The Dynasty Warriors franchise has been around since 1997. Originally appearing as a traditional fighting game on the first Playstation, it has evolved into a series that almost everyone moderately involved in games recognizes. When you mention Koei Tecmo’s flagship series in conversation (previously just Koei before their merger with Tecmo in 2009), you are likely to receive responses along the lines of “mindless button mashing.” These points are fair to a certain extent. The main entries in modern Dynasty Warriors games feature large environments with endless onslaughts of enemies. This leads to some button mashing indeed, but it’s ironic how these grievances are made towards the most popular subset of Warriors games. By and large, each offering is similar to the last, providing only minimal enhancements and gameplay variations. It’s easy to clump each numeric increase at the end of the title as “the same game with slightly better graphics.” There is little reason to purchase every addition since it is generally the same as the title that was released within the past year. And since Koei Tecmo is prolific with releasing games, many of the latest end up getting a better addition in the not so distant future.
Yet, within the normal output, there is a branch of the series that remains under the radar—likely because of the confusing titles. They are up to eight in sequential naming now. Dynasty Warriors 8 was followed by Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends and finally, Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires. They are marketed as expansions, but really they are standalone titles—adding to the confusion of consumers. The really interesting thing is that the Empires variety of DW games go against the grain of button mashing. Released earlier this year for Playstation 3, Playstation 4 and Xbox One, Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires is now available for digital download on Playstation Vita. You know, Sony’s impressively powerful handheld that sees only a handful of physical releases per year (only a slight exaggeration).
For those unfamiliar with the concept of Empires, conventional gameplay from the series is present but it’s layered in strategy. Before combat, players are tasked to pick troops, weapons and items, and also a battle strategy. The combat itself is still hack and slash, but with the preemptive menus before taking on foes, Dynasty Warriors becomes a unique hybrid of action and strategy. Unfortunately, like the previous Empires entry, little has been added here. The main addition is the added element of marriage and children which feels like a nod to Fire Emblem.
You have two choices. Either you are a steadfast supporter of the highest ranking generals—a mere servant, or you can play rogue. Choosing to be a servant allows the possibility of stabbing them in the back, but playing as a freelance mercenary is ultimately more rewarding. You set up your own camp and recruit your own followers. Instead of being one of the underlings, you are the boss, the one who receives bows instead of getting on your hands and knees. The overarching story is unifying China. You can do this by picking battles wisely, form allies and make enemies while maintaining a high moral compass, or you can go the route that seems more apt for a rogue-like character: go full on dictator and take everything by force. If you choose the route of setting up your own shop, I for one feel as if you will inevitably desire control given your out of the gate choice.
The writing is serviceable and the dialogue fits well with the atmosphere and climate, but like all of these games, the story isn’t what brings gamers in. A franchise that releases what seems like biannual entries isn’t too concerned about a well thought out and deep story arc. Either way, the concept is enough to interest players at the get-go. However, what keeps them coming back for more is satisfying gameplay.
Empires mixes strategy and action in good proportions. Occasionally, the pre-battle menus seem to drag but the refreshing break of combat that soon follows helps ease these complaints, especially since you see how your decisions effect the outcome of battle. It’s not mindless strategy. If you don’t pay attention to where you position troops or the gear you bring with you to the battlefield, you aren’t likely to have a lot of success, even if you are the best button masher in the world. At times, it has a Civilization feel. Not only are you preparing for battle but you are building an Empire. Politics and interpersonal relationships are key. The element of marriage and children makes these relationships far more important and intriguing. This little feature has the ability to attach players to characters on a deeper level—a sort of shortcut to player emotion in a game with a mediocre story.
On Vita, character models are smooth and environments are only slightly below that of the Playstation 3. The handheld keeps the frame-rate steady, only dipping when surrounded by swarms of enemies. All in all, the Vita version holds up well. Obviously it isn’t as pretty as the Playstation 4 or Xbox One iterations, but the quality hasn’t been significantly hampered with the handheld port. It proves to be another notch in the Vita’s belt for its ability to provide full console experiences on the go.
Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires is further evidence that the hack and slash series has a little more depth than most people think. It’s the best subset of DW games with the most variety and replay value. That being said, the blend of strategy and action will only appeal to certain groups of gamers. As a strategy title it is extremely in depth, but when the battles actually start, it reverts to the same button mashing that has defined the series’ public perception. Strategy enthusiasts will likely enjoy the rich detail and customizations, but when it comes to combat, those decisions may feel underwhelming. Fans who enjoy button mashers and the traditional entries to the series will be turned off by the gaps in action to hold council over your troops. It’s certainly a niche title. There isn’t much out there like it given its hybrid approach and presentation. Despite its limited audience, for those who embrace it, Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires is a solid and rewarding experience.
A PSVita Copy of Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires was provided by Koei Tecmo for the purpose of this review