KOEI And The Never Ending Hack And Slash Phenomenon

A friend of mine named Jason and I have been gamers ever since the beginning of gaming itself back in the late 70s and so much has changed in gaming since then. He is the first person shooter aficionado and I am the RPG fiend. So, at times when we get together and talk about what games we are going to buy this month, we tend to disagree on what looks interesting and what doesn’t. I’ve managed to surprise him and get him into blockbuster games that are hybrid versions of our favorite genres like Fallout 3, Oblivion, or Borderlands, but one craving I have that he will never understand is my infatuation with Koei’s hack n slash franchises Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors.

In case you are not familiar with this franchise, it began back in 1997 on the PS one system as a Tekken or Soulcalibur-like (one on one fighting game) spin off of the popular war strategy game called Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Since that first game, the franchise took a turn to become a battlefield hack and slash game in third person view where the general you control racks up an insane number of kills.

Wielding ornate marital arts weapons and mystical elemental powers, these generals would tear through the opposing armies as dozens of on screen opponents challenged them at once. Based in feudal China, the characters and battle all followed events depicted in a novel with the same name. Koei ran with the characters and events of this novel and sensationalized the characters personas and mystique with flashy costumes and fictional storylines that centered in on the unification of China.

The appeal of the war strategy game was very clear with its complex attention to strategy detail as well as high difficulty. As Koei ran with the success of Dynasty Warriors 2 and its unique direction, they developed sequels and expansions that managed to do very little to evolve the franchise and more to simply add to the existing game format. Expansions called ‘Xtreme Legends’ or ‘Empires’ would add more fabled generals to the hefty rosters (the original games would feature dozens of generals) as well as new RPG elements, stages (battles), game modes, items, and weapons. Though this would sound like a great tactic for a game developer to use with a franchise, the game sequels themselves typically turned out to be little more than expansions themselves. As time has gone on, the quote un-quote new versions of Dynasty Warriors have done little to evolve the game into a better game. Instead they manage to keep the same formula as the last game and either tinker with the graphics or tinker with some of the RPG elements. Hence Dynasty Warriors 4 would look and play exactly the same as Dynasty Warriors 5.

Hardcore fans of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms game see the appeal though… and here is why! The whole Dynasty Warriors (DW) franchise is like a teaser for what modern strategy fans are begging game developers for. You’ve seen hints of this ‘formula’ in games like Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, Ninety Nine Nights, and the DW Japanese spin-off Samurai Warriors. By this I mean the hybrid between an action game (Dynasty Warriors) and a strategy warfare game (Romance Of The Three Kingdoms or ROTK) with depth and difficulty.

Now the only problem is that Koei seems to have a game engine that has the gameplay mechanics and baseline needed yet the features that they are choosing to add are done piecemeal or not at all. Instead of making Dynasty Warriors 6 and then Dynasty Warriors 6 Xtreme Legends and then Dynasty Warriors 6 Empires, why don’t they just take all of the features of the Empires and Xtreme Legends versions and make a BETTER game that has all of that content? As Koei developed their franchise, they added in elements along the way that were improvements in some aspects and moments of de-evolution in others.

For example, many still consider DW3 to be one of the best in the series. It was leaps and bounds bigger and better than DW2 and provided so much more depth to the game. Probably the most notable was the addition of longer and more varied combos for each of the characters. Characters would have combos that could launch enemies into the air for extended combos, crowd clearing sweeps, stunning strikes, and automatic elemental attacks. This gave you (and your enemies) a wide variety of ways to deal with multiple generals or just one in particular. Also, you could evade, block, and jump out of the way of these attacks as a defense.

This game also added the feature where beating generals and captains with high combo totals would increase the possibility of high level items or attribute bonuses. Different level weapons and items as well as other character customizations led to a very rich and memorable experience. The morale system of the game also affected the battle strength of generals as well. Of course, the power of Lu Bu (regardless of how many stars of morale he had) and attempting to beat him with a low level character at the Battle of Hu Lao Gate was one of the most memorable of all in that version.

Koei then began their notorious formula of using the engine of the original game and punching out “expansions” that actually sold as individual games such as “Xtreme Legends”. These versions simply added more stages and characters and items to extend your hack N slash satisfaction.

The huge amount of characters and features of DW3 left many in a feverish pitch hoping to improve the strategy aspects yet maintain the rich combat and RPG elements they introduced. As DW4 came around, they toned down the item count and ramped up the intelligence of your enemies. Also, combos were structured a bit differently for each character to allow for longer combos as well. They even added a Create-a-general feature that allowed you to make your own hero, complete with weapon of choice, and bring them to DW greatness. This made for quite the polished DW3 experience yet it was not a leap forward in the least.

DW4 also brought about the genesis of the “expansions” called “Hyper” and “Empires”. Here they took the main engine of DW4 and added generals, levels, weapons, and features here and there. The one of particular interest was the “Empires” entry. Here Koei made their first attempt to actually bridge the gap between their Romance franchise and the action based DW franchise. DW4: Empires was quite the barebones strategy title but it did manage to entice fanboys to an interesting future possibility with the title.

This possibility was to finally merge the arcade style action of DW with the immensely difficult strategy of the Romance franchise. Generals began to have skills and abilities that affected how battles played out as well as how pre-battle orders were carried out as well. You could negotiate new generals to your forces, cause population riots, strengthen defenses, hire troops and so much more. All of these actions would then have some kind of affect on how future planned attacks would play out.

As Koei dove into DW5 and DW6, slight improvements to the combos, the movesets, the RPG elements of character advancement, character creation, and the loot structure changed. Despite what was done, nothing in the listing of improvements equated to a leap forward for the series that would interest gamers new to the franchise or genre for that matter.

On the bright side of things, Koei expanded on their Empires franchise with admirable efforts in DW6:Empires and Samurai Warriors 2:Empires. In DW6:E, more of an effort to make the user feel as if they were the general was made. As policy suggestions were made from month to month, the ruler you served under took your suggestion under consideration and if chosen, you were rewarded. Also, select missions were given to your general in an effort to do specific tasks for your kingdom. The events and choices made in the pre-battle phase of the game truly seemed to mimic the structure seen in the ROTK series a bit closer than ever before. Unfortunately, the difficulty of the battles was stripped down to a laughable simplicity that took away from the appeal of the game.

In SW2:E, however there seemed to be a remarkable balance between pre-battle options and in battle difficulty. With a staggering number of generals to chose from and the ability to create as well, SW2:E provided a wealth of options. Generals had multiple skills that affected their growth, their battle skills, their combos, and their specialized move sets. Though it would have been a bit more interesting to have some of these skills affect more of the pre-battle decisions, the ability to purchase and learn skills was a new dynamic that affected how you chose to improve your huge list of generals. Battle stances for each individual general also gave them more personality and power over the drones that accompanied them as well.

Also, battle formations acquired and used as policies changed the battlefield as well. With three levels of power attributed to attack, defense, and speed formations, the timing of use as well as remembering to acquire them greatly affected the battles. The formations could even trump the enemies’ selection if the correct level and type of formation was used. Specialized units such as sumo, ninja, musketeers, calvary, and spearmen also added a new element as well. Each of these units affected the battle differently and could even swarm about friendly or enemy generals providing difficulty and disruption unseen in previous DW or SW revisions. The pesky ninjas and the sumo units in particular had a knack for attacking and even killing generals when their morale was high.

Oddly enough though, some of these strong points found in SW2:E did not manage to find their way into DW6:E. It was so very clear that SW2:E had the most strategic elements found in virtually any Empires game Koei had released to date pushing the franchise closer to an action version of ROTK. Games like Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders (KUF) had some elements that I’m sure hack n’ slash aficionados would love to see in an Empires franchise. The addition of RPG elements to the troops such as experience, items to equip, and class could expand strategy. Also the ability to actually plan the timing and location of such policies as Ambush, Charm, traps, and the like would GREATLY improve the strategy element as well. This was a huge part of the love and difficulty of the KUF series when it debuted on the Xbox.

Elements that have been successful in the online MMO Dynasty Warriors Online could be implemented on the co-op or multiplayer section of the Empires game as well. An online persistent world on multiple servers could be used (much like was done on Chrome Hounds’ multiplayer) in order to give the multiplayer mode a sense of everyone working to a goal rather than just playing battles with a friend. The structure for character advancement and customization with multiplayer in mind could become nebulous though. This would essentially make it a game in and of itself if done correctly.

As Koei Warriors (or DW fanboys) turn their eyes and hearts towards DW7, one can only imagine the plans Koei has for the Empires franchise. It would seem that pushing the strategy envelope of DW and SW would benefit the allure of this successful series. The depth of the strategy added is a delicate balance of course. It must allow for the addition of difficulty without extreme complexity which is a hard thing to do even in pure strategy games. In the end, it is clear that even if little is done, Dynasty Warriors and the fabled generals of the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms saga will forever hold a special place in the hearts of strategy gamers across the world