When Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below was announced last year, hype from fans was tempered by just one thing: its associations with the Warriors franchise. Square Enix was smart to avoid branding the game with Koei Tecmo’s usual Western moniker, because that name now carries with it a stigma of brainless button-mashing and dull repetition. That may seem like an unfair assessment, but it’s difficult to deny at this point. After such a long run, across multiple systems and intellectual properties, the series’ hack-and-slash formula feels awfully tired, even when blended with other elements. The Vita version of Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires is yet another example of this “been there, slashed that” feeling, too, as its strategic gameplay feels like little more than window-dressing around the same old stuff.
What separates the Empires series from the normal Dynasty Warriors entries is, as previously mentioned, an element of strategy. This mainly comes into play in the main “Empire Mode,” which sees your chosen military commander navigate an entire career. Your goal here is to unify the entire map, but how you go about that is really your call: you can form alliances by doing favors for other military leaders, or you can raid and pillage with no discretion. It’s the little details that really make this mode worth checking out. To boot, there are a ton of options in the game’s menus, and the episodic month-to-month play structure (which lets you take one action a month, whether that’s completing a quest or recruiting a new combatant) is an especially good fit with this new portable version.
Even with all that good stuff, there are still a number of problems. First among these are the aforementioned menus, which may be a bit daunting to first-time users — especially those who have never experienced the Empires series before. There’s just a ton of stuff to contend with arranged in a rather unintuitive way, and worse, almost no explanation for how any of it works. Even when you get into the groove of things, and have formed some sort of strategic pattern, there’s a sense that this information could have been organized in a less confusing way as you’re navigating the text-heavy interface.
Then there’s the combat itself, which is where the same-old, same-old sense really comes into play. As usual, you’ll be hacking and slashing away at hordes of enemy soldiers, sending them soaring into the air with little resistance. You can crank up the difficulty if you’d like things to be a little more challenging, but things will generally still fall into the same pattern — light, heavy, and super powerful Musou attacks over and over — with the only difference being how much more you get knocked around. Admittedly, there is a significant change during invasions in that you need to connect conquered bases in order to reach the final one, but this serves more to drag things out than anything else. Stopping at each base to kill hundreds of enemies is a pretty damn slow process, and the lack of variation in the combat really becomes evident here.
As for other scenarios, Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires also offers a Free Mode, which lets you play any of the missions you’ve already experienced in Empire; Edit Mode, where you can create your own custom characters for Free Mode; and Online Play, which offers the same experiences you can play in Free, only with other players. As with the main game, your enjoyment of these will largely hinge on whether or not you enjoy the repetitive hack-and-slash gameplay. If you do, you’ll probably get a ton of mileage out of these additional options. If you don’t…well, you’re better off not jumping into this game in the first place.
Seeing as this is a portable port of a console game, and one whose graphical integrity was decidedly last-gen in the first place, you may wonder how well the title carries its aesthetic over to the small screen. The answer, unfortunately, is that Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires doesn’t even manage to carry over its primitive look. This is a really rough port from a visual perspective, with muddy textures and jagged polygons aplenty. The graphics still get the job done, of course, but it’s a shame they weren’t better optimized and the cumulative effect is pretty murky and unpleasant.
The music is a different story, though. The Warriors series is known for its rocking soundtracks, which combine traditional Eastern instrumentation with soaring guitars. That combination is as victorious here as it’s ever been, and often makes the combat feel a lot more exciting than it actually is. To prevent it from drowning in the mix under the often-compressed sound effects, a cacophony of tinny sword swings and repetitive screams that accompany the death of the game’s cannon fodder, do yourself a favor and just turn the effects off altogether.
Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires continues the series’ tradition of hack-and-slash combat…and if we’re being honest, this is one series that could use a break from tradition. We’re now eight entries into the main line, with the Samurai franchise and a number of crossover IP spinoffs spreading the formula pretty thin, and you can be sure that this entry feels the strain of overexposure. The addition of strategic elements in Empire Mode is a nice way to split up the combat sections, but they’re hardly enough to make up for the repetitive and button-mashy battles that form the majority of the gameplay.
This review is based on the PlayStation Vita version of the game, which we were provided with.
The Dynasty Warriors franchise is looking more than a little tired this time around: both in its last-gen visuals - which look even muddier on Vita - and in its dull reproduction of the same old combat system we've seen time and time again.