The latest entry in my favourite video game series is out this week in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea and will release in the United States and Europe next week. And I won’t be buying it, at least not yet. Allow me to elabourate.
Some might say my taste is suspect for picking Dynasty Warriors as my favourite video game series, but that would be saying nothing as my taste has *always* been suspect. Furthermore, I believe Dynasty Warriors, and the larger musō genre it gave birth to, is frequently misunderstood and sadly underrated outside its core fanbase (at least in the West). It is a deceptively accessible series with what I find to be a profound amount of hidden depth and meaning at both a mechanical and symbolic level. Furthermore, at the stage of life I am now at, Dynasty Warriors and its ilk are basically everything I’m looking for in a video game. Consider this series, written in honour of the release of Shin Sangoku Musō 8/Dynasty Warriors 9, an attempt at putting some of that right…And perhaps explaining myself.
While a major series in the East, Dynasty Warriors has an unpleasant reputation for being shovelware in the West. There are, to my mind, a number of different reasons why it has been misconstrued this way, only one of which is mild racism of the sort that would plague a knowingly-flamboyant, dramatized retelling of East Asian history to find a degree of overseas popularity. I will perhaps address those issues in a later post, but for now I want to focus on objections raised at the gameplay and industry level. Western audiences, and especially Western critics, tend to look down on Dynasty Warriors as being “the same thing over and over again” released far too frequently. Although one could question the logic behind this argument by pointing out the entire first person shooter, crafting-survival and open-world crime genres exist and are readily accepted by everyone, that’s not a line of thinking I want to pursue because (as I will discuss more later), it’s actually better to think of Dynasty Warriors as occupying a unique niche somewhere between annual sports releases (Madden NFL, NBA 2K, WWE and especially FIFA, the biggest video game in the world) and Nintendo games. Instead, it’s worth looking at some historical factors connected to the series itself dating all the way back to the first entry: Dynasty Warriors 2, a launch title for the PlayStation 2.
[Before I go on I should naturally explain that admittedly interesting titling choice. The original Japanese name for Dynasty Warriors 2 was Shin Sangoku Musō, which is still the official name of the series on the whole. “Musō” means “unrivaled”, which has gone on to be the unofficial name of the genre the game spawned, while “Sangoku” refers to the historical period during which the games take place, the Three Kingdoms period of ancient China. The telling part is “Shin”, which means “new”, “true”, “pure” or “god” and was chosen to distinguish this game from the first Sangoku Musō. This was a title developed for the original PlayStation and, while it was created by the same team and also set during the Three Kingdoms period, it was a different animal entirely, being a Virtua Fighter-style one-on-one fighting game. Sangoku Musō was localized as Dynasty Warriors, and while Shin Sangoku Musō was deliberately designed and named to make it clear to potential audiences it was a complete reboot (and indeed, not even the same genre), it was still localized as Dynasty Warriors 2. Which is why the Western numbering for these games is always one ahead of the original Japanese.]
Though a success and considered a landmark game, Dynasty Warriors 2 was soon followed by Dynasty Warriors 3, 4 and 5 throughout the lifespan of the sixth generation home consoles, as well as by numerous spin-off titles for the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable and even an MMORPG. The changes between sequels were and always have been, to an outsider, comparatively minor: The core gameplay remains the same, an evolution of the arcade brawler involving combinations of light and heavy attacks. This has earned the series a reputation for being a “mindless button-masher”, but the combat system remains considerably more sophisticated and nuanced than the likes of the beloved The Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men and Sailor Moon coin-op beat-’em-ups and offers a far richer canvas of strategic gameplay underneath.
Perhaps more tellingly, the story of Dynasty Warriors remains consistently the same in every installment. This is because not only is it set during a specific time period, it is literally an adaptation of a book: Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Written during the 14th century and considered one of the Four Great Classic Novels of Chinese Literature, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a heavily dramatized, fictionalized and, well, romanticized account of the Sangoku period (this is in deliberate contrast with the similarly-titled historical text Records of the Three Kingdoms). It’s an important book in East Asian culture such that, for example, children could grow up reading comic books about it. Many in Koei’s staff are huge fans of it, and the company had previously developed a Grand Strategy series in the vein of their groundbreaking Nobunaga’s Ambition based around it literally called Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Much of the simplifying and caricaturing of historical figures Dynasty Warriors often gets accused of actually stems from the original novel: All the game does is translate this through the lens of Japanese anime and Chinese wuxia fiction.
Dynasty Warriors then prefers to refine instead of radically alter its fundamental formula. Its mechanics get honed and tweaked, new characters from the book and the historical time period get added and concessions are made for new graphics and processing technology, but the core game doesn’t meaningfully change. On top of this, its story literally cannot change because it is literally an adaption of a book, so absolutely all of its plot beats by necessity have to be recycled 1:1 in each entry (though Koei does have fun with this, slightly altering the characterization of its players entry to entry to give weight to different sides of their personalities, and frequently entertaining numerous speculative alternate history story paths). I believe this is the reason, irrespective of the series’ actual quality, that Dynasty Warriors has such a poor Western reputation. But Dynasty Warriors shouldn’t be singled out for this approach (even if it could be argued it is the clearest demonstration of its execution in practice), as anyone who has ever played a Nintendo franchise game ought to be able to attest.
So, what’s new in Dynasty Warriors 9? Quite a lot, actually. The mandate this time was to shake up the series dramatically, the feeling being that Dynasty Warriors 7 and 8 had been too similar to each other (and don’t you dare snicker). For one thing, this is the first truly open-world game in the series, following on from the experiments in that direction undertaken by Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada (Sengoku Musō ~Sanadamaru~). All of Three-Kingdoms-era China will be rendered for you to explore in any direction at will and, as befitting the source material, the emphasis is more on creating a “mythic” or “mythological” landscape instead of a hyper-realistic, historically-accurate one. Previous games all took place on a series of self-contained battlefield maps, so the shift to a contiguous game world is in and of itself a major one. You can now choose to complete missions through means like castle infiltration (which adds an element of verticality to play missing in prior entries), assassination and altering the environment instead of just fulfilling a stock set of objectives. Other open world elements, like hunting, crafting, radiant quests and battles, inns (“restaurants” in this case), purchasable houses (“hideouts” here) as well as NPC interaction will be included as well.
Dynasty Warriors 9 will also see the first major change to the core musō combat gameplay we’ve seen in awhile. Traditionally, each character has a unique, signature weapon with an attack string made up of combos where you’d have to alternate between light and heavy attacks, each combo resulting in a different move (for example, three light attacks followed by a heavy attack would be a different move than five light attacks followed by three heavy ones). Now, however, the heavy attack system has been replaced by a new contextual action system wherein different combinations of light attacks followed by a contextual action (presumably mapped to the old heavy attack button) will each result in a different finishing move. Gone also are the unique signature weapons, replaced by a Fire Emblem Warriors-style weapon class system.
I’m undecided as to whether I like this change or not. It risks making the characters less distinct (and this decision has definitely hurt some characters more than others), but with 90 playable characters that’s kind of a risk that was there from the start. I thought I would hate the weapon class system in Fire Emblem Warriors, but I ended up being more or less OK with it because it meant I could pick a favourite character in each class and dump all my resources and energy into them, not bothering with characters I wasn’t as fond of. Perhaps tellingly, Dynasty Warriors 9 allows you to pick any character and play through the entire game with them, instead of forcing you to play through a faction’s story and restricting your choices of avatar (though naturally, in order to keep some semblance of history, you can’t experience events that happened before or after your chosen character was alive. Which also handily encourages you to replay the game with another favourite). Unlike Fire Emblem Warriors though, Dynasty Warriors 9 seems to be making at least some attempt to give characters who share weapon classes more defined, individual movesets, which is very much appreciated: In Fire Emblem Warriors, all sword users (for example) play exactly the same with only the signature special moves differing between characters.
There are also the usual changes. The game looks fantastic running on current-generation hardware, and there are ten new characters this time. The standout for me is Xin Xianying, daughter of Xin Pi, adviser to Yuan Shao. She’s a fantastic addition because her life actually spans almost the entire period of history the game covers, as she lived through the collapse of the Han Dynasty, the formation of Wei, Wu and Shu and the birth of the Jin Dynasty, who would eventually unify China under the flag of Wei at the end of the Sangoku era. This ties in nicely with the new mode of story progression: She’d be a stellar choice for a newcomer or beginner coming into the series with Dynasty Warriors 9. This combined with the way the simplified weapon class system streamlines the game (meaning, namely, that you no longer have to learn 80+ individual and distinct movesets) hints at a game that’s trying to be more accessible and approachable than perhaps it’s appeared in the past. More on that at a later date.
So all of this is very exciting. Dynasty Warriors 9 looks to be a breath of fresh air and makes a lot of changes I’m really interested in at that I think will open the series up a bit more and play very nicely to my tastes. But I still have no plans to buy it at launch. Why?
There is something else. You see, Dynasty Warriors has a very unique release model that sets it distinctly apart from other long-running franchises. This model may well be the largest factor in its polarizing reputation, but it’s also one I think more video games really ought to emulate. It can be confusing for the uninitiated to parse out, however: Not only are there many numbered entries in the Dynasty Warriors series, and not only do each of those have numerous spin-offs of their own, there are multiple versions of each numbered entry. And they tend to get released in very rapid succession. Let me explain a bit about how this works, and why it pertains to me holding back on Dynasty Warriors 9 for the moment…