So here I am, playing Dynasty Warriors 8. As I round the corner of the ancient Chinese castle that is the setting for the historical battle I find myself a part of, my heart leaps out of my mouth. Standing in front of me are at least fifty men, all carrying spears or swords and all running straight at me. I do not turn and run, and I do not panic. I simply stand my ground until the shoal of peasants has me surrounded, press a single button on my Xbox 360 controller and wipe out over fifty of them in a single, devastating swing of my blade.
I’m not the sort of person who would ever describe their relationship with a video game as “complex”, but Dynasty Warriors games conjure up that word for me better than any other. Whilst some people are challenged by the heart-wrenching story, hard moral choices or personal tales of other video games, I remain most challenged by the fact that Dynasty Warriors is simultaneously the worst and best bits of the medium of video gaming blended into a single entity.
Taking place in a romanticised version of ancient China loosely based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dynasty Warriors has stuck to its original form and gameplay since the PS1 days, sparingly introducing a new mechanic every installment or two. The last one I played, Warriors Orochi, was over half a decade ago, but I was still able to jump right in and figure out the entirety of the mechanics in the game within ten minutes of aimlessly killing enemy drones in a battle stage. For those unfamiliar, Dynasty Warriors is a hack’n’slash game on a huge scale. You have a light attack and a charge attack, the two able to combine for a flourish on the end of your combo. There’s also a devastating musou attack. And that’s pretty much all there is to it. There’s some other stuff such as weapon switching, reversal moves you can do against enemy officers, and a rage state in which you’re even more powerful, but you could beat the game on normal by simply mashing the three standard attacks if you were so inclined.
In raw gameplay terms, Dynasty Warriors still feels like a PS1 game at times. But this isn’t what appeals to me about the franchise. What does appeal to me is the raw, cathartic power fantasy that it enables. Perhaps it’s just me, but wiping out wave after wave of identical, faceless peon with ease is, in a way, very relaxing. This is helped by the K.O. counter in the bottom corner of the screen that continually increases to remind you of your power. Expect it to reach well over a thousand on most levels.
The graphical quality of Dynasty Warriors 8 suffers heavily due to the sheer number of dudes it has to render. The visuals are serviceable, if unspectacular. Attack animations for each officer are pleasingly unique, but the series’ horse animations haven’t evolved in half a decade. Hold the block button and move the analogue stick whilst mounted if you want to know what it looks like when a horse engages in Z-targeting. There are also gigantic amounts of slowdown present on the Xbox 360 version when a particularly large amount of enemies are near you at once. This will be a gamebreaking annoyance for some, but I’m sure I am not the only one who overcame it, branded it as yet another quirky broken facet of the game and ended up actively enjoying the involuntary slow-mo that would engage in especially large scraps. That’s the sort of attitude you have to have to enjoy Dynasty Warriors. It’s like owning your first car. It’s scrappy, full of minor faults and prone to handling in a way that displeases you, but in the end its personality endears itself to the owner and you’ll end up swearing by the brand years into the future, even after you and the brand have moved on.
For long-standing fans of the franchise, there’s plenty to love, and in content terms Dynasty Warriors 8 is the best ever. Story mode is split by faction, with each being a pleasing length and full of unlockable characters and stages. Ambition mode is a new addition, and mixes bread-and-butter fighting with a town management sim. You’re tasked with building a tower from scratch, and pimping it out enough that the Emperor will come and pay the residing peasants a visit. It’s didn’t engage me enough to tear me away from Story mode, or the relentless drive to unlock absolutely everything in the game, but it’s nice to see Koei attempting something else with the model they’ve built.
There are some minor changes to the combat itself. A counter-attacking mechanic makes for less frustrating boss fights on tougher stages, and an ability-boosting “rage awakening” meter that changes each character’s musou attack and makes you virtually unstoppable. The single best update to the gameplay, however, is so minor you might not even notice it. By holding down the “call horse” button, you’ll automatically mount it. I know, it sounds ridiculous to praise such a thing, but ask anyone that ever tried to mount their horse in the middle of a crowd of enemy peons and archers in previous Warriors games and they’ll give a similar sentiment.
That’s Dynasty Warriors 8, a mish-mash of fun, brokenness and low production values that in many ways feels like the video game equivalent of a b-movie. It’s a cheap, tacky, mostly easy game that won’t tax your fingers or your mind. But that’s what I like about it. It’s something to play whilst one is hungover, or watching TED Talks on your laptop. The score in stars I afford it is meaningless, as everyone is bound to have their own, divisive opinions. The faults it possesses are large and, to some, will render it unassailable, but if you share my affinity for the cheap and cheerful, you’ll find a lot to love.