shelves. You can follow him on Twitter or read some of his past musings.
-The Final Word-
Dynasty Warriors 8 adds in new features and options to the long-running franchise to breathe new life into the game. Fans, get ready for the best experience in the series since DW3. An instant buy for any KOEI fanatic.