Koei seems like a company that makes a living making nothing but games based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I’d played both its signature strategy game as well as stuff like Nobunaga’s Ambition early in my PC-gaming career, but I’ve never actually played anything in its Dynasty Warriors series though I understand that this is where the bulk of their sales in the modern era comes from. Since a PC port of one its newest versions is now available on Steam, I thought I’d give it a shot.
Just in case, you don’t know what this series is about, it’s an action game in which you play characters from the Three Kingdoms era roughly following the story of the novel. It’s pretty similar to the Star Wars Battlefront games which I’ve played before. You have a large level filled with many AI-controlled soldiers fighting for both sides. These peons keep spawning throughout the entire battle. You play a hero-type character who needs to run around the level to complete key objectives, which typically involve defeating enemy heroes. Characters progress under a highly simplified RPG-type system, becoming more powerful as they gain levels. You can also equip them with better weapons that drop or that you buy or craft.
The combat mechanics are the usual fighting game stuff, down to an energy meter that refills as you kill enemies and that you can spend to unleash special attacks. What makes this series stand out is that there can be thousands of combatants in a level, so many that they literally fill the entire screen. The hero characters are all superhumanly strong of course so the lowly peons are no threat at all regardless of numbers. You kill large numbers of them with every sweep of your weapon and send entire mobs flying away with special attacks. More than any other title, including Western ones, this game makes you feel like an insanely overpowered superhero. So long as you play at anything below Chaos difficulty, even the enemy heroes aren’t much of a challenge, provided that you’re careful to keep from being mobbed.
For extra fun, there are a ton of characters to play. I looked up and saw that there are a total of 82. Each character can actually use any weapon and movesets are tied to weapons, not the character. However, each character has a weapon-type with which he or she gets a special EX attack, so you’d naturally want to use that in at least one of your two weapon slots. Due to the vast differences in movesets, some weapons are much better than others. I like weapons with huge sweeping arcs to kill lots of enemies quickly and those that have a way to quickly take down enemy heroes who are blocking. In any case, it’s a lot of fun to just try out all of the different styles. Some are pretty far-out fantasy weapons, for example: the Talisman Cards and Flying Swords.
Unfortunately the gameplay gets pretty repetitive since you’re just mowing down endless hordes over and over again.There’s a separate mode called Ambition which allows you conquer the entirety of China one province at a time. But it’s a real grindfest since you first need to build up your starting town by gaining materials, fame and allies. It’s worth noting that all assets are effectively shared between the Ambition and the Story modes, this means character levels, equippable skills and weapons. So if you play Ambition mode for a while and collect some decent weapons and skills, you’ll have a much easier time than if you started with level 1 characters with starter weapons.
If you can put up with the gameplay, at least the game has a ton of content. Story Mode has effectively five campaigns: one each for Wei, Shu and Wu, one for Lu Bu’s personal story and one for the founding of the Jin Dynasty. Of course, many of the battles are the same, just seen from different perspectives depending on which side you’re playing. I’m especially amused how each side twists the narrative to show that they’re the good guys. What’s more, completing optional tasks within each mission can open up alternative ahistorical paths in the story. There are plenty of CGI movies that help provide an incentive to explore all of the paths. You can plow a good chunk of your life into this game if you want to complete everything.
I’ve never actually read Romance of the Three Kingdoms and had only knowledge of scattered bits and pieces of the whole story before this. So playing this was a bit of an educational experience for me, plus I felt inspired enough to read through the Wikipedia articles of the various characters to flesh out the missing details. Of course, this version is even more fictionalized, for example, I doubt that Liu Bei managed to meet Zhuge Liang by beating the crap out of his wife. But hey, it’s a start. I’m also amused at how Liu Bei is portrayed as the hero here, as popularized by the novel, and yet he seems to spend most of the time losing battles and then running away.
Overall, I had a fun time playing through this and learning the story but I don’t really see why the fans keep coming back for iteration after iteration of the series.