Platform: PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Release Date: February 15, 2022
Koei Tecmo’s long-running Dynasty Warriors franchise is a fascinating case study in how often a company can re-release the same fundamental game and still make money. The tried-and-true formula of giving players a one-versus-thousands power fantasy remains fun, but the constant retreading of old gameplay systems results in a game that is just a newer, and sometimes worse, version of its predecessors.
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is a game that, in a vacuum, sounds brilliant. First, start with Luo Guanzong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms: a legendary historical novel, which dramatizes the era following the fall of China’s Han dynasty. Then, translate that into an action game that features unique characters in massive military clashes. Finally, develop a system of nation-building in-between battles, with relationships, rivals and strategic decision-making at the forefront.
It's a brilliant idea, but it's poorly implemented in a game that is too shallow, buggy and outdated to appeal to anyone other than Dynasty Warriors superfans. Read on for our full Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires review.
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires review: Strategic mode
You'll spend much of your time in Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires in menus. There, you can manage yoru army, as well as spend limited action points to increase the size of your force, collect gold and rations, and engage diplomatically with regions around you. You can build relationships with unaffiliated soldiers to recruit them, and bond with fellow members of your army. It’s all quite shallow, however. The total number of possible actions are limited, and only a small number of them contribute meaningfully to your primary goal of taking over neighboring sectors.
The game's geopolitical aspects are more interesting. Every commander's goal is to unify China. That means that any region bordering one of your is a potential invader, or a target for invasion. Spending turns to place troops, build defenses and forge alliances can be engaging.
There are multiple scenarios to select, and the map changes to reflect the regional powers of that point in time. For example: One early scenario takes place during the Yellow Turban Rebellion, with popular uprisings among the Chinese citizenry leading to a splintered nation. A later one takes place in the heart of the Three Kingdoms era, with the country divided into three roughly equal powers.
Sadly, these scenarios don’t change your in-game experience much. The map tends to consolidate into a few major powers quickly, regardless of the era. There are slightly different generals on the field, but many of them are just the same generic skins with different names. The few unique characters tend to span multiple scenarios. After just a few rounds, each scenario looks just like any other.
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires review: Battlefield gameplay
The other key element in Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is combat. Your empire can invade other territories, or be invaded. This is the traditional hack-and-slash combat that's become synonymous with Dynasty Warriors. Armies can have thousands of troops, but almost all of them are simple fodder for the end of your spear. Each map is divided into bases, each of which you can capture by defeating the enemies within a marked area.
The goal of every battle is for the invading party to break into the defending city using siege towers, grappling hooks or battering rams. If the defense can defeat the invading army, or hold out until time expires, then they win. Each region has its own map, but they all play the same. The lack of variety is disappointing, but holding the last line of defense against a superior opponent while the clock ticks down can be exhilarating.
Combat is the same, if not slightly worse, than in previous series entries. The vast majority of enemies stand around, waiting for you to wipe them out en masse. Enemy generals put up a bit of a fight, and have proper health bars. But battles still mostly come down to running to a spot, mashing the same button until you’ve killed enough enemies to capture a point, and repeating the process.
Worse still, the new combat system from Dynasty Warriors 9 means that your weapon combos feel essentially endless, with little player input. The previous system at least had well-defined combos, which caused different effects depending on your intentional mix of light and heavy attacks. Now, pressing either attack button keeps you endlessly attacking, with little in the way of strategy.
Secret Plans do add a nice wrinkle to battles. Each opposing army has one potential plot, determined at the battle's outset, which can tilt the odds in their favor. Successfully activating these plans often requires keeping a specific group of captains alive, or capturing certain bases within a short timeframe. Doing so will summon reinforcements, fire attacks or even a monstrous Lightning Bear that wreaks havoc on your opponents. Juggling the broader goals of winning a battle with the specific conditions of launching, or preventing, a secret plan is an effective way to keep players mentally engaged.
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires review: Visuals and sound
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires runs poorly, which is surprising, given its dated, PS3-quality visuals. Ugly character models dot the sparse battlefields. Low-quality textures frequently pop into existence. Defeating a large group of enemies usually means slaying a few dozen foes, waiting for the next set to appear out of thin air, then annihilating that group. The game's poor visual fidelity doesn’t translate into a steady framerate, either, as activating a super-attack or encountering special effects quickly leads to slowdown.
The game's audio is quite good. Driving rock tunes are a staple of the Dynasty Warriors series, and they continue to be exactly the right type of high-energy, borderline-corny tracks that fans know and love. The battlefields are chaotic, and keeping track of powerful enemies is much easier thanks to the game's solid directional sound effects.
Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires review: Verdict
You know what you are going to get with Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires. Button-mashing your way through thousands of cannon fodder enemies is exactly as fun and repetitive as it has ever been. The Empires formula theoretically makes the game infinitely replayable, but it's not enough to make any specific playthrough interesting. The combat is less technical, but the Secret Plans are good fun. It’s just a shame that the game runs like a poorly optimized PS3 game.