Ever since the third game in the series (or second, if you want to go with the proper Japanese version), Koei and Omega Force have developed a strategy to both strengthen the fan base of the Dynasty Warriors series and broaden it by enticing new players to come in and give it a shot. The main series would be a straightforward action game that has players taking one of the many historical figures of ancient China and mowing down entire armies with just a sword or spear or other melee weapon. The spin-offs would build upon the ideas and features introduced in the main series but be more thought-provoking by adding some strategy to the gameplay.
While the strategy helped the companies keep the fans that they already had, it did little to expand that fan base. The hardcore fans eagerly picked up each and every game in the series, embracing the minute changes even if it meant slogging through the same campaigns one more time. Newcomers, however, failed to latch on, citing the repetitive gameplay and lack of substantial feature changes. Despite the criticism, both publisher and developer keep plugging away, hoping that their plan will eventually pay off in the end. A little over a year after the release of Dynasty Warriors 6 comes Dynasty Warriors 6: Empires, a game that places more emphasis on the strategy involved with the combat. Fans will have already picked up this game without needing to go through the review, but will those on the fence finally be convinced to join in?
Despite being the ninth title in the series (not counting the original fighting game on the PSOne), the premise remains exactly the same as before. The setting is ancient China before and during the Three Kingdoms era, where the country was split into smaller states ruled by their own leaders. After selecting your character, you set out on a mission to unite all of China with you as the ruler. This is accomplished through combat missions where you invade neighboring states or defend yourself from being invaded. While there are several different missions in the game, each one falls under one of five specific scenarios: The Yellow Turban Rebellion, The Battle of Chi Bi, The Battle of Guan Du, The Three Kingdoms and A Land in Chaos, the only fictional scenario in the game.
The main differentiating factor of these side-sequels is the strategy involved, and while the goal remains the same no matter who you choose, the methods depend on your character's ranking. Officers can wander from territory to territory and do mercenary jobs or join a ruler's army and fight for that sovereign. Every three months, you are given the chance to complete an assignment that can increase your rank within the army if you complete it successfully — or demote you if you fail often. The assignments are also the only opportunities you have to take over other neighboring states if your sovereign asks for it, or, if you achieve a high enough rank, you can suggest it instead. During this time, you can make alliances with other soldiers and invest your funds in weapon improvements, a stable of horses, or powering up your character. If things do poorly, you can also step down from the army and become a wanderer again until you decide to join another liege.
Rulers have a much tougher job since there's more to manage. The advantage to being a ruler is that you can choose exactly when to invade neighboring nations. However, you can also make up temporary alliances to prevent any of your lands from being attacked by other neighbors, giving you time to gather more funds and officers. Being a ruler also means having to make sure your officers get paid and leveled up and making sure that your people are treated well enough that they don't plan on overthrowing you. Like officers, you can also choose to step down from the throne if you feel overwhelmed, but doing so will prevent you from immediately being a ruler in another land. Both officers and rulers, along with the roles they take up in strategy mode, give the title a good amount of brains to match the brawn you exhibit through most of the game.
Dynasty Warriors 6: Empires introduces a few new features this time around that help give the game a bit more value. The biggest addition this year is the create-a-character mode, where you can create your own male or female warriors that you'll use to go through the campaign. The changes one can make are basic, but everything from skin tone to faces to clothes can be customized. Fighting styles can be adopted from any of the pre-made fighters, and while there isn't a preview for how the fighter will look during the attack movements, at least you can see the weapon they'll wield if you pick the style. As an added bonus, your created character also appears in Mercenary missions if you didn't choose to play as them. Aside from this, the game also includes an encyclopedia where you can catch up on both the major characters in the game as well as the history behind the major featured battles. Finally, you have various extras like wallpapers and model viewers that are really great for those die-hard fans who want every bit of info they can get about the series.
The strategic elements and other new additions are excellent, but the core aspect is still the combat, which is where some of the criticisms of earlier games come back to haunt this title. For starters, despite the fact that you are facing off against hundreds of soldiers at a time, only the lieutenants and named soldiers will ever bother attacking you. For the most part, every other enemy you see will simply stand around and wait for you to beat them to death. The same goes true for your own army. No matter how many troops you end up amassing, they don't really seem to follow you around and fight off any attackers. You end up backtracking at times just to save your base from being taken over thanks to inept defense from your army. Finally, your allied named soldiers act like your own troops and fail to provide any meaningful help most of the time. You're better off relying on a friend for help instead of the AI.
Multiplayer has always been a big plus for the series, and that tradition hasn't been forgotten here. Just about every mission in the game allows for co-op play with a horizontal split screen. Like the previous titles, not only could you pick which warrior you want at this time, but you could also wander around wherever you want, making long battles much shorter if you and a partner know exactly what you're doing. All of this is great, but the game is still missing online co-op play, which is surprising considering that Koei has already released nine games on the system that play exactly the same way.
The controls are generally good enough that newcomers to the series can easily grasp them without the need for a manual or tutorial. Movement is handled by the left analog stick, and the right analog stick handles camera control. The X and Y buttons handle quick and strong attacks, respectively, while B button performs Musou attacks, the special attacks of the game. The A button jumps, the right bumper button blocks, the left bumper button does a camera reset, and the left trigger works in combination with the face buttons to initiate some of the other abilities of the characters you are playing with. There's nothing really difficult to deal with here since the controls are very responsive. What's good to see here is that you don't really end up fighting with the camera, something that was plaguing the series for quite some time.
The graphics have improved a bit, but not in the places where it counts the most. The biggest improvement to the graphics engine comes from the number of characters it can comfortably display on-screen. The series has always prided itself on being able to display large crowds without slowing down, and despite the fact that the majority of the characters are simply clones of one another, you finally get a sense of being overwhelmed in the battlefield. The character models of the main character set are well done, and while there is a great amount of detail spent on their accessories, you'll still get the occasional flaw, such as the beard on Dong Zhou.
The environments, though, drag down the game significantly. While each battlefield is varied, it suffers from a bad case of extreme pop-in and pop-out. Large buildings and towers will suddenly pop in from view once you get to a certain distance, and the effect is rather jarring. The game exhibits pop-out when getting near detailed objects such as rows of grass that disappear when you get close enough without touching it. Put these together with shadows that randomly decide to appear and disappear at will, and you have environments that make the game feel unstable. Going back to the characters for a moment, they also exhibit these problems but are more evident in bases. Staying in a base long enough without completely clearing it out will let you witness soldiers who simply pop out of thin air; eliminating leaders will give you the opportunity to see soldiers who run into solid walls before disappearing. It would be great to see future iterations finally address these issues instead of just masking it up with more and more soldiers on-screen.
The sound hasn't changed at all, which is good in some parts and bad for most. The effects are fine, with sounds of enemies getting hit and dying coming through loud and clear. Even footsteps as you run through the battlefield come through the speakers, and while it can become annoying to hear them after a while, it's nice to see that much attention to detail. The music has been one of the quirkier spots of the series, and it remains true here. It still feels odd to go from instrumental music in the menus to hard rock music playing in the battlefield. Even with classical Chinese instruments mixed in with electric guitars, the music feels out of place but does a good job of getting you in a fighting mood. The voices haven't changed either, but it's an area that definitely needs improvement. At best, the voices from the combatants simply sound mediocre; at worst, the voices sound irritating and completely out of place, as if the emotions conveyed are completely wrong for the situation given. Worse yet, there's still no option for toggling between the Japanese and English voices. Considering that Koei's other series Dynasty Warriors: Gundam has that option, it's disappointing to see that this series still doesn't have it after all these games.
As stated before, fans of the Dynasty Warriors series have already picked up Dynasty Warriors 6: Empires, and no review, good or bad, would stop them from doing so. The game reviews are really meant for those gamers who are undecided about whether or not they should take the plunge into a side-sequel of the series. For them, this game has a clearer answer to that question, but it's still not overwhelmingly convincing. On the one hand, the bulk of the game is still the same as the previous ones, so whether it's the combat or the graphics or the sound, you won't find that much has changed at all. On the other hand, the refined tactics system, encyclopedia and create-a-warrior mode add some solid new features to the game series. Add to that the lengthy campaigns and the various challenges depending on which character is picked, and even the pundits will admit that this title has plenty for you to do. At very least, rent this game and see if there's enough in here for you to pick it up for keeps. If not, you could always wait and see if Koei opts to add more changes to the gameplay or setting. After all, there are only so many times they can tell the stories based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms era.Score: 7.0/10
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