Over the last few years, Omega Force has collaborated with several other development companies to create, arguably, some of the best games in their library to date. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity proved to be a competent prequel to Nintendo’s hit The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. At the same time, Persona 5 Strikers took what made the Persona series great and adapted it perfectly into the 1 vs 1000 hack ‘n’ slash playstyle the studio is best known for. But in recent years, arguably one of their biggest letdowns was Dynasty Warriors 9 (2018), the latest flagship instalment of the iconic Dynasty Warriors franchise. With technical issues aplenty and an overall meh gameplay experience despite some ambitious new concepts, the delay between this and the usual array of spin-off releases indicated that they were focusing on the game’s core issues and potentially headed to a hypothetical Dynasty Warriors 10.
Alas, here we are in February 2022, with Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires being released digitally and physically in western markets. The sixth Empires spin-off game released in the Dynasty Warriors franchise, these chapters are less about presenting the narrative of the warring Three Kingdoms and more about giving players the chance to influence the events to lead to a different outcome in uniting China, or even introducing new characters into the mix via an extensive character editor. Having been introduced to the series by Dynasty Warriors 6 Empires and even fully platinum’ing the game, both the satisfying hack-n-slash gameplay elements combined with increasing levels of strategic elements have really appealed to me over the years. And the ability to create my own fictional characters and have them unique China under their own rule is always excellent in terms of role-playing… at least with the running narrative in my head.
While implementing several of the new approaches introduced with Dynasty Warriors 9, there are many things for the veterans of the series to enjoy this time around. At least on the battlefield, there are more opportunities to steer the tide of battle into or out of your favour. However, with the haphazard implementation of other mechanics, including those that could have been defining elements of the game, Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires felt like it could have accomplished much more from the three to four-year gap between instalments.
The Gameplay Loop Has Changed a Bit, But Is Still Quintessential Empires Gameplay
The gameplay loop remains fun, especially if, like previous Empires instalments, you crank up the difficulty to as high as you can personally tolerate. You can choose to start at several pre-defined points in the canonical Three Kingdoms chronology as a Vagrant Officer, or in the custom game mode, as a serving officer or ruler of a chosen region of China. If this is your first time playing and you want to experience the game however you want, definitely select the custom mode. From there, while the bare bones of the narrative unfolds at first, you are in charge of each character’s destiny.
Depending on your starting point, you can begin your route towards uniting the country in one of several ways: under your rule or someone else’s rule, usurp the leadership in your territory, recruit allies, rise up the ranks, and take down other kingdoms. At its core, having the freedom is nice, and balancing the needs of your domain while dedicating the time to stave off any threats is what led to my always wanting to play “one more battle” in a play session. Yet, many elements have been carried across from the last couple of Empires games. I feel they could have pushed boundaries just a little more to give players a richer, more complex experience, or at least give vagrant officers a little more to do each in-game month. That is why I recommend upping the difficulty a bit, as even though you
At the core of the game is its 1 v 1000 hack ‘n’ slash action gameplay. You will have many opportunities to enjoy it as you attempt to invade another kingdom OR defend one of your territories from being usurped by another. Depending on the resources and your military might, again determined by actions taken during the strategic phases of the game, you take control of one officer (Either the one you started with or one of your allies) and partake in base capturing until you take down the leader of the opposing kingdom. In the past, this has involved capturing linked bases until you cut off their supply chains and force the leader to come out. However, one of Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires most significant alterations revolve around this. Although players still need to capture bases, the main goal is for the invading party is to breach the defenders’ castle through one of several means before revealing the leader. Each base is designated as one of several types, and capturing some or all of these permits your military to develop battering rams, create siege towers to climb across the walls or make it safe for you to use a grappling hook climb up yourself. For the most part, at least at first, this is a welcome change and prevents you from having one overpowered character who can breeze through a map in a minute or two.
Actual combat doesn’t change all too much from earlier instalments. You will again button-mash your way through waves of enemies, only occasionally needing to think about your tactical approach through the use of secret plans you can equip to each character, which, when charged, can positively affect the tide of battle. Grand Secret Plans are also a thing in Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires, giving both parties one unique objective sometime in the battle. These acts come with different difficulties, ranging from protecting a weak ally to capturing specified bases in a limited time frame. The higher the challenge, the greater the reward or adverse consequence averted – from other supporters being brought to the field to elemental attacks being distributed indefinitely throughout the area.
Aspects like this keep the game feeling fresh for a longer time, but can, over time, feel incredibly repetitive. This is especially true if you are like me, and the game throws some high-value secret plans early on. If your luck is good enough, or even if not, you may find yourself craving more diversity as you continue your unification – as many changes can feel like they are designed to keep you on the battlefield longer.
Edit Mode – Versatility but not as much Diversity
Edit Mode, essentially a Create-an-Officer mode, remains one of my favourite elements of the Empires instalments of Dynasty Warriors. Not to say that the many colourful and creative figures built into the game aren’t unique and memorable, but having that level of freedom from a role-playing perspective gets me excited. Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires sees the return of Edit Mode, albeit wholly overhauled compared to past releases.
To me, having each character look unique on the battlefield was important. In past Empires games, much of the increasing diversity of costumes in previous games came in the form of downloadable content or needed to be unlocked individually. Through multiple colour schemes of each outfit, a great variety of hairstyles and more static but varied body shape/style options, every character – whether looking 12 years old or 90 years old – could look distinct.
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires’ Edit Mode offers a lot of versatility, with the ability to mix/match clothing layers, freedom over the colour palette, a huge swath of voice options, and the ability to tune your character’s appearance more finely. But with versatility came a lack of diversity, with few truly inspiring costumes (Granted, probably much better suited for the battlefield) and most created characters looking like they are in their early-20s. Koei Tecmo and Omega Force have been rolling out costumes via the PlayStation Store and Nintendo eShop (The costumes released at launch being free), so hopefully, this offers more creative options in the future. I think with another pass, the Edit Mode in Dynasty Warriors 10 Empires could be mindblowing, especially if the game receives a graphical overhaul to embrace the capabilities of new-generation consoles.
One thing that I suppose was to be expected, but is nevertheless disappointing, is that the range of stances and weapons on offer in Edit Mode, and the game itself, is reduced from previous instalments. The officer I have always built based on myself, at least in the last few instalments, made use of Zhong Hui’s flying swords, which was downright awesome to play with. Despite the character returning in Dynasty Warriors 9, he shares splay-blades with a few other characters, which are less impressive. Decreasing the number of weapon types you have access to, you are instead left with many characters using simple swords (singular/double), spears, fans and ball-and-chain weapons. Fighting with dual-blades is cool… but… floating weapons!!! (#VentingOver).
Open World Strolling, Half-Baked
One of the most substantial changes implemented in Dynasty Warriors 9 was its open world. No longer were you purely confined to a small map in a small region of China, but you had a bit more freedom of where you travelled. Sadly, due to the cookie-cutter approach to each area, lacking in regional diversity and feeling like the maps were pasted together, it was less impressive than a reveal of this nature could be. Due to the strategic components of Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires, battles once again take place on each territories assigned map, making for more tight-knit battles.
The open-world element does come into play when you opt to spend a month not doing any in-game actions and instead deciding to “Stroll” around your kingdom. This is, sadly, the most underwhelming element of the game, where you wander around the sparsely populated territories you or your assigned ruler owns, taking part in mediocre dialogue scenes to recruit allies – potentially several of them through a couple of interactions. At first, I was excited to explore the different areas I had unlocked. Still, after a couple of times exploring, I opted to interact with recruits through the user interface over seeking them out.
Many areas also have a private area that you can decorate with furnishings you unlock, that you can invite fellow officers over to improve your relationship with. It is rudimentary and something you will probably forget to visit again after decorating once or twice – but it is an excellent place just to chill out and enjoy the game’s soundtrack. On the note of the soundtrack, Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires has an incredible soundtrack from Koei Tecmo Sound – offering new tracks, old tracks, and many fabulous remixes. If there was one element in the game that made every battle consistently more epic, the music offering is it.
No Major Graphical Overhaul, But Meets Expectations
The Dynasty Warriors series has never been pioneers of astounding graphical prowess. Presumably, due to the scale of how many peons they had to render at any one time for you to slash down, it always felt to be a console generation behind the console they are on – more so if the game was released on the Nintendo Switch. Therefore, while a native PlayStation 5 version of Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is available, as a spin-off game from a title in 2018, it doesn’t offer the aesthetic quality we have come to expect from a game on new-generation consoles. I sincerely hope that new generation consoles are considered with Dynasty Warriors 10, and beyond, as new-gen visuals complemented by 1 v 1000 style gameplay would look incredible.
Character designs for significant characters in the series are distinctly designed and stand out among the many named but generically designed officers you can recruit. The environment designs are also a step up from those offered in Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires and have been overhauled to suit the game’s castle siege gameplay. However, they are just as sparsely populated – suitable for gameplay but not as nice to look at.
While, fortunately, an improvement over Dynasty Warriors 9, there are still several technical issues that players may face while playing Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires. While fortunately not experiencing any crashes or anything warranting a hard reset, noticeable frame rate drops, AI wonkiness, screen tearing and sequences just freezing for a good 10-20 seconds are present. If you have access to a coveted PS5 console or a gaming PC, I would highly recommend playing the game on one of the two, as these issues are much more prominent on the Switch and PS4. Fortunately, none of that impedes the overall experience, and will hopefully the nagging issues will be resolved in future patches.
Final Words on Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is a perfectly fine spin-off game in the Dynasty Warriors franchise. Despite not featuring an in-depth story mode, it delivers a much better experience than its mainline equivalent. If you pump up the difficulty and are looking for some solid hack ‘n’ slash gameplay, then you have come to the right place – although being the sixth Empires title in, more ambitious ideas would have been welcomed.
In recent years, Omega Force has delivered some of their best work, such as Persona 5 Strikers in collaboration with ATLUS. This goes to show that with some more pizzaz, ambition and/or a completely separate setting, they have every possibility of delivering another genre-defining experience, as Dynasty Warriors once was.
A PlayStation 5 review code was provided for the purpose of this review.
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires can now be purchased digitally and physically on the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, with digital-only versions on the PlayStation 5 and PC also available.