Dynasty Warriors 9 is finally here, and while it comes with plenty of familiar elements, Omega Force went with a completely different basic structure, carrying the series in the realm of open-world games.
The story will be familiar to many, as it’s based on the era of the Three Kingdom in China, when the states of Wei, Shu, and Wu warred across the land to put their own Emperor on the throne. Of course, this is not a historical simulation, but it still retains the charm and complexity of the historical period and of the literature it sparked.
One of the most peculiar elements of the franchise is that it puts the player in control of a veritable army of officers from all sides of the conflict, and the ninth chapter (actually, it’s the eighth, as the first Dynasty Warriors in the west did not really belong to this franchise, causing a discrepancy in the titles that endures to this day) does not stray from this tradition. From heroes to villains, invincible warriors, funny weirdos, cunning strategists, and badass heroines, the variety of playable officers is massive. There are even a few new ones for good measure.
While not all officers are available in every chapter for obvious story reasons, they all bring their different perspectives, personalities, values, and points of view to the story, and that enriches the storytelling rather massively.
The way characters can be switched is actually rather interesting: as you progress through the chapters you’ll unlock different officers progressively depending on who you are playing as, but you won’t start completely from scratch. Your equipment, accessories, items, landmarks discovered on the map, money, housing, and much more will be “inherited” by all the other characters. Basically, most elements of progression are common and you won’t have to unlock everything again.
This is so well implemented that if you save, quit your current chapter, then select another character, quit again, and go back to the first, the second officer’s weapon will appear in the first’s inventory. It’s quite useful if you want to try a bunch of different implements of destruction.
While this solution may not be exactly realistic, it’s definitely perfect in how user-friendly and convenient it is. In a game with a massive open world and several tens of characters, having to redo everything over and over would become a massive chore. On the other hand, the compromise Omega Force implemented allows you to experience the story from different points of view while minimizing the hassle. It improves replayability massively in a title that definitely isn’t small even if you play through it only once.
Looking at the audio, the game has a rich and enjoyable soundtrack, with an interesting mix of tunes that feel more traditional and fitting to the time period, and rock music, creating a balance between ancient and modern that sounds surprisingly appropriate and never out of place.
Sound design is also adequate, doing a pretty good job in underlining combat, and in setting the atmosphere of the game’s vast open world in the different environment, time, and weather conditions.
The English voice track is not exactly top-notch, and often the actors fail to capture solemn moments and epic discourse. Comedic relief characters sound a bit better, but I wouldn’t honestly advise playing with English audio unless you really can’t stand the Japanese track. Luckily, the original voice acting is definitely solid, with actors that in most cases fit their parts a lot better.
An interesting option is the inclusion of the Chinese track, that some may prefer for the sake of immersion. To be entirely honest with you, I wouldn’t know where to start judging its quality, but the fact that it’s there is definitely laudable.
Visuals are enjoyable, but not exceptional. Lighting is definitely one of the pros, with the engine doing a very good job of portraying the dynamic change of time and weather. On the other hand, textures could certainly use better definition on current generation platforms, and they also tend to be lacking in terms of variety.
A rather visible issue is performance, which is very far from stable on standard PS4. On PS4 Pro it’s better, but it’s still not as smooth as you would expect considering the level of visual fidelity. The presence of an “action mode” that focuses on stabilizing frame rate helps a bit, but it isn’t a perfect solution. We have not tested Dynasty Warriors 9 on Xbox One X, so we can’t say whether it works better on Microsoft’s new console. I would classify this as a problem endemic to the team’s lack of experience with open-world development, and hopefully, we’ll see improvements in future iterations.
Another piece of evidence showing that this is certainly the team’s first bold but slightly overextended step onto the open-world field is the fact that it’s rather easy to get stuck into the map’s geometry, which can result in frustrating minutes spent wiggling around to break free.
While the open-world map is definitely very large (it takes about one hour to cross it from corner to corner on horseback), it’s a bit hit and miss in terms of variety. There certainly are many landmarks to find, and terrain changes from bamboo forests to snowy mountains, passing by villages, and even jungles, but there are also many areas that tend to be a bit monotonous and empty.
Cities also suffer from a similar issue. They’re big and imposing, with massive walls and plenty of streets to explore, but they’re scarcely populated, and not very rich in terms of secrets to find and points of interest. The team could have also done a better job in differentiating them to make them feel unique. Even here, textures are the biggest culprit, tending to homogenize cities and castles by giving them a very similar look and feel.
Unfortunately, while Dynasty Warriors 9 might be seen as a laudable attempt to match today’s standards in terms of visuals, it falls considerably short of most major productions. Possibly, this is just due to the fact that it’s the first experiment of this kind for a meta-franchise (I’m talking about Musou games as a whole) that has pretty much remained stuck in the PS3 era. We can glimpse the potential behind the issues. Hopefully, the good folks at Koei Tecmo will stick with this course, improve their tech, and bring better results with the next iteration.
Yet, while the visuals of the environment aren’t exactly top-notch, the open-world design choice is far-reaching in terms of gameplay. Instead of being given a mission in a sterile environment in which we simply have to devastate hundreds of soldiers and a bunch of bosses, we’re actually thrown into a dynamic, ever-changing conflict with a lot of room for choice and different approaches towards the final objective.
If you prefer to take things slowly, you can wear down the enemy faction little by little, taking camp after camp, devastating morale, while boosting your own power massively. On the other hand, if you’re strapped for time, you can most of the times take a rather direct route to the goal of each chapter, but you will be required to compensate with your personal skills for the lack of preparation.
The map is chock full of camps and forts you can conquer, battles happening in real time that you can personally tip in your faction’s favor, and quests that you can complete. Many of those simply provide you more experience and items, but there are quite a few that have a direct effect on the overall mission.
For instance, you can rescue a potential ally that will then come to your aid by distracting the guards as you infiltrate the enemy stronghold, or help out friendly officers that will then show up during the final confrontation. Performing those quests often has a visible effect by lowering the recommended level of the main story quest, so you can always see the impact your actions have on the conflict.
Even when attacking a fortress, you can either methodically crush enemy resistance street by street, keeping pace with your allies and reaching the final battle as a team, or climb walls and rush to the goal, challenging yourself to beat the enemy officers alone and outnumbered, cut off from your reinforcements that are too busy mopping up to help you.
This is extremely refreshing, especially considering that most open-world games tend to feel very static, with enemies that are very content to stand around at their camp without influencing the overall events until you finally deign to pay a visit. Dynasty Warriors 9 does a very good job of making you feel part of a larger war that is happening all around you.
The AI of single enemies and officers could definitely use some more work (they really aren’t that smart, and this hasn’t changed from previous installments of the series), but on a strategic level, things are much more interesting and engaging.
We also get many side activities that aren’t directly related to the war, like a metric ton of gathering and crafting to further improve your gear. I particularly appreciated the fact that you can gather simply by riding over a resource. It may not be really realistic, but considering the number of things to do, it does a good job of keeping the system in the realm of a pleasant diversion without straying into a time-consuming chore.
More open-world activities include hunting, fishing, laying traps, and even a housing system that lets you purchase and decorate scenic hideaways where you can invite other officers for tea and conversation.
Ultimately, while it’s not perfect and it could do with more variety, Dynasty Warriors 9‘s open world changes the formula radically, and very much for the better. It engages you just as much as you want and doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you so choose, you can enjoy its diversions for hundreds of hours, and you won’t run out of content easily, but just as soon as you’re ready to dive into the final objective of a chapter, you’re free to move on without being excessively punished.
I never felt like I was missing on content by deciding that I had enough of conquering war camps or hunting tigers in the jungle in order to move the story forward. In any case, I knew I had plenty more officers to go back to while taking a different approach.
Incidentally, if you’re afraid to have to spend hours on horseback, the game offers plenty of fast travel options, letting you jump to locations you already visited, or even to the vicinity of a quest’s objective.
Healthy innovation has come to combat as well, with the addition of reactive attacks that change depending on the situation, and trigger attacks with different effects. By holding R1 and pressing triangle, square, or X, you can unleash moves that will launch, stun, or splat your enemies into the ground, opening them up for further combos.
This has a welcome effect in offering a wider array of battle tactics and works very well with the usual fan-favorite feeling of playing an overwhelming force of nature. That being said, since the principles behind these attacks remain the same, elements of differentiation between characters could be considered somewhat lacking.
You can also use pretty much all weapons with each character, even if this is probably more of a way to slightly handicap yourself since officers still have favorites.
Another interesting element is represented by gems, which interface with the crafting system and let you add a sizable variety of special effects to each of your attacks. Since they carry over between characters like almost everything else, there is a lot of room for experimenting and playing around.
I will admit that Dynasty Warriors 9 is a difficult game to judge: on one side, it comes with relevant technical issues that do impact the experience both in performance and visuals. Yet, the open-world experiment really does a great job in creating an immersive and engaging conflict.
While combat remains exhilarating and fun in a way that will feel familiar to veterans of the series, Dynasty Warriors 9 isn’t just one versus a thousand anymore. We’re part of a war that unfolds all around us, with plenty of allies in need of help and enemies begging for a healthy beating. It’s a bold step in the right direction, and while Omega Force may have overextended in certain aspects, the fun outweighs the jank and the experience remains one that I am eager to return to and to see improved and further evolved in Dynasty Warriors 10 or Samurai Warriors 5.