Just like in real life, change and reinvention in games are tricky to pull off. Go too far and you alienate the fans, but a tentative approach is just as bad. Dynasty Warriors 9 tries to thread the needle by providing longtime devotees a fresh experience, while staying close to a well-tuned and successful formula. In the end, despite some minor changes and a new and sprawling open world in which to play, Dynasty Warriors 9 - like the prior games in the franchise - is fun in the moment but ultimately, excessively repetitious.
If you've played any of the previous Dynasty Warrior games, you're already familiar with the premise. All of the games are loosely based on the 14th century Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel. They combine engagingly early Chinese history, mythology and epic warfare, with a bit of magic and the supernatural tossed into the mix. Dynasty Warrior games are hack-and-slash action-RPGs with the hook of your character mowing down dozens to hundreds of enemies with a series of stylish combos and inventive weapons. This time around, the story is focused on the Yellow Turban Rebellion and a would-be tyrant and challenger to the Emperor who needs to be brought down.
At the start, there are three playable and familiar characters from prior games to choose from, representing the Wei, Wu and Shu Kingdoms. By the game's end there are nearly 100 playable characters, and a dedicated completionist could spend dozens of hours seeing them through to their unique endings. Only a few characters are new, while the most of them are carryovers from the previous games in the series. Unfortunately, with the exception of their sometimes distinct weapons, there simply isn't much more than a cosmetic difference between the characters, with move sets and combos being essentially the same.
The action in Dynasty Warriors 9 is fast, beautifully fluid and not terribly complex, with the addition of a new stealth/grappling hook mechanics, and a special finishing move combo chain that sends enemies soaring into the sky. For a while, the act of plowing through vast numbers of soldiers seems like it can't possibly grow old, but it does. Ironically, the more singular boss battles are more interesting - and much more challenging - than the big, repetitious set piece battles. Unfortunately, defeat in a boss battle means a restart at a story checkpoint, often distant from the boss and a run back through a number of skirmishes again. Unlike prior installments, Dynasty Warriors 9 is a single player only game.
The biggest change to the Dynasty Warriors formula is the enormous open world, which both changes the flow and structure of the gameplay, and provides the game's biggest disappointment. Villages and cities are hubs the game's main story and missions arise from, where the crafting is done, and where some of the most epic boss battles take place. The vast open world is crisscrossed by roads and hundreds of smaller encounters, brief side-missions, and an abundance of crafting materials. It may be one of the largest open worlds ever created, but sadly one of the least interesting. Almost entirely empty of engaging content and often primitively textured and visually bland, Dynasty Warrior 9's open world is the very definition of the adage "just because you can doesn't mean you should." The presence of so many remarkable open worlds in big-budget games - from Assassin's Creed to Horizon: Zero Dawn -makes this one seem unfinished. While horse and fast travel nodes help, a lot of time is still spent traversing the rather lifeless landscape.
Dynasty Warrior 9 doesn't feel like much of a audiovisual leap from the previous installment. The character models look good but only moderately better than before and still voiced with the same bland indifference that has long characterized the franchise. The actual writing and dialogue fare better, with a good deal of Chinese history and political intrigue tossed in. Like much of the voice work in the battles, the music began to become gratingly repetitious a very few hours into the game.
Although Dynasty Warriors 9's hack-and-slash fighting is fun for a while, and it contains a deep roster of characters, a sprawling story and an even larger landmass to explore, it's hard not to conclude that the franchise is in need of a more radical re-imagining than this installment provides. While there is challenge to be had in the boss fights and the carnage of the large-scale battles, Dynasty Warriors 9 feels awfully familiar.