It’s been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and nowhere is this more evident than the gaming industry, where a good idea spawns countless clones from other companies, not to mention numerous sequels. While some actually host innovation, quite a lot of games wind up being uninteresting rehashes of previous concepts. Koei has managed to place itself in a rather unique position – while they consistently revisit the same periods in history, each successive title provides a deeper insight into the conflicts that ravaged ancient China and Japan. Dynasty Warriors 4, Koei’s latest action title set in ancient China, returns players to the (now) familiar warfare of the Three Kingdoms period.
In case you’ve never checked out this series before, DW4 introduces gamers to a turbulent political era shortly after the fall of the Han Dynasty. The power vacuum established by the destruction of this empire resulted in numerous civil wars that came very close to ripping all of China apart. Yet there were influential generals and rulers in three kingdoms who sought to claim the evacuated throne and restore peace. Historically, the Wei Kingdom accomplished this goal after forty-five years of continual warfare. DW4 allows players a chance to lead the Wei kingdom to victory with a number of capable generals. Alternatively, it also allows players to effectively re-write the history books by commanding the Wu or Shu kingdoms, conquering your enemies and seizing control of the country.
After a kingdom and general have been chosen, you’ll enter a battlefield selection screen that explains the storyline behind each conflict, either with a cutscreen or text summation. From there, you’re taken to a war-planning map where the theater of war is laid out in 3D. More than previous Dynasty Warrior titles, preparing your general has much more importance due to the limited number of items that can be carried into battle, many of which provide supplemental effects such as fire strikes, more powerful special attacks and increased defense. Weapons have been revamped as well, and can now gain experience along with their owner, providing characters with more destructive combos. What’s more, you can also give orders to your bodyguards, deciding just how aggressive your protectors are in combat.
The scale of ancient battles was massive, with thousands of combatants fighting at the same time on large battlefields. The Dynasty Warriors series has always prided itself on its presentation of the chaos of war, and DW4 is no different, exhibiting more than 50 combatants onscreen at once. This may not seem like an impressive statistic when compared to RTS titles or other era-specific military games. But what makes DW4’s battles unique is the constant, intelligent reactions that combatants display, which is tied into the Morale meter. Each side actively pays attention to how well the conflict is going, and will respond accordingly. For example, capture numerous objectives and enemy ranks will break and fall apart.
Similarly, grunts and archers will respond to immediate threats to their flanks, usually with the side effect of attracting enemy leaders. These officers can now challenge players to a duel for their honor to the death. Creatively, this adds a heightened amount of tension to the timed face-off, as a win crushes the morale of your foes, while a loss ends your game immediately.
Character models have always been large and nicely detailed in Koei games, with realistic animation and movements during attacks. The same can be said of their cutscenes, which are beautifully rendered. In fact, the largest hiccup with the Dynasty Warriors series was a certain amount of slowdown or decreased detail as more and more combatants entered an onscreen fight. Plus, the characteristic PS2 anti-aliasing problems were stuck throughout previous titles. DW4, by contrast, appears to have gone through a global sharpness filter, keeping the relative scale of each fighter while tightening up animation. Attacks and combinations look and feel more natural, giving you a sense that your character is truly a master of their weapon. Special attacks also display sharper particles effects, such as when two swords get locked up between enemies.
But these few tweaks raises a rather creative paradox: While graphics look good, they’ve never really been pushed too far from earlier iterations, which results in relatively minor tweaks and airbrushing. Practically the same could be said about the sound, since practically every sound effect has been taken from previous Dynasty Warrior games. Most music within the game is still overwhelmingly Japanese synth-pop/rock, largely comprised of large guitar solos. Similarly, the voiceover work is still “passable”, although it constantly strays towards the overdramatic.
In fact, the minor deviations between graphics, sound and gameplay illustrate another solid idiom that seems to have been used for this series: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For the past three titles in the series, players of the Dynasty Warriors games have entered the same conflicts, fought the same generals, and traversed essentially the same terrain. In fact, since the gameplay has practically remained so homogenous, the biggest difference is in just how effective each new element is. Granted, there are new features, but some of them are appear to be slight augmentations to previous features. For example, the Encyclopedia mode displays Koei’s exhaustive research into the subject, which is a great informational tool for players to read up on the subject matter of the game. However, since this mode was included in previous versions, it feels more like a postscript than a true addition or novelty. Other items that are touted are rather inconsequential, such as the siege engines, which are supposed to have a major impact on play, but typically come across as facets of cutscenes instead of weapons that help determine conflicts. Hell, even the inclusion of additional hidden characters evokes ideas of Dynasty Warriors: The Director’s Cut instead of a new adventure in a different time period, or even another country.
Now, just because there are relatively minor tweaks to just about every aspect of the game, Dynasty Warriors 4 is still a very solid title, primarily because of these rehashed features. The gameplay is just as easy to pick up and play as earlier versions (even if every single stage boils down to a “kill every enemy that moves” formula), and the individual storylines that are weaved between characters and kingdoms are still very engaging. Plus, the number of hidden characters and items, some of which are carried over from previous titles, ensures plenty of replayability for those eager to get their money’s worth out of a game. While Dynasty Warriors 4 won’t break new ground or establish new benchmarks, it does bolster Koei’s dominance of the historical action game.