Dynasty Warriors is the series that pioneers the Musou formula, letting you play as a heroic warrior while hundreds upon thousands fall to your blade as part of this wildly over-the-top and unrealistic action experience. It's worked for years, whether that be with past Dynasty Warriors games or others that have adapted its key gameplay appeal, such as Warriors All Stars, but with Dynasty Warriors 9 both Omega Force and Koei Tecmo looked to change things a bit and shake up this tried and tested approach.
The biggest change here is that it's an open world this time around. Whereas past instalments had you choose your historic fighter (based on Chinese history, as existing fans are no doubt aware) and then head into a pretty large level, here there are no menus between missions, and instead you either need to actually travel to where you need to be or fast-travel to a location you've discovered. It's a pretty sizeable map too, one that'll see you riding for a long time to get from one place to another.
The trouble with this open world is that it's not a particularly interesting one to explore, and thus it makes us wonder if the shift was worth it. Sure, throughout the world you'll get crafting materials, treasure, and other loot to pick up in an attempt to make exploration worthwhile, but not only are these few and far between, you'll often find yourself not even looking at them. As Warriors fans know, you're already super powerful from the start of the game, so it's not exactly like foraging for supplies to upgrade is your number one priority.
On top of that, the world itself is pretty bland and lifeless. There are nice little features such as farms where we get to see historic Chinese labourers, but then once you leave the interesting parts like cities you just get miles upon miles of featureless forests or wide open plains or mountain ranges. It seems like its open just for the sake of being open, and the world serves more as a distance which you must ride through rather than an organic, believable world which is fun to explore. In fact, it's often quite the opposite: a chore.
Grappling hooks have been advertised as a big new feature for this entry as well, but these don't seem to add anything particularly worthwhile to the series either, and instead they make things easier than they need to be a lot of the time. Say for instance that you need to eliminate a target in a fortress, you can either spend time taking out the bad guys guarding the gates outside or you can just scale the walls using the grappling hook with a simple push of a button. It's not exactly opening strategic doors as much as closing others.
We should mention though that the settlements and cities you visit are much more interesting than the wilderness outside, as they offer merchants and services that can help you on your journey, whether that be upgrading weapons or buying supplies like Vitality Powder. Here you can make sure you're recovered and prepared for each battle, and their visual presentation is impressive as well, being packed with houses and citizens and feeling like a living, bustling town.
As with previous games, here we take on a slice of Chinese history, and the game opens with a grand battle between the forces known as the Yellow Turbans, a rebellious group led by Zhang Jiao who is rebelling against the Han Dynasty's regime, and the Dynasty itself. This isn't the whole plot, but it's a great starting point, as after you complete one quest with one character (like returning favourite Cao Cao), you can then position yourself on the other side of the conflict as well, playing as Zhang Jiao himself, which offers a nice alternative perspective on proceedings.
In terms of structure, the narrative itself contains all these different characters, but you can only play as each character for as long as they're in the story. As such, you can only play as some characters for one chapter, for example, while another may only be present between Chapters 4 and 6. Either way, there are plenty to choose from, spanning from Wei, Wu, Shu, and Jin to 'Others', which includes the Yellow Turban leader. The narrative for the entire game remains the same, but your player choice determines where you sit within this story, which is a pretty epic one spanning the entirety of China, standing on a level with the quality offered by previous entries.
Like with every other Warriors game, each character brings their own unique style, each has their own principles depending on what side of history they're positioned on, as well as their own personality (be it the fiery Sun Jian or the eccentric Zhang Jiao), but really it's in combat where these differences shine most. Each has their own special attack and starting weapons, and each brings their own strengths to the battlefield, thus ensuring that every story remains fresh and interesting. Also, it's worth noting that favourites such as Lu Bu and Dian Wei are back once more, so there's always something for returning fans, as well as brand new things for them to find.
It's not all exactly the same in the big bad battles this time around though. Of course, we still have the power to dispatch waves of grunts with a single swipe of our blade, but we can customise things a little more. Firstly, we need to choose which weapon we want, which can be done at a blacksmith, but then we also need to assign gems to our special attacks. For instance, holding R1 will bring up a tactical menu in which you have Launch, which throws enemies in the air; Stun, which as you can guess stuns your foes; Knock-Down, which slams them to the floor; and Special, which is different depending on each character. Each of these can be assigned a gem to grant certain effects, so it's worth looking into whether you can craft these to make your attacks even deadlier.
There are also a few other bits and pieces to mention regarding combat, including the fact you can react to enemy attacks by pressing triangle when prompted, and like in Batman: Arkham Asylum you react with a reversal. Triangle can also be used when an enemy is on low health to finish them off in a cinematic move, so there's a lot more than just hammering the attack button in Dynasty Warriors 9. There's even a bow and arrow you can use to hunt wildlife or your foes... and maybe even an explosive barrel or two.
While you're often encouraged to take part in side missions to raise your level and experience before heading into the big encounters (the level requirements for which are indicated on the menus), you can often take on missions with a high level requirement just by knowing what you're doing. Going in there full throttle with enemies that can't be staggered is a bad move, but if you use your special attacks and your R1 abilities wisely, enemies can easily be defeated, and thus the game can often feel very easy at times, even when you're up against the tough guys of the world.
These side missions mostly revolve around 'go there, and kill those guys for X reason', which we didn't mind all too much. Whether you're saving comrades or capturing outposts, there are plenty of soldiers that'll need a good beating, so we can forgive a little repetition when it comes to quests considering that battering people is the main draw of the Warriors series. Luckily the quests where we have to craft medicine for people don't happen too often either.
One thing we absolutely cannot understand is why a series famous for its ridiculous, explosive action would introduce stealth missions like Omega Force has done here. Thankfully there aren't many of them, but the few we had to play through were tedious exercises in crawling around trying not to be seen in the giant open spaces given to us, and when we were seen it was just a case of moving to another side of a wall, waiting a few seconds for the alarm to cool, and then heading back in. A mindblowing decision by the studio, and one that doesn't introduce anything positive whatsoever.
The most disappointing thing about Dynasty Warriors 9, however, is the technical side of things, as the performance was poor to say the least. For a start, the frame-rate was all over the place, worse so during the tutorial, but it didn't get better for us (we played on a standard PS4). It never became unplayable, but it was noticeable throughout our time, as were the dodgy animations of the characters (like when your horse climbs up something a little steep); invisible walls; textures not loading in; and game-breaking bugs (luckily these were few and far between, and were solved just by reloading). This overall lack of polish was a shame to see, and with so much of this being so glaringly obvious, we can't help but notice it.
That said, this shouldn't detract from the fact there's a lot here for Musou/Warriors fans to enjoy. There's bad voice acting, which is pretty much a staple for the series; intense and explosive action; a varied and diverse cast of characters; and a story with a ton of different perspectives. Sure, the shift to open world wasn't really necessary and doesn't really bring any huge advantages with it, but it's a very fun game nonetheless. We just hope that it can get that bit of polish post-launch, because that's one of the biggest drawbacks of an otherwise enjoyable experience.
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