“Dynasty Warriors mashed up with Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” That’s the elevator pitch for the Dynasty Warriors Empires spinoffs—the turn-based strategy of Koei Tecmo’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, but with battles playing out in Dynasty Warriors action-strategy fashion, instead of simply icons on screen to show you the play-by-play. It’s a formula that’s been working well for almost 20 years now, and playing off Dynasty Warriors 9’s impressive (if controversial) new directions, Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is the best iteration yet.
The typical, mainline Dynasty Warriors is primarily a story-driven affair that takes players on a journey through Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel. As you play through each kingdom’s campaign, you witness (and take part in) an interpretation of that classic novel, mostly through classic musou combat that mixes on-the-fly strategising with the exuberant action of a legendary hero mowing down enemies by the thousands. This is as true of Dynasty Warriors 9 as any other, though it traded in previous games’ level-based structure in favour of an open world that really drove home the scale of every operation. Come for the action, stay for a lesson in history and classical literature.
Empires, by contrast, mostly forgoes that authored narrative, instead turning things over to the player. Different campaigns based on who controls each province at different points in the Three Kingdoms timeline serve as starting points, but from there it’s basically up to you—with your chosen commander, China is yours for the taking.
This is where the influence of Koei Tecmo’s strategy games comes in. The battlefield action is just one part of Empires, with much of your time being dedicated to the grander strategy: managing resources, recruiting new officers, forging alliances with other kingdoms, moving your army around as necessary, and going to war with your neighbours. Each new month is a new turn, and a chance to undertake one action (from a lengthy list of options) to strengthen your kingdom and prepare for whatever battles await. How effectively you use those turns, and how able you are to respond to the ever-changing landscape, can determine the fate of a battle before you ever set foot.
For those familiar with Koei Tecmo’s strategy games, it’s basically a slightly pared back version of the same. The systems aren’t quite as intricate as Romance of the Three Kingdoms proper, but it’s a close approximation that still offers some depth, and on harder difficulties especially, forces you to plan ahead. The main difference, really, is that when a battle ensues, you jump into it yourself with that classic Dynasty Warriors mix of carving through footsoldiers like butter, capturing and defending bases, facing off against enemy officers, and generally trying to keep the state of the battlefield favourable while your foes try to turn things in their favour.
Or, to put it more simply, it’s a turn-based grand strategy game where you actively take part in the battles—which is, unsurprisingly, a riveting combination.
Such has been true of every Empires spinoff to date, but building of Dynasty Warriors 9’s foundation puts this one in particularly good stead. Battlefields tend to be large and more open, particularly on the outskirts, paving the way for siege weapons to play a key role—any invasion depends on being able to breach the city’s defences, after all, and battering rams, siege towers, and catapults are a good way to go about that. Once inside, the narrower streets and mazelike city layouts present more navigational hurdles before you can finally find the commander and claim your new territory. Empires isn’t open world in structure, with battles restricted to confined zones, but it still uses the open world map that Dynasty Warriors 9 is built on, and benefits from the unique level design quirks that come with that. (You can also freely explore the full map outside of battle, if you want to.)
In the thick of the fray, the various new special attacks and other little tweaks that Dynasty Warriors 9 brought to the series’ hack-and-slash core tighten up the Empires action, too. Knockdowns, stun attacks, and contextual counterattacks each add new dynamics, and the tougher foes you encounter will absolutely expect you to make full use of them. Throw in the consequences of your actions on the strategy side—weakened enemy defences as a result of your sabotage, your own army being undermanned because of a surprise attack on a territory you’d left undefended, and so on—and you get a captivating back and forth between methodical strategising and energetic action.
(And, because somehow people are still going on about Dynasty Warriors being a “mindless button masher”: no it isn’t, and never has it been. People seem to assume that cutting down popcorn enemies that specifically exist not to pose a challenge is the point of these games, but it’s not—they’re just there to sell the Three Kingdoms fantasy of a great commander who can single-handedly defeat a whole army with ease, and for the satisfaction of watching your KO count go up. The strategic elements of commanding a battlefield and juggling often competing priorities, and the one-on-one fights against similarly powerful enemy commanders are where musou games’ deeper engagement lies, and they tend to do an excellent job of that. Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is no exception.)
The trade-off is that Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires lacks the narrative weight of the base game. Instead of following an authored story, you’re writing your own tale of conquest. There’s plenty of fun in that, but it means the narrative flourishes that accompany things like getting married or toppling a powerful foe are piecemeal and generic. And by extension, it’s harder to really connect with characters on any level other than their strategic value, unless you’ve already formed those attachments in previous games. In that way, Empires does feel more like an expansion than a whole new game—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but is worth keeping in mind. I doubt many people come to Empires to hear a good yarn, but the sacrifice that its open-ended structure demands is noticeable.
It’s also not the best first impression for Warriors to make on PlayStation 5. Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires has a dedicated PS5 version, but it doesn’t take advantage of any of the new consoles possibilities and looks near-identical to its PlayStation 4 counterpart, albeit with some occasional graphical glitches. Empires is still a good-looking game because Dynasty Warriors 9 was a good-looking game—not a graphical powerhouse, but a great use of naturalistic environment design, lifelike historical sets, and vibrant characters—but the PS5 version doesn’t make as much impact as you’d hope from the series’ first foray into the new generation.
But as a case study in how well musou action and turn-based strategy can work together, Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires delivers. It’s the best parts of Koei Tecmo’s grand strategy games and the energetic, strategic combat of Dynasty Warriors, rolled together in a way that elevates both sides of the calculation. That’s long been the case for the Empires line, but building off the strong foundation of Dynasty Warriors 9, this one does it better than most.