My spouse (Lady Sun Shangxiang, no less!), who I had been wooing for years before finally tying the knot, was in trouble. A large force led by Cao Cao had attacked one of my more remote territories, and the task of holding down an entire flank was left on her. While I set about capturing key points on the battlefield to initialise a fire attack that would even the odds a little, Lady Sun was doing an admirable job of holding back a major assault, but it was starting to go south. Luckily, at the last moment I completed my objective and, dramatically barrelling into the small mob of commanders that had pinned her, I was able to unleash a fireball that cleared the area. That’s the downside to massing your forces in one spot. A single good counter-attack and your entire assault is over. At that point, the tables were thoroughly turned and we were just about successful in our defence. All that remained was an assault on Cao Cao’s position…
Dynasty Warriors 9 was a noble experiement by Koei Tecmo to bring open world gameplay to the Warriors series. Sadly, it also fell flat with many fans, and did so in a big way. The good news for them is that Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is a more traditional Warriors experience, and it is brilliant. I’ve played dozens of Warriors games at this point, and for the most part loved them. I think I might just love this one the most.
See, unlike the main Warriors games, where each battlefield offers up a story that follows along with a historical conflict, and that meant that you were at its mercy, the Empires games are largely story free, and instead it allows you to write your own journal of conquest and heroism. Where a historical battle, as depicted in a standard Warriors entry, might involve a fire attack at a certain point of time, or reinforcments arriving somewhere else on the battlefield, in Empires, you and your opponent both set tactical manoevers, and then clash on battlefields that are covered in bases and other key strategic locations. The goal is, rather than successfully follow the story of the battle, to capture these key points, boosting your force, and both foil your opponent’s manoevers while making sure yours succeed. At its best – and Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is usually at its best – the moment-to-moment play represents the very best of the Warriors series, where you’ve got a half dozen different objectives in front of you, and you know that the succcess of the battle very much rests on your sword (or whatever other wildly creative weapon you take into battle).
Backing this up is some light strategic elements that have been designed to appeal to people that otherwise wouldn’t play too many strategy games. There are just three resources to manage – rations, money and soldiers, and really the goal is to recruit as many generals as you can (as each brings new armies into your forces), while progressively conquering more and more of China. There are some light diplomatic and clandestine initiatives that you can undertake, such as the ability to forge alliances and sabotage enemies, and you need to steadily build relationships with the generals within your own forces (else they might rebel). Eventually, the top three generals will become your sworn brothers, you’ll have a spouse (and possibly a child), and the emperor himself will offer to abdicate the throne in your favour. The game does all of this without any of the hardcore and often intimidating strategy options that turn people off the likes of Civilization. Instead, it’s all done through a simple and intuitive menu system, and while there are a lot of strategic options in any given turn, it’s not a difficult matter to decide on an effective strategy and execute it according to your own style.
Along the way, you’ll also acquire a range of cards, which are earned by conquering territories, capturing generals, or hitting milestones within your empire. These cards represent a massive variety of battlefield tactics that you can take into skirmishes. Four can be equipped in total, and in battle, you can use them intermittently, based on their charge timers. These range from explosive damage-dealing attacks, to cards that will boost your effectiveness against enemy generals, or will heal you and your nearby allies. Brought together with the typical normal and special attacks, Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires has a fluid, but highly customisable combat system that allows you to play surprisingly tactical, given how fast the action is.
I do worry that people will only see the weaker side of Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires, though. On the lower difficulty levels, the enemy AI is passive at the strategic level, and in combat will fall for the same easy tactics and skills. You’ll have dozens of those cards that I mentioned above, but almost no incentive to change them over as the campaign rolls on. I appreciate that the easy mode is there (not least because it lets you just kick back and mash buttons when you’re in the mood), but if you were to exclusively play that you could be forgiven for thinking that Empires lacks bite. However, up the difficulty setting and suddenly commands like “sabotage”, which is a pointless waste of a turn on easy mode, become an essential tactic for preparing an invasion, and you’ll want to build alliances, however temporary, to give you the buffer that will allow you to focus on another, higher-priority enemy. And then, on the battlefield, you’ll need to carefully select your mix of cards for the situation, because suddenly you’re in for a more testing scrap. Basically, the higher you scale the difficulty, the more the tactical and strategic qualities of Empires comes to the fore, and that is, ultimately, the way that the game was designed to be played.
Empires is presented beautifully, too. Each territory has its own distinct aesthetic qualities. A battle in the south west will feature a castle looming out of a tropical forest, while the north west a desert dustpan that is so dry you’ll wonder why anyone wants to fight over the land. Meanwhile, over in the east where most of the big historic battles happened, the castles tend to be grander in scope and rivers become a natural obsticale to your army’s advance. Not only does this give you plenty of visual variety from one battle to the next, but it helps solidify the epic nature of your conquest because you are assuredly bringing together a massive and varied nation in your quest.
The only thing that leaves me a little hesitant with Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is that it assumes a familiarity with the history. Aside from little text descriptions of the scenarios and characters, the downside to the game being less story-driven than the other Dynasty Warriors titles is that you’ll need to fill in a lot of the blanks yourself. If you don’t know who Lady Sun is, for example, it’s a little hard to care about why marrying her is the true achievement in the campaign. In fairness to Koei Tecmo, it is a pretty safe bet that anyone that deeply invested in Dynasty Warriors that they’d play an Empires title is probably familiar with the series (and, likely, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms book that it’s based on). There’s also enough information there that if you are inspired you’ll be able to learn the key events and context. It’s just that the history side of things is less overt than in other titles in the series and you’ve got to work a little more to get yourself up to speed completely. With that being said, the number of people that are drawn to Dynasty Warriors out of historical curiosity is smaller than you might think, so I doubt this would be an issue for most.
Slightly more cerebral while also filled with the fast action that the series is known for, Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires sits neatly as a midway point between the action of the “proper” Dynasty Warriors and the strategy of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series. There probably isn’t all that much of an audience for this, but for fans that were disappointed with the open world experiment of Dynasty Warriors 9, Empires here will be redemption, and for those who have never let their enthusiasm for the series be dampened, this is an excellent opportunity to marry Sun Shangxiang and make many beautiful babies… or perhaps to unite China. Whatever your preference is, really.