Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: February 13, 2018
ESRB: T for Teen
Note: This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game
Change can be an odd thing.
Video games, particularly those from long-running series, are often accused of not changing things enough from one game to the next. In the best-case scenarios, making a grand, sweeping change to an old formula can be just the shot in the arm a series needs.
But there’s also the risk of a change backfiring, doing more to alienate established fans than expand the audience. Dynasty Warriors 9, Koei Tecmo’s latest entry in their core Musou franchise, is easily the boldest attempt at redefining what a Musou game is, but does that boldness equate success?
Like its predecessors, Dynasty Warriors 9 is an action game adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms -- a romanticized retelling of a turbulent period of Chinese history that followed the fall of the Han Dynasty. The core narrative follows the individual factions of Wei, Wu, Shu, and Jin, with a few others from the period before the foundation of the three kingdoms or that exist outside of the tripartite conflict. Against this backdrop, there are over ninety playable characters, each with their own story mode and ending, though only a few characters are available from the start.
What sets Dynasty Warriors 9 apart from the previous entries is its new open-world structure.
While previous games featured contained maps as individual stages with sets of choreographed objectives, Dynasty Warriors 9 presents the player with the entirety of post-Han China to explore. The landscape is enormous, dotted with cities, fortresses, peasant villages, vast plains, steep mountains, thick forests and lush jungles. Coming to this game from previous entries, it’s astonishing to see just how large the map is.
With the new open world and expansive map comes a significant change in the game’s basic flow and structure. In a traditional Musou title, the player begins a stage on an enclosed map and is given a series of objectives to perform, some optional, some not, until the final objective is reached and achieved; generally defeating a stage boss, reaching a specific point on the map, or escorting an ally character to safety. This basic flow is still present, in a sense, but it’s not immediately obvious. Each chapter in Dynasty Warriors 9 is structured such that the player is tasked with a primary objective, along with a series of secondary missions that are scattered around the map. It’s entirely possible to rush in and complete the primary objective, thus immediately leading to the next primary objective or ending the chapter, but in doing so, the player can miss out on story beats and mission rewards. Additionally, the core difficulty of the primary objective gradually lowers as more of the secondary missions are completed, representing the player’s efforts in either aiding their force’s advancement or stymying the enemy’s own plans.
A side-effect of this new flow is that there’s more downtime between the larger battles, but this isn’t a negative. The game is open enough that it’s possible to advance from one mission to the next without delving off the beaten path. Even if the focus is kept on the missions, it’s not uncommon to end a chapter with an enemy KO count ranging between three to five thousand. After putting in the efforts to clear all of a major battle’s sub-missions, it’s rewarding to ride up to the final battle as enemy officers express panic over a lack of reinforcements, dwindling supplies, and malfunctioning siege weapons.
And when it comes to the combat, Dynasty Warriors 9 isn’t afraid to make some significant, but welcome changes. The charge system of combat that was present in most prior entries has been replaced with a flow system that emphasizes the use of flowing state modifiers to stun an enemy, knock them in the air, or to the ground, as well as moves such as finishers that become available when an enemy officer’s health has been reduced enough. It dramatically alters the feel of combat, but unlike the much-maligned Renbu System that was introduced in Dynasty Warriors 6 and immediately abandoned, this new system feels like a change for the better.
Dynasty Warriors 9 is most recognizably like past entries in the series during the larger battles, where the game is at its most frantic. Whether it’s avoiding elemental magic while making the final push to Zhang Jiao or choosing whether to pursue Lu Bu at Hu Lao Gate, the wild moments that have defined the series are still present. The open world structure simply offers more options in either approaching or avoiding them, just as the new combat system offers room to be more freeform in experimenting with attack combos.
As for the open world itself, it’s fun to finally see China in a better context. While obviously not a scale representation of the nation, seeing how locations that were the settings or set pieces of enclosed stages in previous games now have a geographic relationship with the rest of the world is enlightening for someone like me that didn’t have that kind of understanding before.
It also adds to that sense of progression, particularly for parts like the march from Si Shui Gate to Hu Lao Gate, and finally to the confrontation with Dong Zhuo in Luoyang. Other moments that were represented with fanciful scenarios in past games, such as the Battle of Chibi or the escape through the stone sentinel maze, are given a more realistic touch with their locales being defined parts of the large world.
But the open world isn’t perfect. Like many games with such vast worlds to explore, Dynasty Warriors 9 has its share of odd glitches and bugs. The worst I came across prevented harvestable materials from spawning, which impeded the completion of a sidequest. Fortunately, the issue corrected itself when I saved, exited, and then reloaded the game. Some of the battles also simply aren’t as engaging in the open world context. Naval battles, while very few and far between, involve taking a small boat out into a body of water to meet up with other boats, and then jumping from one boat to another to take on a handful of enemies that can easily be knocked into the water, only to respawn on the deck over and over until they’re defeated. Thankfully, these battles aren’t very long, but they just aren’t a good fit for the combat of a Dynasty Warriors game.
The basic exploration of the open world is very similar in structure to other games. Points of interest become highlighted on the map on approach, making them viable points for fast travel, waymarks on roadsides point out locations on the map that haven’t been found yet, and watchtowers can be climbed to uncover large swaths of land in addition to new locations and material item spawn points. Many of the villages and cities are home to various facilities such as blacksmiths and shops where new items can be bought or crafted, and some of these facilities have even appeared in previous Musou titles that featured explorable hub zones dating back to Dynasty Warriors 7.
Out in the wilderness, the number of activities to engage in is sparse. Wildlife can be stalked and hunted with a bow (Dynasty Warriors 9 is, in fact, the first game in the series to give everyone a secondary bow weapon since the PS2 era), and it’s possible to fish in any body of water so long as you possess bait. Both activities net material resources useful for cooking or crafting. There are also roving bands of bandits with powerful leaders that can be similarly encountered, and both townsfolk and captains in the smaller forts that dot the roadways offer optional sidequests that mostly boil down to defeating a certain enemy at a certain location for a small reward. These activities can be fun in spurts, but unless you’re intent on getting materials for a specific item or weapon, they can be safely ignored.
The side activity I’ve found most engaging is the use of the hideaways. Scattered around the map, hideaways are homes that the player can purchase, use as fast travel points, and decorate how they see fit. Certain furniture when acquired also gives the player ready access to cooking and crafting, changing the player’s costume, and the ability to receive gifts from friendly officers. It’s even possible to invite other officers in for a visit to raise the player’s relationship with them. In a way, it’s a little like having a slice of Animal Crossing in Dynasty Warriors.
Regarding the game’s story, Dynasty Warriors 9 is one of the best interpretations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms that the series has yet produced, possibly only second to Dynasty Warriors 7. The length of each character’s story differs, with some being significantly longer than others, but the range of characters offer differing perspectives on the same periods of time, and each character has their own unique story ending.
If there’s a hindrance to the storytelling, it's in the game’s English voice acting (and all new English voice cast), with many performances that range from bland to poor. However, the game does come with the Japanese language voices, and in a first for the series, full voice acting in Chinese.
The general presentation is solid as well, highlighted by the detailed character models of the core roster. However, the game shipped with noticeable performance issues on all platforms, and Koei Tecmo has been working to iron these out. Playing the game on my standard launch PS4 with a performance patch in place, I’ve felt that the game’s performance is more than acceptable, though if you’re the sort that demands anything akin to a consistent 60fps at all times, you won’t find that here. Graphic pop-in is also common, the most extreme cases involving the smaller, destructible wooden roadside forts that dot the landscape. Riding up to them on a high-level horse at full speed, I frequently met soldiers engaging in a small skirmish before the fortifications had time to appear.
It should be noted that the game has received additional support since its launch beyond performance adjustments. Quality-of-life touches have been made to rebalance certain aspects, ease exploration of the map, and even unlock characters at a faster rate. These fixes are certainly welcome, and I hope that more are coming, as the game was certainly in need of polish at its release.
Dynasty Warriors 9 is a fun game; one that I’ve put dozens of hours into and expect to put in dozens more. Its open world is destined to be divisive, and not everyone that loves Dynasty Warriors games or Musou titles for what they are may be willing or able to adapt to the new format, which even for a series veteran like me required time to understand. The game has both incredible highs and annoying lows, and I could easily go on measuring aspects of both against each other. But with the new combat system, quality storytelling, and willingness to experiment with a new gameplay format, I’d tell any veteran fan of the series to at least give it a shot.
It’s not what we’re used to, but it is still Dynasty Warriors, if only through a different lens.
+ New combat system offers a new an interesting flow to battle
+ A vast open world based on Three Kingdoms-era China
+90+ characters to play as
+ The soundtrack offers a mix of beautiful orchestral and rocking battle music
+ An engaging and entertaining retelling of Romance of the Three Kingdoms with Japanese and Chinese language options
- Performance issues and glitches
- Poor English voice acting quality
- A lack of depth to open world activities
- Some characters are missing their signature weapons from previous entries
- Select missions don’t mesh well with the open world structure
Overall Score: 7 (out of 10)
Dynasty Warriors 9 is a fun game that has both incredible highs and annoying lows, and with the new combat system, quality storytelling, and willingness to experiment with a new gameplay format, I’d tell any veteran fan of the series to at least give it a shot.
Disclosure: This review is based on retail product that was paid for by the reviewer