Dynasty Warriors 9 feels like the game that Omega Force has been wanting to make since the series’ birth. They’ve finally got the budget and technology to really capture the grandiose epic of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and to convey that feeling of being a soldier on the ground in a war that’s so much bigger than you. This is a bold new direction for the series, but the gamble paid off—this is, without a doubt, the best Warriors game to date.
Like its many predecessors, Dynasty Warriors 9 is a retelling of the classical Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, itself a novelised account the turbulent Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. Through a handful of different narrative paths, you get to see the story unfold from the different perspectives of key players within the conflict. Instead of the grand strategy favoured by most other Three Kingdoms games, you play one of a handful of powerful officers in a hack-and-slash action game, carving your way through thousands of enemies and leading your enemies across the battlefield. So far, so familiar.
The big point of difference in Dynasty Warriors 9 is that it’s shifted to an open-world format. Previously, the series used a level-based structure, where each battle was its own isolated thing; this time round, they all take place within one massive, continuous world. This fundamentally changes the whole atmosphere of the game, because you’re no longer just playing through a few loosely-connected levels. As you travel across the map from one objective to the next, you really get a sense of how all these different pieces fit together.
It gives you a chance to really appreciate the scale and impact of each kingdom’s campaign. Riding across the countryside on horseback, you get a feel for the people and culture of third-century China. Passing through small villages, you see people toiling away in the fields or trying to deal with bandit attacks. Riding through the big cities, the energy is infectious, and the architecture and design work—all heavily researched for authenticity—is awe-inspiring.
At the same time, this isn’t your typical open-world game. For one thing, you don’t really have to play it that way at all, if you don’t want to. The game is still broken up into chapters, and each chapter is set in and around a particular part of the world; you can think of these zones as “levels” if you want to, albeit on a bigger scale than past Warriors games. (On the other hand, if you want to just ride from one end of the map to the other, you can—assuming you’ve got a good six hours to spare to do that.)
But the more significant departure from the standard open world format is the mission structure and objectives. Each chapter has one major, overarching goal—usually to defeat someone or other in battle—and if you want to just run up to them right away, you can. You’ll probably get slaughtered, though, because the “boss” of each chapter starts out at a significantly higher level than you. In order to level the playing field, you need to complete other, shorter-term objectives like taking over bases or undertaking certain quests. With each small victory, the boss’s level gets reduced, so the more thorough your military campaign, the better your chances at success. Some quests bolster your prospects in other ways, like making certain allies available in future battles who wouldn’t otherwise be there fighting alongside you.
With this setup, Dynasty Warriors 9 takes the usual dichotomy of “main quests” and “side quests” and merges them into one natural whole. Instead of pointless busywork, most of the sidequests feel like part of something bigger—because they are. Each objective, whether optional or mandatory, is part of your chosen officer’s grand military strategy, and every small win is a step towards victory.
That said, there are a few more mundane, forgettable jobs scattered throughout the game that feel more detached from their surroundings. These “requests”, as they’re called in the game, typically amount to fetch quests, with a bit of experience and a few items as your reward. They don’t contribute to the war effort in the way that the more substantial missions do, but fortunately they carry a different icon, so they’re easy enough to avoid if you so choose.
Aside from that, there isn’t a lot in the way of collectibles that usually plague open-world games. There are plenty of landmarks to discover if you’re feeling adventurous—you can, for example, climb to the top of Mount Song—and things like campfires and villages can be used as fast-travel points once discovered, but this isn’t a game that’s constantly trying to distract you with Korok Seeds or ancient relics to loot. It’s a welcome change of pace to be able to open the map and not see it covered with icons highlighting all the Things To Do™.
Instead, when you open the map, you’ll mostly see icons showing where battles are taking place—and, given the Three Kingdoms setting, they’re all over the place. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, NPCs across the full breadth of Dynasty Warriors 9‘s map are getting into skirmishes and fighting for control of key locations. If you want to help them, you can, and it’s often beneficial to do so, but you can’t “complete” all these battles because they keep popping up. Rather, they add to the warlike atmosphere of the game: no matter how powerful your officer, they’re still just one person, and seeing the war playing out across this huge swathe of China is a constant reminder of that.
This isn’t just a thoughtless switch to an open-world format. No, it’s a carefully-considered move—one that the people at Omega Force have been thinking about for many, many years, I’d wager—with the goal of doubling down on everything that makes Dynasty Warriors and Romance of the Three Kingdoms the grand epics that they are. It works wonders.
Dynasty Warriors 9 also features plenty of tweaks and adjustments to the more established aspects of the franchise. Combat still largely follows the same hack-and-slash mould, but there’s greater depth and variety in the sorts of attacks available to you. In addition to the standard light and heavy attacks, new “Trigger Attacks” let you do things like stun or knock down enemies; these can be charged up, too, for greater effect. Each character also has a unique special attack (in addition to the series-staple Musou Attacks) that help make them feel a little bit more distinct.
Also new are context-sensitive Reactive Attacks, which let you do things like counterattack or finish off a downed foe. Any time you see the triangle button flash above an enemy’s head, you can be confident that pressing it will make good stuff happen. You can follow most of these up with powerful “Flow” combos as well, creating an almost seamless string of attacks to cut your foe down to size.
The open-world setup also opens the door to more varied objectives in battle, and more freedom in how you approach them. Siege weapons often play a big role in battle, so you’ll want to clear their paths of enemies and obstacles. Alternatively, you could just grapple over the wall of a keep, take out any foes on the other side, and open the gates from inside to let the rest of your army come pouring in.
There are even a few stealth sections, which seem wildly at odds with Dynasty Warriors’ usual focus on extravagant, flashy combat. Surprisingly, these sections work quite well; they’re not up to the same level as a dedicated stealth game, but they’re far more effective than the tacked-on stealth bits at you often see in action games. They’re relatively infrequent, which helps—they pop up just enough to add some extra variety to the game, without become a chore.
That said, bow and mounted combat could do with some work. Attacking from horseback is rather simple and anticlimactic, while the bow controls feel finicky and dated: aim with the left stick, shoot with square. There’s no option to draw and hold a shot while you take aim or move about while using the bow, and actually hitting a target that isn’t standing dead still seems impossible. I’d like to see the next Dynasty Warriors game build that up into something more akin to Tomb Raider—which is still the reigning queen when it comes to bow combat—to add another layer of depth to the series’ famous combat.
If you’ve played any previous Dynasty Warriors game, or indeed any Three Kingdoms game, the story in Dynasty Warriors 9 will be familiar—but that’s no bad thing. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a timeless classic that can be told and retold for eternity without ever growing dull, and that’s every bit as true for Dynasty Warriors’ adaptations of it.
The story tells of the fall of the eastern Han Dynasty around the turn of the third century, the subsequent vying for power between warlords of the Wei, Wu, and Shu factions, and the eventual rise of the Jin Dynasty. There’s a separate campaign for each of Wei, Wu, Shu, and Jin, giving each different side’s perspective on events without casting any clear villains or heroes. These campaigns all overlap, but playing them all is crucial to getting the full Three Kingdoms story—making for a massive, 150+ hour game all up, but one that makes good use of that time and dishes its narrative out in relatively manageable pieces.
The tale itself is one of military ingenuity and political strife, as the various leaders and warlords shuffle chess pieces around a board to secure their position. At the same time, the creative, larger-than-life characterisations of the figures of the day prevent it from become a dry history lesson. There are some 80 different officers, and though they vary in their importance to the overall story, each helps flesh out the grand epic that is Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
One of the most fascinating things about it all is that, romanticised though aspects of the characters are, the events and battles are all fundamentally true to history. Romance of the Three Kingdoms itself is based on Records of the Three Kingdoms, the official record of the Three Kingdoms period; though its a novelised account, Romance pays great heed to historical authenticity and detail.
This is true of Dynasty Warriors 9 as well, and the sheer scale of the game let’s it do justice to that history in a way that none before it could. I talked earlier about the atmosphere brought about by the open world; that doesn’t just make this a more captivating story, it gives the whole world a sense of place groundedness. Couple that with the amount of detail and research that’s gone into the world design, and you get the most stunning, authentic re-creation of Three Kingdoms-era China seen in any game to date. Aside from all the other great reasons to play Dynasty Warriors 9, it’s an interactive history lesson and a gorgeous piece of digital tourism. To top that off, there’s also a Chinese voice track for the first time in series history—a welcome addition indeed.
Make no mistake, Dynasty Warriors 9 is the best Warriors game yet, in both the sheer ambition of it and its ability to deliver on that. I hope that this framework becomes the new normal for the franchise, because to see a Samurai Warriors—or, hell, any of the many spinoffs and crossover games—brought to life as brilliantly as Dynasty Warriors 9 would be a dream come true.
Dynasty Warriors is developed by Omega Force and published by Koei Tecmo. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed) and Xbox One.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.