Review: Dynasty Warriors 9 isn’t what fans were hoping for
Dynasty Warriors debuted as a 1-on-1 brawler in 1997, before taking a drastic turn for its PS2 debut. People will argue that the gameplay has been the same ever since, although, as a hardcore fan who’s been here from the start, I’d say that’s what made the series fun. You know what you’re getting into with a Warriors game. Sadly, that’s changed with Dynasty Warriors 9.
The basics are still the same. As one of the many famous generals from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms era, you’ll slice through countless armies in an array of stages. It starts with the Yellow Turbans and Dong Zhou, before the real fighting begins; it’s a routine fans know by heart.
However, staples like the Free Mode or Create a Warrior are now missing. Once the campaigns are over, all you can do is replay the story stages, view the in-game gallery of models and cutscenes, or catch up on 14th Century Chinese lore through the encyclopedia.
Dynasty Warriors 9 incorporates RPG aspects of past games, particularly the NPC interaction and customization from Samurai Warriors: Legends of Sanada. In town you can craft weapons and items, pick up new quests, boost your attacks with different gems, and equip gear for a variety of effects. And to hammer home the RPG aspect, you get to assign upgrade points earned from leveling up. These customization options are welcome, though it’s nothing we haven’t already seen in other games.
The bigger change is that crafting is now an integral part of the gameplay, especially for healing as you won’t find recovery pick-ups in the field — gone are the steaming hot dim sum hiding in vases and crates.
Five factions return in Dynasty Warriors 9. We have the leading Wu, Wei, and Shu kingdoms led by Sun Jian, Cao Cao, and Liu Bei respectively. The Jin faction only becomes available once they appear in any of the previous three campaigns, while the Others group is made up of individuals such as Zhang Jiao and Yuan Shao, warriors with no faction large enough to call their own. There are 90 playable characters in all, though not everyone is as fun to play.
Dynasty Warriors 9 wants to be accurate, so alternate stages like Sun Quan conquering everything are left by the wayside. Your choice of character is also restricted by the battles they appear in, so you can’t use the infamous Lu Bu to tear through the early Yellow Turban rebels.
This commitment stands even if you triumph in battle. For example, even if Lu Bu successfully defends Dong Zhou, the game still treats it as a loss. Despite your hard work, you will still see Dong Zhuo fleeing from Luoyang after razing it to the ground.
What’s changed is how all these battles play out. Dynasty Warriors 9 is totally open world now, which means you have a ton of real estate to roam around in. It sounds awesome in theory, however in practice it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Being open world means that you’ll be spending a ton of time riding from battle to battle on your horse. You can quick travel but you can only teleport to waypoints you’ve visited before, so get ready to pound the ground in any new stage. Quick travel is also not without its technical issues; teleporting to an area will usually tax the game’s engine so much that you can see textures slowly streaming in. It’s especially noticeable with the ground textures and is a really annoying visual quirk.
Travelling by foot or by steed gets monotonous quickly. Sure, you can collect crafting ingredients or do the boring and repetitive side missions, but the actual fighting will be few and far in-between unless you stop to engage the enemy bases or bandits that pepper the world. These are fun the first few times but tend to grate as they offer nothing new as the game progresses. You’re still killing the same bandit leaders, base officers and other ancillary enemies for little other than XP, gold, or materials. Eventually, you’re just doing it because there’s nothing to do between point A and point B.
Luckily, there’s an auto-run option for your mount. Simply mark a point on your map, hit a button, and the horse will lead itself there. It rarely works. The horse tends to get caught by trees, fences, buildings… basically whatever is large enough to block its way. The AI pathfinding needs constant monitoring, which pretty much defeats the purpose of having an auto-run. This only works well when the area is sparsely populated, which is better than nothing, I suppose.
The trademark battles of the Warriors games, where tons of enemies fill the screen, are still present. You just have to work a lot harder for them. The minor bases and outposts you capture barely have forces to stand in your way. It’s only when you’re fighting in the set piece battles or in major cities that Dynasty Warriors 9 resembles the previous games. With hundreds of enemies on the field, you can swing and slash to your heart’s content. However, technical issues mar this as well. Frame rate problems rear their ugly heads as the game’s relatively smooth (as of patch 1.03) gameplay takes a nosedive. It gets especially bad if you’re unleashing specials or the signature musou moves.
Combat itself has s been tweaked a bit, and although it seems for the better on first pass, the more you play it, the more you’ll want the old system back. Dynasty Warriors 9 has a new type of move called Trigger Attacks. These have different properties — launching enemies into the air, guard breaks, or area of attack blasts — depending on the button combination pressed, and can be done as much as you want. They’re pretty much like the special moves that were mapped to Triangle in previous games, with one caveat: it’s the same set of moves for every single character.
Previously, these special moves were unique to their characters. While they all used the same button combinations and shared the same attack properties (as above), the animations and moves themselves were all different. That’s no longer true with Trigger Attracks, even if the characters wield different weapons. That’s not exactly a good thing.
Then there are the Reactive Attacks, also mapped to the Triangle button. These are context sensitive and change from being counter-hits to finishers depending on when the button is used. While they also suffer from the repetition issue since everybody’s moves are similar, they’re also essential as they can finish off a weakened enemy in a single blow when timed right.
Repetitive as the combat may be, I admit did have fun chaining the different Trigger Attacks together, culminating in a Reactive Attack. The animations are cool and triggering those one hit finishers continues to be fun, no matter if it’s enemy general one or one thousand.
Another thing Dynasty Warriors 9 does right is how it treats the battles. You have the main set piece battle for the stage, but you also have secondary objectives that can make your main task easier. Nobody’s stopping you from proceeding straight to the final checkpoint, but if you take your time and whittle away at the relevant secondary missions, you can get various advantages that turn the tide in your favor. It’s extremely gratifying to see all the pieces fall into place as you confidently head for the main battle.
I really love the new grappling hook. It’s weird but this one single addition makes the game so much better. Wall blocking your way? Use the grappling hook. Want to cut across the rooftops? Use the grappling hook. Archers in towers annoying you with their arrows? You guessed it: grapple hook up and take care of business. You’ll never find yourself stuck in an area again, running about looking for a ladder or open door just to get into a fort or city. Plus, you can even create new avenues of attack.
Speaking of forts, that’s also one of the places where the game truly shines and disappoints. It’s incredibly fun to assault enemy cities as the fights all have multiple ways to progress. You can guide siege weapons and battering rams to knock down the front gates. You can climb up assault towers and engage enemies on the ramparts (or use everyone’s favorite grappling hook). From there, you can either open the gates and let your forces in, or go solo and take on the enemy horde by yourself. It’s during these moments that Dynasty Warriors 9 truly feels like an evolution of the series. Sure, fortress assaults have been done in the past, but never with this fluidity or scale.
Ironically, the game also shows how there were so many missed opportunities. For example, why bother with battering rams when it’s so much faster to grapple hook up onto the walls, jump down the other side, and literally open the door yourself? The same can be said for the siege towers. So why not have destructible walls you can pummel via trebuchets or catapults for some variety? It’s also disappointing to see how weak the defenders usually are. Why aren’t they firing barrage after barrage of arrows from up high? Also, the whole siege angle disappears once you’re inside the fortress or city. From there, everything quickly devolves to killing named officers or whatever your target is, which is no different than what the rest of the game offers. Simply put, there’s so little variety when they could have done so much more.
Whereas previous games took places in stages, the open world nature of Dynasty Warriors 9 seems like a massive step back for the series. Visual quality is seriously lacking, with technical issues such as pop-in and slowdowns — largely eliminated from previous games — now back in full force. Even a PS4 Pro running the game’s FPS-prioritized Performance mode runs into massive bouts of slowdown whenever there’s a ton of action onscreen.
Character models don’t appear to be as detailed as before, either, but at least they look nice. An added touch is how the characters all get visually dirty the longer you play fight. It doesn’t mean much in the overall scheme of things, but it’s a pretty neat implementation nonetheless. Unfortunately, textures are muddy and blurry, even if you decide to switch the PS4 Pro’s priority to resolution instead.
Likewise, the audio also takes a backwards step in quality. The series isn’t exactly renowned for its voice acting, but I can honestly say they used to be much better than Dynasty Warriors 9. I infinitely prefer the former voice actors for personal favorites Cao Cao, Lu Bu, and Xiahou Dun. The silver lining to it is that the new, remixed theme song is pretty damn awesome — I’d even consider it my favorite remix, apart from the original. The game also has the classic “Among men, Lu Bu. Among Horses, Red Hare,” phrase uttered during a cutscene so at least some fanservice is there.
To me, Dynasty Warriors 9 isn’t a Dynasty Warriors game. They may call it one but it’s simply not the same experience that fans have come to love over the years. We can see glimmers of it buried deep within the systems, but at it’s core Dynasty Warriors 9 is simply an open-world RPG with some of the series’ trappings. That will no doubt be be a very hard pill to swallow for long-time fans, although newcomers may find enough to like once they look past the various technical shortcomings.
Dynasty Warriors 9 is out now for PC, PlayStation 4 (reviewed), and Xbox One.
Developed by Omega Force. Published by Koei Tecmo.
A copy was provided for review.
Dynasty Warriors 9 (PS4)
was reviewed on the LG OLED C7 Television.