KOEI’s long-running franchise of ancient Chinese beat ‘em up mayhem is a series that people either get or they don’t. Detractors seem loath to find anything redeemable among the downsides. The gameplay is repetitive! The dialog is corny! The storyline never changes!
That’s true, but only to a certain extent. And there are times when a game’s appeal is more than just the sum of its parts, especially when said parts have a charm all their own.
A Unique Flavor of Modernized History
Dynasty Warriors tells of the conflicts between warlords in the Three Kingdoms period of ancient China. The games’ design choices blend period influence with anachronistic liberties, entertaining modern audiences while evoking the weight of history and culture behind this iconic era.
Most of the characters are historical figures, drawn with varying degrees of influence from records and popular media – especially the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. They range from the gruff, the stoic, and the mature to lovable oddballs, squeaky girls, and wisecracking twentysomethings apparently transplanted from some modern day college. Representing various degrees of badassery, comic relief, and dramatized plausibility, this enormous ensemble cast brings enough of the serious business while preventing the tone from getting too overwrought. Dynasty Warriors characters are more than just move sets and catch phrases. With a combination of gameplay interest and influence from their history, legends, or other portrayals, they endear themselves to fans who look forward to their incarnations in future installments.
The audiovisuals continue this blend of the vintage and the new. In older installments, character costumes take significant design cues from period armor and attire. Though many of the styles and garments were invented in dynasties well after the Three Kingdoms era, they are classic enough to provide a historical feel to present-day audiences. The soundtracks mix hard rock guitars with flutes, chimes, and pentatonic scale melodies inspired by traditional Chinese music. And they sound good enough to have earned a permanent spot in my casual listening rotation.
I knew nothing about the Three Kingdoms era before getting into these games. I wasn’t even aware that it had actually happened. Though the name had some vague familiarity, I imagined it as a Chinese analog to Arthurian legend or some other popular mythology. The better Dynasty Warriors story modes provided a reasonable enough overview to pique my interest in the actual events and the people behind them.
Easy to Pick Up, Fun to Master
Pick a character. Run around the battlefield. Mow down peons. Face off with the enemy general charging your way. You’re basically a superhero, and some of us don’t think that ever gets old. Especially because it takes some time to get there as you level up each character to acquire new moves, stronger weapons, and other perks to pump them up. This role-playing element adds a sense of progression to the standard flow of finishing battles and story modes.
A range of difficulty levels encourages the newest of newbies while challenging advanced players to step up their skills – and to show the rest of us how it’s done. Character move sets are comparatively simple for the action genre, but that helps to make them accessible.
Hamming It Up
Dynasty Warriors enjoys a degree of infamy for corny lines, laughable voice acting, and personalities taken way over the top into Flanderization. More often than not, that’s all part of the fun. Gluttonous megalomaniacs, simple-minded food fanatics, religious cult leaders speaking in warbled falsetto – love them or hate them, they add to that entertaining sense of variety touched on earlier. Some of the scripting and delivery may be just plain bad, but it can also be unintentionally amusing. I’ll spare the whine if I like the cheese, and KOEI’s brand thereof has its own special charm.
The Critics Have a Point
Is there room for improvement? Of course – especially after the disappointment of Dynasty Warriors 6, a rushed reboot which took away much of the expected variety in gameplay and storytelling. I have my own thoughts on how to revitalize the series, providing a deeper look at the events and personalities while taking inspiration from action games which balance a friendly learning curve with optional complexity to engage more advanced players. As fun as the silliness can be, I wouldn’t mind a more serious treatment that retains enough of the levity. Expect some details in the not so distant future.