Open-world doesn’t always mean better.
Koei Tecmo and Omega Force’s 21-year-old Dynasty Warriors series has never been a series known to step outside its comfort zone, but Dynasty Warriors 9 is not your typical Dynasty Warriors game. For the first time, the developers have retired the tried-and-true segmented mission structure in favor of a large, open-world map with missions, points of interest, and random activities scattered sparsely about. But if this is the vision of what a modern Dynasty Warriors game is, then I’d prefer a flashback to the series’ more focused and co-op friendly past instead.
Combat in Dynasty Warriors 9 is its simplest joy, and at its height it’s like a ballet of beautiful, high-flying violence. I’ve shot tornadoes out of swords that wrecked an entire battlefield, juggling dozens of enemies in the air. I’ve rained ice and fire from the sky with the point of my finger. I’ve even created a vortex of electric storms that erupted all around me during a flurry of sword slashes. The shouts of enemies in agony, my allies supporting me, and the sounds of my attacks rampaging through the battlefield meld together with the rocking soundtrack.
Basic combat is the expected simple button-mashing to cut down enemies along the path to victory, but now there are Trigger Attacks that let you stun, launch, and knock down enemies. You can then follow those moves up with Flow Attacks, which let you chain combos together and go directly into another Trigger Attack, or set them up for a Special or big Musou Attack. Flow Attacks act like the glue that connects all of the pieces of Dynasty Warriors 9’s combat system together, and even though it basically just means mashing square over and over, it keeps the intensity high. It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but once your thumb falls into the rhythm it’s all very natural.
All that carnage really taps into a very special type of power-fantasy fun.
If you’ve never liked how repetitive the combat is then Dynasty Warriors 9, unfortunately, won’t do anything to sway that feeling. Despite the changes to the combat system it all still boils down to button mashing, but even so, it certainly does make a strong case for why mindless murder can be a ton of fun. Turning off my brain to just cut through swaths of literally hundreds of enemies on screen at any given time taps into a very special type of power-fantasy fun like few things can.
The downfall is that, from the very start, Dynasty Warriors 9 tries too hard to cater to too many types of gamers without doing any one thing particular thing well. Its open world checks a lot of boxes in terms of features, such as large open spaces to explore, tons of collectible materials to gather for crafting, and dozens of cookie-cutter missions peppered across the landscape from a variety of quest-giver NPCs without personalities. But despite all of the “content” there just isn’t anything interesting or worthwhile within the open world’s borders. For example, you can go fishing and collect a bunch of crafting materials, but it’s all just a time sink since none of that is put to use in any meaningful way. The entire game is perfectly beatable without ever touching the crafting system, other than making healing items every now and then.
The open world also backfires when it comes to keeping the momentum of gameplay going. While it’s nice that you don’t see many loading screens between missions, at least as much time is spent doing nothing of interest because you and your horse often have to gallop across vast, empty landscapes for minutes on end to get to your next waypoint. For every dramatic, flourishing step forward, Dynasty Warriors 9 takes a stumbling cascade of two or three steps backward.
For every dramatic step forward, Dynasty Warriors 9 stumbles two or three steps backward.
Another example of that is the more serious take on storytelling. Dynasty Warriors 9 tells an intricate story from a wide variety of perspectives across various kingdoms, but there just isn’t enough meat on the bones. You can bounce back and forth to see how the wars affect each empire in different ways and play out pivotal battles from different viewpoints, which is interesting, but there’s little incentive to actually do that other than unlocking characters. The main story is presented in five different Kingdom-based arcs, each of which overlaps with the same 13 or so chapters. Each chapter under each Kingdom can be played through as a single character. Once completed you move on to the next chapter, and so on. After an hour or two of story missions, you’ll likely find yourself skipping dialogue just to speed things along a bit. Voice actors recorded thousands of lines of just standing around and talking about battles with a woeful lack of enthusiasm.
If you wanted to play through the story from each of the ridiculous 90 characters’ perspectives you could easily spend hundreds of hours doing so. They all share the same control schemes but vary in their speed and execution. For example, Cao Cao is a bit slower and more deliberate than average but delivers steady and targeted damage. Liu Bei, on the other hand, ravages enemies in a flurry of steel and lightning with his dual-wielded swords. I’m confident in saying that there is very likely a Warrior to fit everyone’s playstyle in Dynasty Warriors 9 – it just might take a while to find them.
Switching characters can be a great change of pace.
Switching characters can be a great change of pace though, as the differences between a dual-wielding, fast-paced hero and a giant, hammer-wielding, slow and powerful hero are pretty dramatic. That said, the novelty wears off fairly quickly, and many of the 90 feel like re-skinned clones of each other. Since the majority of their movesets are derived from the weapon type they’re using, any two characters with a longsword will feel very similar.
That similarity diminishes the desire to replay missions and slaughter thousands of soldiers in the same, repeated battlefields, changing nothing but the avatar of your destruction. It’s inconvenient, too – the only way to pick a new character is to quit out of your game back to the main menu and select a chapter, then pick the specific character. You cannot change mid-chapter and you cannot change mid-combat at all. Thankfully all of your character-specific progress is saved so you could theoretically have dozens of active save files going, which is something you’ll eventually want to do if you’re trying to level up each Warrior individually. Things like money and items can be shared across playthroughs and you can even unequip gems and weapons from one Warrior and give them to another mid-playthrough, which is a welcome quality-of-life addition.
Even if the characters were significantly different, the mission variety of Dynasty Warriors 9 is sorely lacking. Most consist of showing up, cutting through a few dozen nameless grunts, and then taking out a named enemy that has a few extra attacks and a lot more health. Of course, you can skip the fodder and target the named enemy first, and defeating them will cause the remaining enemies to either suddenly vanish into thin air or turn tail and retreat. This means that other than your character of choice and the surrounding scenery, virtually every combat encounter feels about the same.
The repetition is made worse by the fact that there are no Kingdom management modes, no Survival or Challenge modes, or anything else available outside of Story mode. You can eventually unlock a basic Free Play mode, but Dynasty Warriors 9 desperately needs more variety up front.
To be very clear: there is no multiplayer whatsoever.
To be very clear, there is no multiplayer whatsoever. That means no online co-op, no local split-screen co-op, and no competitive modes. Sharing in the bloodshed of slaying thousands of digital soldiers with a buddy by your side had become something of a staple for Dynasty Warriors in recent years, so this was immediately noticeable as a major missing piece.
Your horse will obliviously run into objects and walls.
Once a mission is cleared there’s no waiting or loading screens at all — you get XP, loot items, upgrade your character if needed, and then fast-travel or gallop to the next mission until the chapter is cleared. Your horse can auto-travel, which is nice, but the pathfinding will usually only travel on designated roads, which is often not the fastest path, and will obliviously run into objects and walls.
The main objective of each chapter can be tackled at any time, but focusing on side quests first is usually a good idea. Not only do they let you level up in strength, but many of them will lower the “recommended level” for the main objective as well once completed, decreasing the overall difficulty.
One thing that Dynasty Warrior 9’s move to an open-world map does do well is communicate the spectacle of warfare. While you’re out fighting or exploring you’ll get updates about the shifting frontlines as officers are defeated in real time. Small blue and red dots show the evolving theaters of war as your forces advance and get pushed back. At any time, you can fast-travel to important points and contribute to the fight, taking over forts and defeating key members of the opposition — and saving allies. This is one of the main ways you’ll eventually unlock more Warriors that can be played in future chapters.