I know how most of you feel about Dynasty Warriors and your opinion is rightly justified. Outside of a rare original offering (I’m thinking fondly of you Gitaroo Man) Koei doesn’t stray far from their own well worn path through feudal Asian history. But when was the last time you played a Dynasty Warriors game? If you wrote the series off years ago Dynasty Warriors 5 Empires is the perfect opportunity to take a fresh look.
For starters, the zoetrope framerate of the PlayStation 2 original is optimized to an acceptable level and the visuals have been notched up with improved textures, a fogless draw distance, and loads of flashy effects. It’s not going to win the graphics crown but the Xbox 360 definitely offers the most technologically pleasing Dynasty Warriors in years.
The other big advantage that the game has is in its Empires subtitle. Empires is what Koei calls the strategy-enhanced spin-off of each Dynasty Warriors release. Between battles of hack-and-slash man-flaying you’re presented with an increasing number of “policies” to build your army, recruit ranking officers, collect tax money from your kingdom, research weapons and items, and more. Policies are presented like cards in a game of Magic: The Gathering with shaky alliances and military maneuvers lasting a set number of turns while others increase your stats or bulk up your forces. As you conquer China’s 25 territories you’ll gain new policies and faltering rulers will call on you for aid which you can accept or deny.
I really enjoy the subtle strategy that Empires presents. It’s not as complex as Sid Meier’s Civilization and you can delve as deep into it as you want. It’s easy to spend over an hour weighing your policies and relocating troops but it’s just as easy to step aside and let your allied Generals (read: the game’s A.I.) play policy maker. After playing a few rounds as the Ruler that everyone looks to for brilliant tactical decisions, sometimes it’s just nice to get back to the action and conquer another territory.
Besides the monstrous roster of hard-to-keep-straight character names, the thing you probably remember most about Dynasty Warriors is the gameplay. Hack-and-slash by definition, there is more to it than simple button mashing but once you bulk up and find a good combo you’re pretty much set. The gameplay offers a series of combos for each weapon type, archery for the rare sniper moment, a few mounts to ride on from time to time, and the almighty Musou attack. Charge it up or let it build as you slay countless cookie cutter goons and tack it onto your longest combo for maximum damage. Empires’ strategy flows onto the battlefield as well, requiring you to capture enemy strongholds to weave a path across the territory towards the main camp. Surprise reinforcements, natural disasters, and status effects keep you on your toes as your pre-chosen policies come into play for your benefit.
Stampeding your way across China doesn’t take long; we’ve managed to finish off an Empire Mode campaign in just a few sessions. Thankfully, Koei is all about replay value and if you haven’t worn out your thumbs on the first play through there’s plenty to see and do. Special events come once per campaign and their outcome can greatly alter the game, there are always new items to research and upgrade, famous warriors to enlist and build up, and Achievements to work for (even though they cheaped out with only 36 to unlock).
The sound design — another series hallmark — is also in full effect, belting out guitar rock anthems backed by some of the most hilarious voice acting this side of the Canadian border. Bad as it may be you’ll come to appreciate the vocal cues to keep you abreast of what’s happening across the battlefield.
Plodding along over the years, refusing to really innovate, the Dynasty Warriors franchise has refined its own unique form. It doesn’t look especially good, its gameplay isn’t as slick as some, but Empires brings all the right elements in just the right proportions to offer a lengthy and fun feudal romp with the added bonus of some strategic thinkery.