Dynasty Warriors is a series with a lot of history, and we're not talking about the collapse of the Han. Loosely based on China's warring Three Kingdoms period, this eighth addition to the main series (which totals over thirty including spin-offs) continues Koei's tradition of not reinventing the wheel but rather refining and combining the concepts and mechanics present in the previous games to produce the absolute premier third-century Chinese warrior experience.
This reviewer's knowledge of China's distant feudal past is limited to a smattering of viewings of the likes of House Of Flying Daggers and Hero, and had hoped the intro sequence might provide some inkling as to what lay ahead. What occurred was the bombast and bravura of characters standing defiantly with the winds blowing, a horse doing a sideways somersault, highly improbable fighting techniques employed to wipe out entire armies, a devious looking man with a quiff and an eye patch, a flotilla of ships with fire rained down upon it, and all to a squealingly epic guitar solo, then boom: title card. This game clearly means business.
In essence a third-person brawler, the action revolves around key battles from the period which you fight in as one of the renowned commanders from your chosen faction. Other soldiers fight alongside you but you cannot directly influence their actions, although you can inspire them with displays of might and prowess. The main campaigns cover the stories of the three main houses, Wu, Shu and Wei, and there are also missions covering the initially less powerful house Jin and other smaller factions involved in the narrative. Each battle has the player assuming the role of one of the house's most noted fighters, tasked with seeking out your opposing numbers on the battlefield and soundly defeating them in the most exorbitant way conceivable. The game occasionally offers a branching point mid-mission where events can be permitted to unfold in an alternate non-canonical history. Free mode also allows previously unlocked missions to be replayed as either of the clashing sides, and as character development is unified across all modes, you can feel 'free' to dip in knowing you can return to continue the story even stronger. In addition to the story mode which charts the course of action as history recalls it there is the impressively-titled Ambition mode, where you start with a small camp and go on raiding missions to amass enough supplies to transform your humble homestead into a mighty base of power such that the Emperor might notice your efforts and come to visit.
Despite the ridiculousness, there is a good whack of Three Kingdoms history on show here which can be further examined in the surprisingly in-depth in-game encyclopaedia, filled with facts on key figures, battles, and a timeline of other important events.
You have two primary weapons and can switch between them at will, even in the middle of a combo. Special 'musou' moves can be activated and come in three flavours: ground, air and a special third one which is only unlocked once your character reaches a certain level. A rage gauge also fills gradually during combat and when unleashed and combined with a musou special executes a lengthy all-conquering move that there are not enough superlatives in a hundred thesauruses to describe. Once you've spent even a little time with the game, you're willing to accept the most preposterous sights the game can throw at you, so when seasoned general Huang Gai shows up with a small wooden rowing boat for a weapon and treats enemies to a reverse piledriver and a curt 'this ends now!', it should just be taken as read this is the kind of thing that happens here. The corny incongruous American accents slam home how ludicrous this game is. That said, it's sometimes interesting how western audiences can't help but view media from the east through some kind of post-modern filter because we just can't deal with their level of sincerity, and some of the nuggets of philosophy the characters spouted just prior to a special move are unintentionally hilarious. Might and wisdom together!
The game strategy is somewhat reminiscent of Brutal Legend's curious blend of RTS and third-person combat. For the most part you wail on whichever henchmen are unlucky enough to be in your vicinity, but your substantial minimap will point out areas where your comrades are in trouble and could use a little assistance. The levels can be a little maze-like from time to time but your trusty steed is a mere button-press away if you require a faster mode of transportation. The sheer number of enemies on screen can be in the hundreds as you batter whole legions with a single combo. Unfortunately this sheer multitude results in the odd bit of slowdown which occasionally spoils the flow. Pristine graphics all round have been sacrificed in order to have the massive numbers of the opposing army fill the screen, which is almost as impressive anyway. The playable characters still look pretty good and have distinct movement and attack animations.
all warriors of house Wei could fire purple lightning at will.
Over seventy playable characters is rather staggering, even if the combat can be a bit samey at times. A big complaint about the previous instalment in the series was despite the large number of characters, many of them were basically interchangeable character models, but here each one has a unique weapon set and fighting style, which is quite the achievement. Certain enemy characters will be more susceptible to one weapon over another via the new affinity system. Each weapon has an affinity of Heaven, Earth or Man (think rock paper scissors). An exclamation mark icon above your opponent’s head indicates your currently equipped weapon won't be up to scratch to take him on, in which case the prudent course is to switch as soon as possible.
This is a long established cult series which is not especially out to win over new fans, but having not been introduced to it before this reviewer found it fun and bizarrely informative, despite being light on gameplay complexity and rather heavy on spectacle. Brawlers with endless waves of henchmen to obliterate like Streets Of Rage and Final Fight used to be a gaming staple before the advent of 3D, and this series could be considered a spiritual successor to those retro button-bashing shenanigans. We've learned to accept regular new iterations of sporting franchises and certain shooters for being basically the same game with some refinement, so it seems churlish to withhold the same standards for a long-running historical Chinese fighting series. Hardcore DW fans won't and probably shouldn't pay heed to these ramblings of a noob, but to the rest, you might surprise yourself. Seriously, just watch the horse do the flip and you'll know.