Grumpy Lu Meng from Dynasty Warriors 6.

Dynasty Warriors – Time For a Change

As I wrote, this Three Kingdoms action game franchise has maintained enough “it” factor to keep its fans coming back for more. And it is coming back as well, with a 7th installment recently announced. Some fans remain skeptical. I’m hoping for a reboot of a series that has only touched a fraction of its potential. The subpar story and clunky battle engine could be overhauled without fixing what was never broken to begin with.

Storytelling

Dynasty Warriors deals with one particular slice of history and the same cast of heroes that fans know, love, and want to see more of. Even so, it has only scratched the surface. A proper story would give a fresh look at the era, letting each personality shine within the context of the greater conflicts.

Prior games either featured kingdom-centric storylines or an individual story mode for each person. As previously implemented, kingdom narratives gave minimal incentive to play as a variety of characters. They had little in the way of personalized content, and the few hidden battles were diversions rather than true branching paths. The overall experience played out the same every time.

Individual stories varied in quality. At best, they were unique and nuanced – at worst, stretched and repetitive. Some generals were reknowned for decades-long careers, others for a single achievement. Yet they each had the same length of narrative, which got to be a broken record for all too many.

The best of both worlds? Kingdom storylines personalized for the player’s chosen character. Branching paths would unlock other scenarios based on the flow and outcome of battle, using a more realistic concept of winning and losing. A decisive defeat could be worth a Game Over, whereas a successful retreat leads to a different course of action. In addition to cut scenes and other tailored narration, each character would get their own objectives and interactions on the battlefield. With so much varied content, replays are an adventure in discovery rather than a chore for completionists.

A well thought out story calls for a high quality script. The cheesiness of Dynasty Warriors dialog – intentional, judging from the original Japanese writing – has overstayed its welcome. Though fun in older games, it would clash with a more polished and nuanced story. The wackier personalities can still amuse even if they are no longer way over the top. Subtle snark adds comic relief and character without ruining the feel of a more serious narrative.

Gameplay

Dynasty Warriors combat is all about pick-up-and-play asskicking, being a one-man army in the context of a greater battle. Environments have improved, with varied terrain and checkpoints designed as realistic strongholds rather than arbitrary targets. Yet the combat has been rightfully criticized as a button mashfest, and battles retain some of the sandbox feel from earlier games.

Move Sets

The series has always tried to accommodate a wide range of gamer skill levels. To maintain that beat ‘em up appeal for everyone, character move sets must be easy to get into and fun to master. Other recent action games, like Batman: Arkham Asylum, feature simple controls which allow everything from basic staple attacks to fancy combos for advanced players. KOEI would do well to learn from these examples.

Due to the large cast, move set variety has been a constant problem for Dynasty Warriors – especially in Dynasty Warriors 6, where the move sets were redone from scratch and a rushed development schedule caused entire groups of characters to share the same weapon. They each had some differences, but those did not amount to much. Dynasty Warriors 6 left out various weapons used throughout the previous games, displeasing fans who expected to see characters with their signature flute, buckler shield, scimitar, or whatnot. I would argue that the main issue is keeping all the characters fun to play, which could be done with a smaller number of quality move sets.

Move sets could be specific to weapon types: daggers, scimitars, spears, pikes, shields, whips, clubs, and so on. Any character could equip any type, but they would have different ability stats for each. The better the stats, the more moves and combos they could unlock. Characters could have inherent styles of attack, from swift and weaker to slower and heavier, changing the feel of a particular weapon. Unique skills, which we already see in Dynasty Warriors 6 and Samurai Warriors 2, would also differentiate play style.

Dynasty Warriors could reconsider the concept of playable characters. Instead of picking from a forty-plus roster of Three Kingdoms heroes, you could create a fighter to serve underneath a given officer. Bladestorm: The Hundred Years’ War took a similar approach, with players creating their own mercenary and encountering famous figures as they worked their way through the game. You might not be controlling a favorite character on the battlefield, but you would still be fighting alongside them and experiencing their personalized story content as proposed earlier. This overhaul – allowing KOEI to get by with a smaller selection of move sets while retaining enough individuality and screen presence for the established cast – could be a worthwhile tradeoff.

Battlefield Immersion

Dynasty Warriors tries to simulate large-scale warfare in the context of an action game, requiring you to meaningfully contribute instead of running around on your own. In this regard, it has quite a ways to go.

Instead of reacting in a natural manner, the flow of battle tends to be scripted. Allies advance along specific paths, letting themselves get clobbered when they should be retreating to recover. Step past some point on the map, and an enemy general shows up to make a beeline for your commander. And then you’d better Run, Forrest, Run back to your main camp for babysitting duty, as nobody else on your side seems capable of protecting it. The challenges within this approach are gameverse deus ex machina rather than realistic struggles of war.

This could all be solved with influence from real time strategy games and some personality-based behavior tweaking. Some generals might advance conservatively, requiring more backup to convince them to move forward. Others might take a risky strike deep into hostile territory if you manage to distract the enemy troops well enough. The smarter ones would band together, help out struggling allies, have some sense of when to call it off and retreat. You could try different tactics each time instead of looking out for the same old tricks and traps.

Your view of the action should feel like a believable slice of warfare. Older games gave you a few flavors of peons to knock over, some more annoying than others. Dynasty Warriors 6 did far better, filling the screen with various types of soldiers acting in coordinated groups: rock throwers, club wielders, archers, bannermen who dispensed power-ups and cheered whenever you sent an enemy general packing. Even so, we see little interaction between troops on each side of the battle. Keeping a strong front line should get you some personal hordes to help out, and the more difficult encounters could be downright suicidal without your own peon army as backup. Horseback combat, still more a novelty than a staple in this series, could develop a leadership aspect. Imagine jumping on your horse, whistling for some cavalry, and charging all together through a thicket of enemy soldiers.

Conclusion

Dynasty Warriors is far from dead. Some thoughtful design choices would bring it a brand new feel while maintaining that desirable familiarity. Let’s hope that 7 turns out to be the series’ lucky number.