Good idea, Bad idea: Dynasty Warriors and the hack n’ slash pretenders

As an early adopter of Destructoid’s new Monthly Musings program (before we find out that half the articles have Red Ring of Death problems), I have pledged to the good Reverend Anthony that I shall fully support the scheme with an article per month, unless the unifying subject concerns elements out of my expertise. Or if I’m just really, really lazy. You know how it goes.

So, good idea, bad idea is this month’s theme, and with the release of Dynasty Warriors 6 right around the corner, what could be better than me using this new article program as an excuse to fit more Koei love in? What’s even better, I now get an opportunity to rant about how terrible Drakengard was. Believe me, I adore any such opportunity.

The subject I have chosen for this month’s submission is how the underlying gameplay of Dynasty Warriors games is a good idea — an action game that sees you as a lone soldier in a pitched battle — and how every game that has attempted to rip the formula off has, thus far and sadly, been a very bad idea. Hit the jump for more. 

[With thanks to Silverhertz for the awesome and, frighteningly accurate, header image]

This article is as good as any to finally explain why exactly I love the Dynasty Warriors series of games. I completely understand that many gamers in the West do not see the appeal and find the game enjoyable. I’m not here to convert anyone, since I don’t have a problem with people disliking the games I love. People who hate Dynasty Warriors often have good points, and I know the series is flawed in some ways, but I still adore, warts and all. I just want to explain my love a little.

I wasn’t always this big of a gamer. Growing up, I had a few favorites — Sonic 2, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII — but for much of my younger life, I could often take or leave videogames. My first experience of Dynasty Warriors came during this period, when I used to watch my brother and his inane friends play Dynasty Warriors 3 on the PS2. For the first time since MGS, my ears actually picked up and my eyes were drawn to the screen in wonder of this new discovery.

I wasn’t interested in most of the things he put in that machine, but Dynasty Warriors 3 was quite unlike anything I had ever seen. The amazingly over-the-top character design, the idea of fighting in the middle of a two-sided battlefield, the interesting historical setting, huge cast of characters and, of course, camp yet fantastic rock music, all seemed to come together. It was quirky and silly, yet looked utterly tremendous fun. It was certainly mindless hack n’ slash, but it was hack n’ slash on a scale I’d never seen before. This was essentially Golden Axe, but slightly less sane, and I adored it.

As someone who, at the time, wasn’t incredibly comfortable with a game controller, I found the easy-to-grasp button scheme a treat. Yes, a lot of it was just hammering one button, but in my early days I was quite proud of mastering all the charge attacks that you could add to each button mash in order to chain a more effective attack. This was a game about the spectacle, about charging your super powerful general into a group of enemies and sending them flying while heavy metal riffs scream from the speakers. From the moment Zhang Jiao screamed “GOOOOOO! Ye children of the yellow turban,” it was an addictive, thrilling, unashamedly ridiculous experience.

From there, I was hooked, and the game even turned me into a full time gamer. I went from being indifferent about games save for the occasional big one, to eating, sleeping and drinking videogames. Dynasty Warriors did that for me, and I stick by it through every expansion and sequel.

Yes, I fully admit that Koei’s Madden-like treatment of the series can wear one down. A few years ago, I’d even sworn off the games completely. I couldn’t help myself though and was eventually sucked back into it when I realized I actually craved Zhang He’s cries of “Beautiful,” as a man chained to a radiator would crave that delicious heroin. You see, each sequel and add-on isn’t about changing the core gameplay, or even the story. Indeed, with a game based on an historical novel, the plot of the games reset with each big sequel in the franchise, but we don’t care — we want to see the new characters and what the next Battle of Hu Lao Gate looks like. Each game redesigns the warriors and settings from the last, adding new moves, new looks and often new voices. The chance to take these characters and build them from the ground up into invincible killing machines, the discovery of new maps, new generals, new takes on the old famous historical battles, that is why we keep coming back for more.  

Dynasty Warriors isn’t just a button masher. The RPG-lite elements of stat building, weapon unlocking and moveset expanding can really hook one in, and the bad kung fu voice acting, amazing character design and sheer spectacle of running down a hill and seeing nothing but an entire unit of enemy soldiers heading your way is just fantastic. That is why I love Dynasty Warriors, and while I fully understand nobody else seeing what I see, all I can see is one amazingly good idea from Koei.

With the game having a cult following in the West but being a HUGE system selling behemoth in Japan, it was inevitable that other companies would want to bottle the magic for themselves. This is actually something I welcomed with open arms — if Square-Enix, Sega and Capcom would provide a suitable challenge to Koei’s hack n’ slash throne, not only would I have another awesome game, but Koei would also need to shake things up. Sadly, however, Dynasty Warriors is yet to receive any competition. The games that have attempted to take its crown include Drakengard, Spartan: Total Warrior and Devil Kings, and I’m here to tell you, right now, what bad ideas they all were. 

One of, if not the earliest attempts at improving upon Koei’s formula was Square Enix’s Drakengard, a game that seemed set to shake up the hack n’ slash genre with epic storytelling and a gigantic dragon. Not only did the game allow you to fight countless enemy soldiers on foot, you could also summon a fire breathing lizard to dispense roasted death from above. As a Final Fantasy fan, I was very intrigued to see what Squeenix could do with one-on-thousands melee action, and was interested by the arrogant claims that the games’ creators had “developed” the idea behind Dynasty Warriors.

Well, it certainly developed it, if you could call “massive disappointment” a development.

Drakengard‘s story was its saving grace — a legendary tale of friendship and war in a fantasy setting that reminded me of old school adventure films like Willow and Dark Crystal. Taking on the role of Caim, who’s made a life-and-death pact with a dragon which robbed him of his voice, you fight against an evil empire known as The Union as he works to protect The Goddess from their evil clutches. There are some amazing cinematics, well-crafted characters and … hmm … not a lot else, sadly.

The on-foot gameplay indeed takes more than one leaf from the Dynasty Warriors book, as Caim chops up his foes with a variety of weapons in button-hammering combat. The problem is that gameplay is so lacklustre and presentation so dull that it’s simply nowhere near as fun as the game it shamelessly copies. Firstly, this isn’t the tactical action that DW is known for. You’re expected to believe you’re fighting a war, but there are no allies. You’ll certainly hear friendly soldiers shouting things like “We’ll fight to the end for you, Lord Caim,” but you never actually see a single one of them. The whole game hinges itself on making you think you’re in a pitched battle, when it’s really just you and the enemies. Rather than your opposition moving along the map to take positions and demolish your forces, they just … stand there. Your enemies will wait in small clusters, all over the map, staring at the pretty flowers until you come to cut their heads off. It’s incredibly stupid and completely kills part of the game’s potential appeal.

The game boasts 65 weapons to choose from, but very much like the battlefield, it is naught but illusion. The 65 weapons are split into five subcategories such as swords and axes, and that is the only place you’ll really find any variety. No matter what weapon you get, they all follow one of five clichéd conventions — hammers and axes are slow yet powerful, while daggers are fast but as weak as watered down piss. They can each be leveled up four times and increase in power, but honestly, there is no incentive to collect and build all 65 arms. A waste of time.

Other problems include enemies using a more aggressive AI coupled with Caim being unable to take any hits before his combo is broken. What this means is that you barely get to pull off any special attacks. In Dynasty Warriors, people complain about the AI, but Drakengard is an example of what would happen if people got what they want. An AI that’s too aggressive in games where you’re one man against thousands just doesn’t work. As with the weapons, your arsenal of special moves and spells lack variety and bore after a while. There’s simply no pomp, flare or personality to the gameplay, it lacks that which makes Dynasty Warriors‘ repetitive action work for its fans.

As for the dragon, well you can ride it in the middle of a battle or in special aerial levels that will probably provide a nostalgia kick for Panzer Dragoon fans. What it also provides is more boredom. You soon tire of floating above the battlefield and dropping the same old fireballs into the same old enemies, and the flying levels in which you shoot some of the most impractical flying machines ever designed are even less fun. It all wears so very thin after so very few minutes.

Ultimately, Drakengard was a total letdown. It had its moments and the story was first rate, but beyond that there just wasn’t anything to keep you coming back. It was a joyless trek that wasn’t even saved by the few unlockable characters on offer (especially compared with the near-50 characters that DW has). I had high hopes for this one, but they were all dashed in good time. A real shame.

The game should have been called Spartan: Total Wanker. I can’t express just how much I loathe this cheap, unfulfilling, nasty little viper of a game. As with every title on this list, it looked so good, looked like it could kick Koei’s arse, and then it utterly, utterly failed upon release.

Spartan is the classic example of putting too much AI in a game full of enemies. The peon class soldiers in this game are just as lethal as their leaders, and they will surround you, stab you in the back, then hide behind their shields when you retaliate. This, by the way, is how the entire game plays. You will be taken down by the Romans, pounded into a bloody pulp, and then viciously sodomized because you tried to actually fight. If you want Dynasty Warriors with brutal, unforgiving peons, then have at it. Go play Spartan. Have fun being humiliated.

The only way to play Spartan is to bash enemies with your shield to make them drop their guard, then attack them with a strong attack (since your weak attacks are useless) and then do it again. And again. And again. For the REGULAR soldiers. Not to mention that your shield bash actually knocks enemies away from you so by the time you get close enough to attack, they may have started blocking again.

Things get even worse when the game robs you of allies and, rather than placing you in a DW-like battle, expects you to face all these blocking, bullying, backstabbing enemies completely solo. If the regular enemies are bad, wait until you meet the hugely damaging archers, the praetorians who are impervious to assault when they are attacking, centurions who guard even more than peons, and assassins who bounce around the place, can counter shield bashes, and are simply frustrating to deal with. Like everything in this game.

I never completed Spartan. I got to an escort mission and gave up, because we all know how GREAT those are. This game has one of the worst escort missions I’ve ever had the misery of experiencing, in which you have to, on your own, defend this worthless old man against all of those aforementioned enemies, who not only are quite capable of killing you with enough cheap shots, but can make utter mincemeat of the old coot you’re trying to look after. Following more than a few attempts, I just surrendered and got rid of it. My life is better now.

In Japan, Capcom’s Sengoku Basara is one of the most shameless Koei rip-offs yet. Not only does it feature opposing armies, button mashing gameplay, and the exact same controls, but it is also set in the warring states period of Japan — the setting for Koei’s Samurai Warriors spin-off franchise. This means that in Japan, this game has the same battles and characters as SW. Pretty cheeky on Capcom’s behalf, but sadly, I’d take cheek over what this game became in the West.

See, something happened to Basara in the crossover from Japan to the rest of us. It changed its name from Sengoku Basara to Devil Kings, and completely altered the story and characters. The game went from having a medieval Japanese cast to sporting some weird, illogical mish-mash of people who are fighting for no discernible reason other than the fact they can. They also changed all the names from famous historical figures to … well, let’s just say that the main villain’s name is Devil King and one of the characters is called Red Minotaur. No, I am not making that up.

Not only was the entire premise of the game turned into some bizarre farce, the game itself was also dramatically changed. For reasons unknown, characters were given slightly larger movesets but it came at the price of having characters taken out entirely. The NPCs in Devil Kings are actually playable in the Japanese version, but for some reason we can’t unlock them in the West. The roster of characters went from twenty four right down to twelve, meaning we essentially only got half the game. Two of the characters we got are even clones of each other … amazing.

As far as the actual battles go, well this game decides not to attempt to evolve the genre like Drakengard and Spartan did, and practically admits it wants to be Dynasty/Samurai Warriors. It is literally the exact same fundamental game. However, the key difference is that Devil Kings is rubbish.

Firstly, although there are allied soldiers in this game, they don’t actually do anything of value. Oh they certainly fight, but early on I noticed something astounding — they actually do no damage. NPCs in this game cannot actually deal damage to each other. Attacks only work between you and the enemy, so what’s with all the window dressing? The war going on around you is essentially a puppet show.

The only experimental thing in the whole game is the prime attack. These take the place of charge attacks in DW. Hitting an enemy with a prime attack makes your regular attacks more effective, and since you can alternate between both sets of moves in any given combo, a small sliver of depth can be imagined if you squint your eyes. Make no mistake, however — this is button mashing on an even cruder scale than the game it copies.

In theory, Devil Kings isn’t too hard a game. You can go for a long time without ever getting hit, racking up your combo, and generally feeling like an all powerful Japanese warlo … sorry … devil king. However, the game still frustrates simply due to the fact that when you DO get hit, you are punished to unbelievable degrees. The amount of damage a single enemy hit deals you is actually astonishing, and the game is so hard to predict that you could play for thirty minutes without issue, then suddenly find yourself dead in seconds with no clue what just happened. When I say “could,” I mean “will.” That scenario happened one too many times.

Devil Kings could have been amazing, and to its credit, it’s perhaps the most succesful DW clone to date. The huge combos you can rack up (and the benefits they can bestow) really lend some satisfaction to the otherwise annoying gameplay, and the game has a lot of style. Sadly, these good points do little to give edge to a very dull blade. Perhaps if we’d gotten the proper game, it might have been a contender, but Capcom had to turn a good idea into a bad one. 

We’ll leave it there since, while current generation games like Ninety Nine Nights and Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom are also failures in their own right, these three are the most striking examples of failure to do any better at the tactical action genre than Koei. Besides, we’ll wait until Dynasty Warriors 6 happens before comparing the current-gen games. Until such time, I await the day that Dynasty Warriors can meet its match, and we get a truly jawdropping battlefield hack n’ slasher that spins the entire genre on its head. As much as I love Dynasty Warriors, I welcome another game giving it a run for its money and seeing what Koei can do to top it. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy what I have and just try to forget that horrible, horrible escort mission. 

Seriously, you don’t understand how bad it is.

Jim Sterling