“Piece by Piece” will be a unique segment for me. It will be very rare, as it can only apply to long runners like the subject here, Dynasty Warriors. By virtue of either not lending itself to analysis, or just needing a more specialized breakdown, games in this article are not reviewed so much as they are observed. Judgement will still be rendered, but not in the definitive “score” format I use elsewhere. In this, we will look at what the newest installment did right, and what it did wrong. And when all is said and done, we will determine whether or not this was a step forward for the series, a step back, or a step in no direction (more of a hop, really).
So what is Dynasty Warriors? It is a hack and slash game set during the “Three Kingdoms” period of China (184 AD-280 AD). To be more specific, though, it is based off of “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, a quasi-hostorical epic written by Luo Guanzhong. Guanzhong took the actual battles and historical figures, and made them mythic by adding even more amazing feats and occurences to an already historic time. His efforts payed off, as “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is considered one of the four great novels of Chinese literature, right up there with “Journey to the West” and “The Water Margin”.
However, even without the embellishment, the Three Kingdoms period is a fascinating little slice of history. It came after the fall of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) and was marked by nearly 100 years of ceaseless death and chaos as, without a central power to keep the peace, the land split and the titular kingdoms, Wu, Shu and Wei, emerged from the ashes of the Han and battled for supremecy. Certain records place the population drop from the beginning to the end at nearly 34 million (from 50 million to 16 million). It was a time of powerful men with powerful ideas, of breakdown and reform, and of great heroes and villains. Hell, it was even a time of progress: early forms of the wheelbarrow, repeating crossbow, meatless bun, hot air baloon, and even the “South Pointing Chariot” (once set, it would always point south, making it essentially the first non-magnetic compass) all first appeared in this era.
So with the oodles of fascinating people and things, it naturally lends itself to games quite well. In DW, you are dropped into a battlefield as one of the larger-than-life heroes of the time, and try to carve your way through the battlefield to lead your allies to victory. And carve you will. The object is to cut enemy soldiers down until you can find your way to the commander, and cut him down too. There are wrinkles thrown in, of course. The battlefield dynamic is constantly changing, plus you need to make sure your commander doesn’t go down himelf. But generally, the hacking and the slashing is all you need to succeed. Adding to this is a wildly anachronistic soundtrack, one that is equal parts unfitting and awesome if it suits your taste.
And it is this simplicity that fosters the deep, chasm-like divide between players. On one end, you have people who enjoy it for the setting, the music, the larger than life characters, and the cathartic, simple gameplay. And there are others who decry it for those exact reasons, calling it shallow and repetitious to an unforgivable degree. Me, I love the series, which is why I am able to do this segment.
Which brings me to the topic at hand: Dynasty Warriors 7. Released about 3 weeks ago, DW7 is the latest in the long running series, and only the second numbered installment on a current gen system (6 being the other). DW7 promised major changes to bring the series into the new world, such as multiple weapons for each character and the introduction of an entirely newe side (The Jin Dynasty), and changed it did. But how much of it was for the better?
Warning: This is a LONG article, as I go into many of the game’s aspects in-depth. So if you are curious enough about the game’s strengths and weaknesses, then read on. Just know what you’re getting yourself into…
Story Mode: The DW series has had several single player modes over the years, usually in the form of a “free mode” (where you’re just dropped into a fight as a character) and some kind of story mode (or, in this case, “Musou”). In DW4, each kingdom had a single story mode where you could choose an officer for each mission, and would unlock more as you went along. In 3 and 5, each character had an individual story mode consisting of about 5 missions and with narration to tie the fights together and the occasional cutscene in-between. 6 offered a reasonably long story for only about forty percent of its cast.
In DW7, you get what is called “Kingdom Mode”, which is sort of like a fusion between 4 and 5. There are 4 story modes, one for each kingdom, and each one is prett meaty, clocking in at about 5-7 hours per kingdom. Unlike in 4, you do not choose who you are going to play as in a given battle. Instead, you are dropped into the shoes of an officer who was vital to whatever conflict is currently happening. In addition, some levels are broken up into segments, where you will play as a different character for each half. The easiest example to use is “The Battle of Changban” for the Shu kingdom, where you will play as Zhao Yun for the first half as he races through the enemy lines to save his master’s son, and as Zhang Fei in the second half, as he covers Zhao Yuns retreat.
At first, I was kind of irritated by the idea. After all, it seems kind of counterintuitive to limit my character choices to those of the game, doesn’t it? But the further I went, the more I realized that by doing this, the game was forcing me to see it’s story from many different angles, something impossible with such a freewheeling approach to story. Before, when everyone had their own, it was impossible to tell a truly cohesive tale since all the stories lacked both length and complexity. By unifying them, you can tell the stories of the characters not only as themselves, but as parts of the bigger whole represented by their kingdom.
The story mode is, to my immense shock, the biggest improvement to the game. By giving us such a wide view of the conflict, it’s impact is increased. Furthermore, relating the characters to their home as well as their bretheren allows them to become more three dimensional. The characters seem more like actual people as opposed to just personalities since they now have a solid backdrop against which to exist. All this, in turn, makes storytelling much more effective, as each fight now carries the weight of their fates with it.
For instance, the death of Dian Wei (do not give me shit about spoilers, this story is almost 2000 years old) feels sad because we have gotten to know him, not merely as the big guy who defends Lord Cao Cao, but as a man who didn’t know what he was going to do with his life after the fighting and was looking forward to learning how to farm from his friend, fellow bodyguard Xu Zhu. And for the first time, I was sad to see his death. It was not merely a cutscene after a fight to me, but the doom of a character I had come to know and like.
Of course, not all characters get such attention. As with all the games, there are many who appear with minimal frequency in the story, and others who don’t appear at all and seem to just be there to fill roster space. But for the first time in the history of the series, I really cared for these guys not merely as historical figures, but as characters in the game I was playing. And that is an improvement that cannot be overemphasized.
Charge System Return: The gameplay in the “Warriors” games has, for pretty much the entirety of its existence, operated on what is called the “Charge Attack” system. It’s quite simple: you get a chain of “normal” attacks (say, the square button on a PS2 controller) and a charge button (say, triangle). Pressing square “x” number of times and then triangle will give you different results. So pressing triangle alone might give you a strong sword swing. One press of square and then triangle will give you a sort of “knock up” attack. Two and triangle will give you a damaging frontal strike, and so on and so on. The system is simple, but addicting. Add the “musou” attack into the mix (tapping a button when you have built up a “super meter” in the corner) and you have a pretty standard hack and slash set up.
In 6, however, they decided to mix it up by implementing what is called the “Renbu System”. Instead of the “chaining charges” method, you had a normal and a charge combo. In normal attacks, you could press the button indefinitely as the combo would eventually loop back on itself. The system, meanwhile, operated as a sort of “warm up”, if you will. You would attack enemies to build up the renbu meter, and once it hit a certain point, it would “level up” giving you access to longer chains. You could level up a few times, until you reached infinite, at which point you were wrecking everything around you.
There were two major problems with the renbu system. The first was sustainment; renbu could only remain active as long as you were attacking things. And as any player will tell you, especially towards the end of a fight, there will be times where there are no enemies at hand to kill. So an all too common scenario involves dashing across the stage to fight the commander as you watch your renbu bar fade all the way back down to one, and have to take on the last group of enemies with your dinky level 1 combos. There were items and abilities to negate this, of course, but they were hard to find. I understand that they were trying to force immediacy into the gameplay, but it didn’t quite work and therefore the flaw in the system itself was glaring.
The second problem, and this is a big one, was that the combat was BORING. Not sleep boring, of course, but in this case, the limited strategy associated with the charge system was gone. No longer did you have to think about what attack you should use against the enemy. Nope, it’s either normal chain or charge chain. This, as you could imagine, made things very tedious at times.
Combat wasn’t all bad, of course. Grapple attacks where fun to use, and looked awesome. And I thought that, were they implemented better, the special “Tome attacks”, where one picks up an item and uses a unique buffer of some kind, could have been cool. But when it was announced that 7 was returning to the charge system, I for one was relieved (although the return was not perfect).
Personality!:This one kind of ties in with the bit about the story that I mentioned. There seems to have been a greatly increased effort to give the game some personality. This is, of course, not to say the series didn’t have it before, as the larger than life characters were the main strength of the game before (for me, at least).
But now, in addition to the story improvments, the world around it seems to have more personality as well. Walking around camp and talking to soldiers before a fight is fun, and many of them have interesting little historical tidbits they share. There’s even little in-jokes for series vets; several references to the “Don’t pursue Lu Bu!” meme, and in a related bit, several soldiers who will be randomly yelling, saying that they are “Practicing for when they see Lu Bu”.
This of course doesn’t make the universe any deeper by any means, and it won’t give RPGs a run for their money. But it’s an effort that makes the world just a little bit more fun to be in.
The Idea and Half the Execution of Conquest Mode: In DW7, the traditional free battle mode has been replaced by a sprawling, semi-RPG-like mode called Conquest mode. You are given a board with hexes. Lots of hexes, more than a hundred. You choose a character and you fight battles based on the hex you select. The more you conquer, the further into the board you move. The mode is persistent, so you are free to switch to a different character each fight. As you move through, you will gain things depending on the hex: some will boost your stats, others will give you items, and still others will unlock “Capitol Cities” (more on that in a sec). In addition to this, each character has a hex called a “famous battle” hex. These will usually be a famous instance from history involving the character in question, and other times will be all-original fights for them. Beating their famous battles is how one unlocks characters not otherwise unlocked in the story modes.
Speaking of characters, there is also a friendship dynamic in the mode. As you fight alongside other characters, you will form a bond with them. As the bond gets stronger, they might become “sworn allies” who will march to battle alongside you. Seperate from your normal allies, these allies will stick close to you, and occasionally heal you if you need it.
For the most part, I love this mode. Each battle is relatively short and painless, and you get to see weird combinations of characters you couldn’t otherwise. Many who were shortchanged in the story mode get to have fun here, and there’s even a whole bunch of special exchanges you can hear between characters, something that ties in to the “personality” thing mentioned above. Plus, the cities have some really nice, almost JRPG music in them, something that surprised me. Seriously, it’s some pleasant stuff.
Speaking of the cities, there’s even a little fun to be had in them besides meeting other officers. You have your standard weapons dealer, and a blacksmith who will glean the abilities from your weapons without you having to level them up (weapons have little power-ups called “seals” which, once you unlock them, can be equipped on any weapon) and, on occasion, special guests like a merchant who sells rare weapons and animal companions (you can have a panda!). Also, you can pay the merchant a little to request aid from a fellow officer during a fight, not only helping you in battle but allowing you to build your bond with them as well. Finally, there’s even a travelling scholar, who will quiz you on various aspects of the “Three Kingdoms”, much of it information not in the game, so your general knowledge will be tested.
Jin Dynasty(Gameplay and story contibution): Possibly the most interesting inclusion to the game is the new kingdom, Jin. Now, techincally, Jin isn’t a kingdom of it’s own. I won’t go too much into details, but Jin actually rose from Wei when a bunch of Wei’s officers got together and overthrew the Emperor. In time, the new Jin kingdom would subdue the other two and finally unify the land.
For us, though, the Jin represent two very important things: new characters and new battles. Before 7, every game ended at “The Battle of Wuzhang Plains” (234 AD), which, although being a major turning point, was not the final battle of the era. With Jin in the picture, we now get a whole new chapter to the story, and after all is said and done, a true sense of closure when all is united in the end.
We also get a whole bunch of new characters, each of them with new weapons and personalities to throw into the mix. It might be because they are younger and “more inventive” as it were (actually, a major theme of the game is one of progress: even though the rulers of the three kingdoms were progressive when compared to the Han Dynasty, are they still too idealistic to fix what needs to be fixed?), but the Jin characters have more…unique weapons as their primaries. A gattling gun, a drill spear (*coughTadakatsuHondacough*) magic floaty swords, the selection does away with the veneer of reality the others had. But still, they add a lot of new blood and style to the game, so it’s all good.
Solid Music and the Best Voice Acting Since 5: One part of the games that has been a boon for me has always been the incredible cast of VO talent they get for the games. Not content to just get any dude off the street (Okay, well, except for 3. But hey, at least that one had David Kaye!) they hire literally droves of famous VA for their games. The best DW game, in my opinion, manages to strike a balance between hamminess and seriousness. Some manage this, some don’t, but this game does it beautifully.
For this one, we get a mix of old and new. Koei standards like Kirk Thornton (Xiahou Dun and Meng Huo) Beau Billingslea (Cao Ren and Dian Wei) Wendee Lee (Zhen Ji and Xing Cai) Richard Epcar (gleefully maniacal as Dong Zhuo) G.K. Bowes (Sun Shang Xiang) Dan Woren (Liu Bei and Guo Hai) Lex Lang (Zhuge Liang and Wei Yan) Douglas Rye (Cao Cao) Yuri Lowenthal (Sun Ce and Zheng He) Tony Oliver (Xiahou Yuan and Lu Meng) Richard Cansino (Pang Tong) Grant George (Sun Jian) Terrence Stone (Zhao Yun) and David Beron (Ma Chao) reprise roles from the previous games like old friends coming to a party.
They are joined by new blood, mostly in for the new characters. Some, like Vic Mignogna (Jia Xu and Xiahou Ba) and Spike Spencer (Guan Suo and numerous soldiers/minor officers) are immigrating from the most recent “Warriors” game, Samurai Warriors 3. Others are recent additions from the previous game, like Travis Willingham (Zhou Tai) Dave Wittenberg (Yuan Shao) and Kyle Hebert (Sima Yi and Ding Feng). And still others are completely new, like Kari Wahlgren (Bao Sanniang) Quinton Flynn (Zhong Hui) Josh Grelle (Sima Shi) and Kaiji Tang (Sima Zhao). But of course, as usual I must mention Jamieson Price as Lu Bu, that engine of destruction and terror. Lu Bu must be, in every way, terrifying to confront, and Price’s epically booming voice makes him, quite literally, perfect for the role, and he performs it incredibly, making his every proclamation awe-inspiring.
As for the music, I can gladly say that despite my early misgivings, it is actually quite good. Granted, it doesn’t reach the amazing heights of 3 or 5, but it definitely does its job and has its own unique sound, relying more on guitar riffs than 6 and being more fast paced than 5. Although most of the score is merely “Solid”, there are some standout tracks like “Crossing the mountains”, “Isolation”, “Manly Roar”, “The Epic Man”, “Entrusted Hope” and “Frenzy Moon”, with several others who’s names escape me also being cool.
Okay, now we get to the sad part. For all it did right, Dynasty Warriors 7 also did a lot wrong.
The Other Half of the Execution of Conquest Mode (related issue: no leveling up): First, let me take a moment to explain the “skill points” system. There is no technical “leveling up” in DW7. Instead, you have a small tree of skills that you spend points to unlock abilities on. It is through this system that you access additional skills like a second musou attack, additional combo chain pieces, and unique character skills like elemental resistance or weapon mastery. Now that we know that, let’s move on…
So you’ve unlocked a character by beating their famous battle? Great! Now what? Well, you have to go through the tedious process of playing the lower-difficulty battles AGAIN to level them up to the point where they can compete in the higher battles. This is actually a pretty severe problem with conquest mode that inhibits the use of characters that weren’t in story mode pretty badly, not to mention stunting the process of conquest mode as a whole.
In story mode, everyone gets skill points equally, a standard number that builds up as you go through battles. So even if a character comes in towards the end, he has as many skill points to allocate as if he had been playing the whole time. In conquest mode, not so much: no matter how far you are into the mode, once you get a character, you gotta start from square one.
This problem is exacerbate by the lack of proper leveling up. In the previous installments, you gained points after each fight that would level you up, beefing up your attack, defense, life, etc. In DW6, it was slightly different, as in addition to the leveling up, it had a tech tree of it’s own, with the major difference from the one here being that it also had stat upgrades, not just abilities. Due to this system, in the other games, at least the ones where not everyone had their own story, the issue of leveling up could be rectified by playing a few battles to beef the character up so they can survive, then go at some of the harder battles for fun. All this was helped by little attack and defense upgrades that enemy officers would sometimes drop when you killed them.
This solution is ruined by 7’s removal of the level up system. Instead, you are completely reliant on enemy stat item drops and skill upgrades, with minimal ability to upgrade your stats through battle. This makes proceeding through conquest mode with any of the roughly 35 characters who don’t appear in story mode (and even some of the ones who were only in early story mode fights) annoying as all hell. As a side note, this also makes your KO count in battle kinda pointless since, unless it factors into the objective, it’s not like it’s giving you EXP or something…
Jin Officers Not as Memorable: Now, this one might be slightly unfair, since they were just introduced, but I can’t help feeling that the Jin characters feel somehow less impressive than the heroes of the other kingdoms. There’s nothing wrong with their designs so much, except most of them are young and obnoxious. But that sort of fits, since they are supposed to be “The New Generation” of heroes, and It’s not like the young ones from the other kingdoms are any better (Jiang Wei is ANNOYING in this one).
I think the problem is unavoidable because of their position in history. Let me go a little abstract here and explain. One of the coolest things about the series as a whole, at least in the ones with faithful story modes, is the sense of time progression. The story takes place over 100 years, and as such we see heroes come and go, and the world around them change. People who are so important at the start of the story like Cao Cao, Dong Zhuo, Yuan Shao, Sun Ce, hell even Lu Bu himself, all died long before the story reaches it’s climax. Seeing the different generations of heroes as they have their own struggles against each other, independent of their forebearers, gives the story a sense of real progress and scale.
But even more than that, seeing the incredible battles fought towards the beginning makes the ones who participated in them seem all the greater for it. Any number of times I’ve heard historians talk about how “It’s harder to make a new world than it is to destroy the old one”. And it was in this fire and chaos that the older generations where made legendary.
By the time of the Jin, though, things have calmed down significantly. All the great figures of old are long dead, and the world moves further from their original ideals. I think even the game recognizes this, as at one point one Wei soldier mentions that some of the young men don’t even know who Cao Cao (the “Hero Of Chaos” who conquered the central plains, and upon them laid the foundation for Wei, essentially being it’s founder) is. The fights of the Jin era, although of course being important as the lead up to the end of the era, feel somehow more provincial than the others.
So since they had no “HeFei” or “Wuzhang Plains” or even a “Hulao Gate”, the officers of Jin feel less impressve. More than any of my other gripes, this one is a personal one and probably has more to do with my love of the setting than any issue with the actual game.
Partially Cloned Movesets: All of the above issues I could deal with, but there is one glaring issue that, although by no means debilitating, is definitely a bit of a drag down on my overall satisfaction with the game. See, a big problem I had with DW6 that I failed to mention was that it suffered from an epidemic of “Clone movesets”. In all the previous games, every character would have completely different combos and musous, even if the input was the same. A charge four for Sun Quan would call up a wall of flame around him, while the same command for Pang Tong would call up a centralized ball of energy.
There were some similarities, of course: most of the time, a level “X” attack would share a similar purpose between all characters (2=one to one attacking, 4=knock up attacks, etc.). But the visuals, and more importantly, the methods would differ. In 6, however, only about 16 of the characters got unique movesets. The others had to share a sort of “pool” of movesets depending on their weapon (For instance: Zheng He, Sun Ce, Ma Chao and a few others, despite being completely different characters, all share the same “spear” moveset) with only slight differences like maybe “oh, this charge has a shockwave” or “oh, this attack has longer range with this guy”. This essentially knocked out half the cast as any sort of playable, since once you saw one person using the moveset, you saw them all. Even the musou attacks, the most unique and damaging attack in a character’s arsenal, was shared with these movesets.
In 7, well, the problem is seemingly fixed by returning to a charge based moveset. But here’s the problem: The movesets are attached to the weapons, and every character can equip every weapon. There are a lot of different weapons in the game (approaching 40, I think). But there are also lots of characters, so you end up with a lot of characters with the same weapon.
But wait, you might ask, if everyone can use all weapons, then how does anyone have a “same weapon”? Well, you see, even though no one has a weapon unique to them, they do have weapons they are associated with (i.e. will switch to when they do a musou) and with these weapons they can do what is called an “EX attack”, which is usually a little extra piece attached to the end of a charge combo. Take Xiahou Dun, for instance: most characters doing a charge 2 with a sword would do a bunch of sword swings and then a final shot, and that’s it. With Dun, if you press charge again, he will shoot off a wave of fire, damaging everyone around him.
Unique musou attacks are also back in a big way, and to take a positive sidenote here, it seems like they were made even more creative to make up for 6. They range from simple shockwaves, to balls of electricity, to a man jumping on his staff and riding it like a surfboard while shooting fire at people. And with every character having 2 musous, it’s even more varied.
However, even with all the help of the EX attacks and the Musou attacks, the fact still remains that the basic combos, normal and charge alike, are the same for whoever uses it. I know this had to be done in order for the switch mechanic to work (more on that below) but it just makes the complaints about generic characters all the more viable. In some ways, it might actually be worse than in 6 since there are, in essence, no unique characters at all. I actually mitigated the problem by only using one weapon (their primaries) per character, but even that didn’t work entirely, since some weapons have literally a dozen users (swords, I’m looking at you).
The Switch Mechanic is Useless (to me): When it was first announced, the ability to take two weapons into battle was hailed as one of the greatest changes to the series. But perhaps it’s due to the above moveset restraints, but I very rarely used the mechanic. I can see some people really getting into it, but as for me, it just feels ancillary to the otherwise solid fighting engine.
In The End: So when all the factors have been taken into account, do the changes really make DW7 a better game than it’s predecessors? Well, if you take it as a package, it comes very close. It’s definitely better than 6, both in terms of how it’s conceived and how it is executed. And although there are issues with it, the gameplay is satisfying in all the ways a “Warriors” game should be. Where the game really shines, however, is in the details not related to the gameplay; in the way it tells its story, how it endears us to its characters and the honest effort put into giving us a more interesting world in which to have our battles.
And I think that really is the word to go with here: “effort”. In every aspect of the game, from the ones that work to the ones that don’t, I feel like the Koei team put more effort into this one than perhaps any other Warriors game ever made (well, except Samurai Warriors 3). They honestly tried to make a game that would both address the issues brought up by the detractors, and one that would make its core fans happy. And it is that attempt that makes DW7 among the best of the series, not because of any one aspect of it, but because of how it all gels together because of that magic salve called “actually trying”.