A diary of sorts, wherein I moonlight as a games writer. Under haphazard construction.
Not gonna lie, the only reason I bought Dynasty Warriors 8 X-Treme Legends was because I had 3000 yen burning a hole in my pocket on my last day in Kyoto and couldn’t work out which Blazblue subtitle would give me the most playable characters. It was a massive impulse buy, which I justified to myself mainly because I figured it’d be easy to just sit and play without engaging too hard, but that there’d also be tons of semi-familiar 3 Kingdoms history to translate if I wanted to dig deeper. I didn’t even realise I was buying the X-Treme Legends addon without the core game included. I just thought Koei had finally stopped being coy about their obsession with Lu Bu and fully embraced his pigtails of carnage.
I expected I’d have a bit of fun with it, because all Musou games are at least a bit of fun for the first couple of hours, but I really didn’t expect to still be playing. Or to be considering importing the Japanese base game as well. Or to be seriously considering buying the full English package on Steam.
Dynasty Warriors 3 was the game that sold me on the PS2. After playing a friend’s copy at another friend’s house, I just knew it was a game I had to own, along with whatever hardware was required to play it. If you’re not familiar with the series, the games place you in a heavily, heavily stylised version of the ancient Chinese epic “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” as a general in one of the eponymous empires fighting for the unification of China. You are a superpowered monster of a warrior, capable of toppling entire armies of the generic footsoldiers who fill the game’s colossal battlefield, but who can still be overwhelmed by sheer numbers if the tide turns against you and your army’s morale falls too far. The basic gameplay is simplistic, just following orders and fighting your way around the battlefield with button-mashy combos before defeating the enemy general, but following the Romance of the 3 Kingdoms stories, the battles have a life of their own, with events often happening entirely independently to your character. While most can be won simply by blindly eliminating every enemy general on the map, there’s greater reward to be found by reading the battle synopses and following the “historic” course of events as they unfold.
Tekken Tag Tournament, Dead or Alive 2 and Metal Gear Solid 2 had all caught my eye, but it was the long afternoons spent running around massive battlefields in co-op with friends that I was so desperate to play host to myself. And to get away from, I guess. Behind the immediate hook of hack-and-slashing through entire armies and collecting loot, I was drawn by the deeper game of triggering the plot cutscenes, managing battlefield morale, and following FAQs to find each character’s ultimate weapon. The stuff that required you to actually know what you were doing, that you couldn’t really do whilst just dicking around with friends and competing for the most KOs. The stuff you only really knew about if you owned the game.
I played Dynasty Warriors 4, I played Dynasty Warriors 5, I played Dynasty Warriors 5: Empires, and I played the portable Dynasty Warriors on PSP, but none of them ever quite grabbed me the same way. That’s the nature of the zeitgeist, I guess, but the later games still somehow felt like they lacked something. While some things weren’t changing enough to keep the gameplay feeling fresh or interesting, other things were changing too much to keep it feeling familiar. I guess I was changing too.
Long preamble short, Dynasty Warriors 8 has been recapturing enough of Dynasty Warriors 3 for me that I’ve been considering spending another £80 on it so that I have both complete English and Japanese versions. Why did that just feel like some sort of confession?
I think the reasons why are pretty simple. First, it’s been a long time since I last properly played a Musou game. I mean, it was 2007-2008 kinda time that I got DW5, and I’ve probably only revisited other games in the series maybe once or twice since then. I got Dynasty Warriors 4 not too long after interest in 3 had finally waned, it was never gonna last. Second, after so many spinoffs, expansions and tie-ins, the series has actually ended up in a pretty good state. I don’t know when exactly they added the Jin empire, or ditched the weapon XP system in favour of a return to randomised drops, or made character progression linear instead of tied to stat-boosting items, but I doubt any of those individual changes would have impressed me on their own. All together, however, and at the end of two console-generations worth of iterative development, they make a huge difference.
Somehow I keep coming back to the feel of Dynasty Warriors 3, though. Maybe it’s just because 8 happens to be more like it than the last Musou game I played, but at a core kinda level it somehow feels like 8 is built on 3’s foundation. Like they took that old mould out from storage and filled it with over a decade’s worth of ideas, finding that it was a bit deeper than they remembered, and that they could fit a little more in than they thought, but that some excess would still just naturally have to be left to overflow.
It feels like there’s more of everything I liked about Dynasty Warriors 3. The narrative of the battles is far more important, and far less forgiving if you choose to abandon your post and just go wandering around. The objectives and events feel more involved, and offer branching outcomes depending on whether strategies succeed or fail. There’s more randomised weapons, including unique Legendary ones, and tools for crafting and combining stats on them so that you can tailor your character’s strengths. Any character can use any weapon, but there are over 80 of each now, and every one has a unique pair of super attacks which only they can use with their “canon” weapon of choice, so they all maintain an identity of their own. You can even carry two weapons switch between them, so you never have to pick between wielding something strong and something fun or new. Even the character designs themselves have gotten more extreme and outlandish, though not always for the best when the female cast are concerned. Lots of ridiculous outfits on show to keep the otaku happy, and very few voices that don’t sound like fawning schoolgirls when they congratulate you on your battlefield prowess.
My Japanese isn’t perfect, so I’ve only understood maybe some 75% of what’s been going on, and without the base game I’ve only had skeletal campaigns to play through, but I still have been having an amazing time. Good enough to seriously consider paying the ridiculous £40 for the Steam version. I won’t, because what I already have is doing far too good a job of keeping me entertained to justify it, but when the sales roll around I can almost guarantee I’ll end up buying a copy and starting all over again.