Same as it ever was.
Dynasty Warriors 5 is almost exactly the same as Dynasty Warriors 4, which was extremely similar to Dynasty Warriors 3, which wasn’t all that different from Dynasty Warriors 2. On the one hand, this could be the sign of a moribund family of games stuck in an intractable rut. On the other hand, the series has built up a loyal and profitable following over the years, and there’s no particular reason to rock the boat if it’s not necessary. If there’s one thing the game’s publisher, Koei, understands, it’s how to use the past to your advantage.
The Dynasty Warriors series is based on a 14th century historical novel by Luo Guanzhong, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which has also been turned into a long-running video game series by Koei). The book recounts the period after the fall of the Han Dynasty in the third century, when an array of regional rulers vied for power, waged epic wars, and stabbed each other in the back, both figuratively and literally. It’s a grand, sweeping tale, one of the classics of Chinese literature, and it provides plenty of material for game making, as evidenced by the extent to which Koei has milked it over the years, creating games that explore and exploit the political, strategic, and tactical aspects of the era.
Because the Dynasty Warriors series emphasizes button-mashing action over politics or strategy, though, its version of the story is considerably flatter than that told in the novel. Rather than taking part in the shaping of backroom alliances or the arrangement of armies on the battlefield, your role, whether you play as king, courtier, or general, is to cut through as many enemy soldiers and officers as possible en route to a climactic fight with the opposing army’s commander. Repeat this pattern through a few different stages, and you’ll find yourself a conquering hero.
The key word in Romance of the Three Kingdoms being “romance”, historical accuracy is trumped by dramatic potential, and its descriptions of the major players in the Three Kingdoms era are accordingly larger than life; indeed, some of its characters have literally been deified over the centuries. Dynasty Warriors 5 is no less enthusiastic about making these figures seem superheroic: as you fight your way through a stage, scattering crowds of nameless troops before you with every swipe of your spear or giant axe, you get the sense of being more than a normal person—you’re a god amongst mortals. It’s a classic video game power fantasy, flawlessly executed. Who knew that all it took to be a god of war was to continuously bang on the square and triangle buttons?
One of the things that makes Dynasty Warriors so attractive is the simplicity of its gameplay. Each playable character has a distinct set of weapons and special moves, but at the end of the day it all boils down to the same thing: mash on the attack buttons to cut up your enemies, hold the block button when they dare to take a swipe at you in return, and unleash your special attack to get out of tight spots. There are no artfully choreographed combo sequences of the Devil May Cry or Prince of Persia variety here, just an unending press of soldiers to plow through. The visceral, almost tactile sense of cutting a path through a forest of enemies is most reminiscent of the arcade game Gauntlet; Dynasty Warriors actually does a better job of recapturing the wading-through-bodies feeling of that old game in 3D than the Gauntlet Legends games from a few years back managed to.
Whatever Dynasty Warriors may lack in the complexity of its combat, it makes up for in the breadth of its level design. The game’s arenas are large, sprawling battlefields with multiple fronts, where computer-controlled officers on both sides (all heroes in their own right, but none as badass as you, natch) engage in duels while you try to fight your way towards one of the numerous objectives the game lays out for you over the course of the battle. In a single stage, you may be asked to clear a path for supplies, then sent to the other side of the map to cut off enemy reinforcements, then required to stop and help out a friend who’s been ganged up on, before finally fighting your way through to the enemy camp to finish off the opposing general. The variety of tasks to perform and the parallel action going on at all times help to make sure that you never have time to think about the fact that you’re really just pumping out the same moves over and over, and keep the game from getting stale too quickly.
The other way in which the game wards off monotony is by providing a broad array of playable characters. In addition to the various rulers of the three kingdoms, you can play as any of four dozen or so different characters: generals, cabinet ministers, and even their wives get a chance to take center stage. While the basics of gameplay remain the same from character to character, each one is distinctly drawn and elaborately costumed, and most are worth at least a cursory playthrough. Even more interesting than unlocking costumes or weapons, though, is playing through the story mode for each of these characters.
In previous versions of the game, there was one story for each of the three kingdoms, based loosely on events in the novel but giving each faction the opportunity to ultimately take over the others (because when most people play games, they prefer a clear victory to a decades-long stalemate). When you played a character other than the main rulers, your part was limited to that of a supporting player in the big show. In Dynasty Warriors 5, however, every character gets to be the lead in their own story; conveyed through voiceovers, mission briefings, and cutscenes during levels, the stories range from campaigns of conquest to doomed loves to comic buffoonery. The stories and presentation tend toward the cartoonish, but the variety of narratives available makes up for their lack of depth.
Other than the expansion of its story mode, though, there’s little to distinguish Dynasty Warriors 5 from its predecessors. Of course, this isn’t an issue if you’ve never played any of the previous Dynasty Warriors games, but if you have, there’s no compelling reason to give the new one much thought. Unlike most sequels, which find a way to advance their predecessors’ stories at all costs, every new version of Dynasty Warriors simply repackages the same Three Kingdoms story, tossing in a few more characters from the novel to give things a patina of progress. It’s a cheap, cynical approach to game making, but it’s been a successful formula for Koei thus far. Besides: a cheap, cynical, but fun game is still a good sight better than the tons of cheap, cynical, and boring games that clutter the shelves these days.