Finally after battling through hordes over enemies through the tiny gates, the landscape opened up, just so much as to feel we could breathe again. To the East, was a cliff-face, and the West another. Before us was the gentle slope of a small hill. We hurried up it; our adrenaline still pumping from the heat of battle. As we reached the crest of the hill though, we saw the silhouette cross the night sky. I looked as the hill sloped downward as the cliffs about us closed inward into the giant man-made structure. It was a structure I had seen interpreted five times before, but never had Hulao Gate stood so low, and yet felt so intimidating. I already knew what lay behind it, but I never thought how significant the gate itself could be.
This is only one of the many things Dynasty Warriors 8 did right when it came to reinterpreting the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel (along with other source materials) into the video game space. While it may have taken them seven games to do it, Omega Force has found a proper balance of tone, gameplay, and design to bring the Three Kingdoms era to life.
The environment of Hulao Gate illustrates one of many locales that have been drastically re-imagined for this installment. From the yellow deserts of Chang Ban, to the snowy hills of Xu Province, to the flames engulfing Chi Bi, battlefields feel much more dynamic, unique, and alive than ever before. While not every stage stirs up as strong emotions as these, it is a great change of pace from the dull greys, greens, and browns that plague the gaming world, and even plagued previous Dynasty Warriors titles.
However, player’s won’t have much time to enjoy the scenery, as battle has become more demanding than ever before. While the series has been characterized as simple button mashing, it has been making small steps throughout the games to move away from that. While mindless mashing can certainly still be employed in this iteration, it is not the most effective solution. This is accomplished through a new series of systems introduced in Dynasty Warriors 8.
First is the weapon system. While Dynasty Warriors 7 employed the idea of being able to carry two weapons and switch between them freely, Dynasty Warriors 8 actually gives the player a reason to do so. Every weapon one collects has an element assigned to it — Heaven, Earth, or Man. Each of these elements works as a counter for each other in a Rock, Paper, Scissors format (Heaven beats Earth, Earth beats Man, Man beats Heaven). Enemy officer’s weapons have these elements assigned to them as well, so that the player will inevitably have enemies where they are at an advantage, or the enemy is. When at an advantage, attacks break down spirit of the opponent. Once spirit is depleted, the attacker can perform a wind fury attack — a series of repeated blows that hit a wide area in front of them. When at a disadvantage, however, the player’s attacks will deal damage, but the enemy can still attack unfazed by the blows. The enemy can also perform wind fury attacks on the player if they score a combo chain. Thus it is ideal to switch to another weapon of a different type at all times.
This creates strategy going into a battle that the series has lacked in it’s main run for some time. The player has no way of knowing what combination of elements will be encountered in the stage. The player is restricted to two weapons, so it can only ever have two possible elements to switch between. In addition, once the initial load-out is chosen, it cannot be changed once the battle has commenced. The user can tell if he is at an advantage or disadvantage from the icon above the enemy officer’s head; however, when more than one enemy officer is around (which tends to happen frequently), the player then has to weigh his options of what weapon to use, or which officer to take down first.
Secondly, the game expands the rules to include three Musou bars, and a new Musou Rage meter. The musou meters are filled by taking and dealing damage, while the Musou Rage meter is built up by performing combos. One musou meter is spent using one of three possible musou attacks, each set of three unique to each character. The fact that there are three bars now is significant, as a user can now choose to expend it to extend combos, to get enemies off of him, or to counter an enemy’s musou attack without having to worry about having no musou to use at other times. This plays directly into the Musou Rage system, however.
Once the Musou Rage meter is full, the player can activate the Rage mode, which slows down time around the player character, and gives them enhanced defense and attack power for a short period of time. They also have access to their Musou in this form, which will allow them to perform a Musou Rage attack — a devastating combo that can gather multiple opponents for repeated attacks. Little will remain standing follow a Musou Rage attack, however, it’s length depends on how many musou meters were left before going into rage.
Therefore, different tactics can be extrapolated from this system. Saving Musou for Musou Rage attacks when in tight situations would be a safe tactic, though unloading all barrels in one swoop like this could be detrimental if done too early. Using Musou freely to build combos and take down small skirmishes quickly is viable as well, though it may leave the player without access to a full Musou Rage attack later. These are choices the player will have to make on a consistent basis, especially in a scenario he’s not familiar with.
Following this theme, the new Ambition mode also is a great example of infusing more strategy into the game. In Ambition mode, the player is tasked with gathering materials, allies, and weapons, in order to build a city to attract and defend the emperor. These materials, allies, and weapons are gained from shorter battles a player can choose to participate in. Once the battle is complete, the player is given the option to take his rewards back to camp, or continue onward to collect more. As he continues, the difficulty of the stages increases, but the rewards will increase as well. What’s more, there are very few health recovery items in these stages, and your character does not heal from one battle to the next. Thus, the player must weigh the reward of greater bounty against his own skill and life bar.
Even the traditional story mode has been infused with more strategic aspects. While the basic idea of telling the story of the Three Kingdoms era, nearly every stage in the story has the potential to derail it from it’s fated course. Completing particular objectives in certain stages will affect the plot going forward. If enough changes are made, the entire destiny of the chosen force can derail into a completely different (and fictional) path. While most of these are very specific, they are easy to spot when you know what to look for. For instance, during the battle of Xu Province, once Liu Bei’s forces have started to gain a foothold in the battle, Guo Jia calls for an unexpected retreat when Cao Cao’s forces clearly still out number them. Managing to defeat all the retreating officers while still maintaining their forces position will have lasting effects later in his campaign.
However, the new changes to story mode do not completely remove the Story Mode from it’s original intent. It’s incredibly unlikely a player will be able to accomplish enough of these goals to avoid the historical account completely. Instead, it breathes new life into the story mode after a campaign is completed — offering greater replayability.
Lastly, the game is completed by rounding out the cast of the game, and the characters and weapons added to the game bring a variety of welcome additions. The specific characters added all seem to be chosen to add more to the variety of characters available at the force’s peak of strength. For instance, Guan Xing and Zhang Bao were two warriors that came to rise in Shu’s ranks following the deaths of their fathers, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei respectively. While Shu was hit hard after the deaths of two great warriors, Guan Xing and Zhang Bao prove that Shu was far from lacking in strength in this period. Also, many of Wu’s strongest warriors had been veteran officers, not the young upstarts that typically led them. Therefore a strong veteran warrior like Han Dang is more reflective of that.
Turning to weapons, new weapon styles begin to shift focus from simple ground-based combat, to fighting enemies in the air as well. Guan Xing’s wingblades make for quick simple tricks on the ground, but provide deathly juggle combos once in the air. Jiang Wei’s new double-trident weapon, also has several moves that transition from ground to air to set up mid-air juggle combos as well. This brings a strange and new flair to combos that were not seen before.
Aside from these major changes, Omega Force has polished very many aspects of the game system, with small additions that seem infinitesimal, but mean a great deal. For instance, in addition to the ability to mid-air jump out of a juggle state with proper timing, a player can also force their character to their feet from a prone position faster with the guard button. Also, certain combo strings will now hit prone enemies as well, so that skilled players can learn how to extend combos in this state. Leveling up characters is now done automatically, and at particular levels, characters gain access to new skills and abilities, such as the abilities to air dash, or summon shadow clones temporarily. Also, I believe I failed to mention, every mode in the game allows for both online and offline cooperative play.
In conclusion, if Dynasty Warriors 7’s guiding principle was the story, Dynasty Warriors 8’s guiding principle is strategy. All the tweaks, additions, and changes involved in Dynasty Warriors 8 work toward building up the strategy elements in the game. Thankfully, the game did not have to be completely redesigned to do this, so that veterans of the previous installment will feel right at home. Furthermore, the game reintroduces old features like Free Mode and cooperative play, and makes them fun again.
The game’s one and only stumbling block, is that the story of the game has been sacrificed somewhat. While the changes to Story Mode has been improved in terms of gameplay and replayability, it unfortunately fails to tell a very compelling story. While each campaign has it’s moments, story elements are unfortunately broken up by gameplay that is far more frantic and intense than any of the emotions or ideas discussed in the cut-scenes. The question for the user then is whether a story well told is worth more than a game well designed?
Review was conducted with PS3 version of the game, with over 10+ hours of play (and not to completion). Nearly all of this was done in offline co-op as well. Also, I do not work for own any material, copyrights, or characters involved with Dynasty Warriors, TecmoKoei, Omega Force, or anything mentioned in this article.