It’s been a decade of Dynasty Warriors. Where other games had died off for refusing to evolve, Koei’s series has defied the odds, marching on thanks to a dedicated fanbase that can’t get enough of tearing through hundreds of costumed cannon fodder without breaking a sweat. It’s the kind of punchy appeal that beat ’em ups of old had – only with a SHMUP-like attention to body count.
Chinese heroes from the historical saga of the Three Kingdoms are turned into ancient superheroes and supervillains in a formula – and settings – that have remained relatively unchanged. It’s what has grown up around it that keeps the franchise fresh through seven major iterations and a score of other releases based on it. It doesn’t even pretend to be anything else – but for the series’ hardcore fans, that’s just fine.
Dynasty Warriors 7 is the latest flagship chapter and yet feels much like the same thing we’ve always had with only a few more attachments and polish, particularly with the individual heroes’ flashy new costumes, detailed weapons, and explosive attacks, turning combat into a violent fashion parade. The cannon fodder you face off against are still pumped out by hidden clone factories and the look and lay of ancient China is still the same free roaming arena that it has always been, but there are quite a few tweaks around this unyielding core to shake loose that sense of too much deja vu.
The Story mode takes players through the Three Kingdoms from the viewpoint of whatever faction they choose to represent. There are now four major factions as opposed to the three that used to be the staple of the previous games, each one vying for control of China with decidedly different motives. But unlike before where you could pick a favorite character to battle through their story with and change them up on occasion, it’s now seen from several different viewpoints as you are automatically swapped between characters.
It does stifle a little of the freedom in picking who you want to play as in this mode, but the stories for each faction are a lot more consistent as a result. As you play through each faction, the history of the Three Kingdoms is treated a bit more than just as a backdrop, especially when key characters die and pass on the baton to someone else as history pushes ahead without them. The dialogue can still come off as ridiculously overwrought, yet for fans that can’t get enough of the intrigues and characterizations in Dynasty Warriors, they’ll find a motherlode of material here. One or two characters that seemed like outright villains in the previous games actually come across quite differently because of these changes.
Towns and forts used as camps in between each story mission also give the player opportunities to purchase weapons or talk to characters, such as other heroes, right before seamlessly throwing them into the next battle when they’re ready to go. On a technical level, it’s a nice touch – cut scenes and other story elements are executed well enough to feel as if you’ve never left the actual game thanks to too many load screens.
Combat is still a button mashing experience spiced up with charged attacks, dual weapons, and the ability to swap those out during the battle instead of having to wait until the end to equip your hero. Anything you pick up on the battlefield from defeated officers can be used to take out a hundred more clone soldiers right away without delay.
Each weapon also has special seals that can be ‘earned’ through repeated use of the weapon in combat granting the player special boosts such as increased damage or defense. To add even more variety, learned seals can be stamped on other weapons as long as they have enough empty slots to hold them. Leveling is also back from Dynasty Warriors 6, though the trees have been trimmed down to a smaller set of different improvements such as adding in an extra attack to mastery of that character’s signature weapon style.
The combo-heavy Renbu system has been dropped and veterans of the series might feel that DW7 is a return to the nuts and bolts of the system, especially with the return of more Musous. For those unfamiliar with these, Musou attacks are superheroic attacks that can ravage foes with fire, ice, electricity, or brute force as long as players have harnessed enough energy with plenty of slaughter.
Each character has a signature Musou attack that stands out, especially when you run up against them as an enemy, though the differences also force a bit of thought into using them than in simply pushing a magic button to make the bad things go away. For example, Lu Bu returns in this game with a Death Ray-like Musou attack parting oceans of soldiers foolish enough to stand in his way. Including you. But it can be dodged leaving him open to attack turning many of these close-shaves into boss-busting opportunities.
The Conquest mode opens up all of China to whoever you want to play through it as. A massive number of locations, each featuring specific missions and even extra weapons, mounts, and unlockable characters, are spread across the country allowing you to take it over one hexagon at a time. It isn’t so much a story of one character’s conquest, but the player’s since they can pick a different hero to continue their personal conquest at any time. On top of the seven or ten or so hours that it can take to get through one faction’s story, Conquest can easily add many more to any player’s hourglass with this game. There’s even online co-op for players in this mode for those that want to tackle its challenges in good company.
Taking over a town in Conquest mode also opens up opportunities to buy new weapons, participate in quizzes on the history of the Three Kingdoms thanks to a huge encyclopedia detailing everything and everyone in the game, or set up what horse you want to ride into battle with. And everything that had been earned in Story mode carries over to Conquest, and vice versa including experience, allowing you to start off with a low-leveled character and buff them up with decent gear. Or start the mode with a seasoned veteran.
Other than a new look, larger stories, and a vast Conquest sandbox for infinite beat ’em up action, the endless repetition is still a sticking point for non-fans. I won’t kid you – it can get boring cutting down fields of mindless drones, even with primitive Chinese dragon tanks and ballistae, though fans used to DW’s gameplay will eat up the action without question, especially thanks to the tweaked mechanics. It delivers plenty of story to grind through and a few surprises and twists, though some of the thick melodrama still brings with it the same kind of eye rolling dialogue that the series hasn’t quite escaped from. Even so, the co-op feature can pack on a few more hours of bloodlust between friends trimming some of the potential boredom.
Dynasty Warriors 7 is an unapologetic update of an old formula that has spanned a decade of sequels and side stories. At this point, it doesn’t feel as if it’s looking to make new friends. You either like it or you don’t. For anyone that can’t get enough of mashing their way through endless hordes and collecting an arsenal of weapons to waste them with, it might be worth a look especially if you’ve never played a Dynasty Warriors game in your life. This isn’t a bad game to get started with if only as a rental. For the fans, however, it can easily earn a spot on your shelf right next to the razor bladed fans and five-foot chakrams.
Dynasty Warriors 7
Koei / Omega Force
Xbox 360 / PS3 (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: T for Teen