Here’s the good news: Dynasty Warriors 9 is bigger than any of the previous entries in the series thanks to the Koei Tecmo’s decision to drop the story into a massive open world. In theory, there’s more than enough content to keep even the fussiest gamer busy for hours on end. And if you want to skip all of that extra nonsense and run straight through the story, you can do that as well. Sadly, the latest installment of the long-running franchise sports a number of debilitating flaws, including subpar graphics, an inconsistent framerate, and an overall lack of polish. It’s still loads of fun and thrilling when it all comes together, but this isn’t the massive step forward fans expected.
The first thing longtime fans of the series will notice is the freedom to roam the countryside and tackle missions and side quests however they see fit. Wandering through China and stumbling across enormous packs of soldiers ripe for destruction frequently feels fantastic, as does transforming a skirmish into a sprawling battle that spills from an enemy’s camp into the surrounding bamboo forest. And at the end of the day, that’s really the most important aspect of any Dynasty Warriors game. If Koei Tecmo screws up the combat system, then everything else falls apart. Thankfully, even with the changes implemented in Dynasty Warriors 9, the battles feel just as fluid and awe-inspiring as ever. These confrontations aren’t very difficult, mind you, and you’ll never feel challenged while battling wave after wave of soldiers, but smacking bad guys around the screen remains satisfying.
Unfortunately, the open world isn’t overly impressive. While the landscape stretches on for what seems like forever, there’s really not a whole lot to see or do. Sure, you can scour the world for animals and ingredients to help you craft weapons, accessories, and items, but that’s pretty much it. Even the side quests, of which there are plenty, tend to guide you to the same area of the map over and over again. Moments after taking down a group of bandits engaged in heated battle among themselves, I accepted a quest to eradicate an enormous pack of blood-thirsty wolves that dwelt in the exact same spot. And while I wasn’t necessarily looking for complete immersion with Dynasty Warriors 9, this makes little sense in a world that tries to feel alive. What’s more, when you’ve got a map this big and empty, sending me to the same area time and time again seems like a waste of space.
Over the course of the Han Dynasty-era story, loosely based on the classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel, players will have access to over 80 different characters (including many old favorites), though you’ll start the game with only a few. As you move through the chapters, however, more characters become available, giving the game an enormous amount of replayability. Of course, that means having to slog through the same missions more than once, but it’s cool to see the tale unfold from different perspectives. During my journey, I grew particularly fond of Cao Cao, a do-gooder with a Geralt of Rivia growl (at least in the English dub) who longs to establish an ideal kingdom. You’ll quickly discover which ones you favor, as some tend to handle a bit differently than others. Sluggish characters often grate my nerves, so the swifter, speedier heroes took up most of my time.
The characters themselves look fantastic, and each has a very distinctive look. Unfortunately, the same doesn’t ring true for Dynasty Warrior 9’s open world. While it’s occasionally quite pretty, thanks to some surprisingly effective albeit inconsistent lighting, those moments are few and far between. Sure, concessions were likely made to accommodate the number of kinetic, over-the-top battles that take place on a regular basis, but when you’re riding through the empty world on horseback for what feels like ages to access your next quest, these shortcomings become painfully clear. Again, no one expects technological marvels from Dynasty Warriors, but when you’re giving players a vast open world to explore, things like pop-in, low-resolution textures, and framerate hiccups derail the experience. In this case, the world comes across as a lackluster remaster of a previous-gen title.
Despite the open-world wonkiness, Dynasty Warriors 9 really shines when you hit the battlefield and begin laying waste to the hordes of enemies who stand between you and glory. With the press of a few buttons, you can pop enemies into the air, smack them around, and send them crashing back to earth. And if you have certain gems integrated into your weaponry, you can easily set your adversaries ablaze or give them a chilling, icy demise. Additionally, the open world allows you to approach these battles in a number of different ways. For example, if you approach an enemy camp under the cover of darkness, you have a chance to catch them completely off guard. Granted, the stealth system isn’t fully developed or exceptionally, and those hoping for the ability to pick off bad guys systemically should invest their time and energy elsewhere. However, these moments can give you the upper hand in a skirmish, which is often enough to turn the tide in your favor. Not that you’ll really need any assistance.
The battles in Dynasty Warriors 9 never feel overly challenging, especially if you choose to tackle the side quests prior to heading to the boss fight. Completing these missions, which often consist of taking control of enemy strongholds, makes the main quest almost effortless. At the same time, your character will grow stronger as you level up, giving you a noticeable edge in upcoming frays. Should you want to give your allies an advantage on the battlefield before getting down to business, invite them to your hideaway (of which there are 25 to purchase) and fill your guests with tea and conversation. Soon, you’ll feel like an absolute tank, carving through nefarious villains with ease as you leave your mark on the countryside — assuming that the lack of challenge doesn’t rock you to sleep in the process. Thankfully, boosting the difficulty can solve this problem, but only temporarily.
Prior to the game’s release, fans criticized Dynasty Warrior 9’s English dub, and for good reason. I didn’t necessarily mind the English dub’s admittedly poor execution, as it gave the game a “kung fu theater” vibe that I found oddly charming. The stilted delivery, combined with some melodramatic and oftentimes ridiculous dialogue (keep your eyes and ears peeled for the unexpected Skyrim joke), made me smile on more than one occasion. Sure, that’s probably not what the developers had intended, but it worked nonetheless. Imagine watching the Shaw Brothers’ classic Legendary Weapons of China with an atrocious ’70s-style overdub, and you’ve got Dynasty Warriors 9 in a nutshell. Fortunately for those who can’t stomach the English dub, you can also choose Japanese and Chinese, the latter of which gives the story some much-needed authenticity. If you can stomach it, try the English dub first.
Although Koei Tecmo’s decision to “westernize” the Dynasty Warriors franchise by giving it an open-world setting seems like a good idea on paper, it’s implementation falls woefully short. Dynasty Warriors 9 definitely hits some high notes, and those who have played the franchise over the years will surely find some stuff to love in the latest installment. However, as it stands, gamers delving into this world for the first time will likely wonder what all the fuss is about.
In an age of Horizon: Zero Dawn and Monster Hunter: World (just to name a couple), the game’s open world feels dated, empty, and unpolished. The battles still provide the kind of experience that you won’t find elsewhere, but it’s a shame these moments are trapped in a world that doesn’t do the concept any favors. At the end of the day, flaming swords, a horse named Mahogany, and countless hideaways filled with primo furniture couldn’t ease the disappointment I felt as I headed back into battle once again.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of Dynasty Warriors 9, which was provided by Koei Tecmo.