One of my main worries when picking up this game for review was how I would react to its graphics. I bounced off Dynasty Warriors 9 when it released a few years ago because it literally gave me a headache looking at it. I had a few attempts but with only a few hours of playtime I simply had to put it down and walk away. So, I did not get a chance to really form a solid opinion about the revamped combat system or the switch to the open world of DW9. So, I am pleased that I have not had the same reaction to Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires.
While that is obviously an improvement already, there is plenty of room for more. The environments, particularly the natural environments, leave a lot to be desired. The trees and foliage look lacklustre and large swathes of the landscapes are quite brown and one note. Very few are particularly memorable, which means touring “scenic spots” with other characters, during cutscene events or while on a stroll, feels like the game is accidentally highlighting its own flaws. There is also a fairly obvious amount of pop-in which is quite immersion breaking at times. The highlight on the graphics front though, is the character designs. Omega Force now has a cast of 90 “Dynasty Warriors” who each have a unique look. That is quite a few and it is a testament to them that each of these officers not only looks unique but looks good as well. There’s a lot of great detail included in their outfits and their faces are expressive and suit their characteristics.
Having 90 unique officers, in addition to the myriad of generic ones, leads to another big undertaking; they all have to be armed. There are some great weapons from across the franchise’s history and many, but not all, appear in this instalment. Many characters are practically synonymous with their signature weapon while others have gone through quite a few different ones over the years. It would be great if all 90 officers had a unique weapon but I think it is clear that that is unfeasible, at least for now. I would like that to be a main goal for the series moving forward – for each unique character to have a unique weapon and moveset – though I understand what a tall order that is. So, some officers share weapons and move-sets but the key thing is whether or not they are fun to use. Which they are, very much so. There is a good amount of variety between the weapons in terms of speed and range. You have your more traditional swords and spears going up against fans that wash the battlefield with fire. Big axes going up against heavy clubs and lighter, more nimble weapons like the dual fans or throwing knives.
All of that is barely scratching the surface too. The game is a veritable treasure trove of weaponry to master. This pairs well with the revamped combat system of flow and trigger attacks. Now that I have had a chance to spend some time with it and get used to the beats of its combat. Particularly once I had learned when to utilise the trigger attacks to keep my flow going for longer. I can say that I really like it. Once you find that rhythm, especially when you find a weapon whose moveset you have a real affinity for as a player, you really do feel like a “True Warrior of the Three Kingdoms”. Easily capable of tackling a thousand foes alone. Though, it must be said, I do find that my health bar is a bit more fragile than I usually realise. I had a similar issue with Samurai Warriors 5 where I found that I often did not realise how much damage my character was receiving while engaged in battle. Both games appear to be tuned towards preserving the player characters flow and having interruptions to it be rarer occurrences. I am not keen on that aspect of it, as frustrating as it is, I would rather know when an enemy has landed some successful attacks on me. However, clearly I also need to pay closer attention to my health bar.
While the combat itself is really satisfying, the siege battles where most of that combat takes place lack variety. Whether attacking or defending they are all very similar with the only key differences being the placement of bases and the officers taking part in the battles. Capturing the weapons bases, which contain either catapults, rams or siege towers, is the key to victory. When attacking, you need these in order to scale the castle/city walls or breach the gates to initiate a decisive battle. Decisive battles result in an all-out attack on the main camp and commanding general within the defensive wall. Then vice versa for defensive battles. They are all much the same, lacking in variety beyond the terrain. Secret plans add a bit of spice to the mix but each side only has one per battle and they are mostly a sprint to complete/stop within a few minutes. The novelty of summoning giant lightning bears to toast and eat your enemies wears off surprisingly quickly though.
The main thing that tripped me up in the battles is that the bases are not connected. In past Empires entries the bases were connected by supply lines along the map, with the idea being that you had to fight along these lines capturing the bases in turn to advance upon the enemy main camp/ defend your own main camp and win the battle that way. The castle siege bases do not have that kind of structure around them. Additionally, bases are not only captured by officers, they are also attacked by opposing catapults and archer bases which can flip them to their own side without an officer being near them. These two changes, combined with enemy officers redeploying seemingly wherever they want on the battlefield can create a frantic whackamole-esque feel to some battles. Particularly when you are already at a disadvantage for one reason or another.
The Empires games are traditionally very light strategy games. Their main appeal is getting to put the officers we know and love in a mixing pot to change things up. When building your own kingdom, players are not limited to having officers in their historical kingdoms. Instead, you can build your dream team of your favourites and conquer ancient China with them. You can build lasting friendships or romances with them as you carve your path through the chaos as a ruler, general or free agent drifting where the wind blows. The key strategic consideration that 9 Empires brings to the fore is ensuring you have enough supplies to field your army. You can have all the officers and soldiers you can dream of under your command but, if you cannot feed them, you cannot field them. Capturing territory, recruiting officers, developing those territories, raising funds and supplies, making friends/enemies. There is plenty to occupy your turns. Or, you could go for a stroll.
Strolling around China is new for 9 Empires. While Dynasty Warriors 9 was entirely open world, 9 Empires is more limited in its focus with the open world only being truly available when you go for a stroll. You can explore, visit scenic areas, battle bandits and animals, speak to officers or sneak off to your hideaway. Honestly, it is a bit lacking. I covered my thoughts on the graphics already – strolling is where those issues are most acute – but there is a lack of activities to complete in the open world when you do deign to visit it. Especially when taking a stroll costs you a whole one month turn. With that said, there is a huge amount of promise in the idea.
I thought from the start that the open world would suit the Empires moulding more than the mainline series and I still think that can be the case. Perhaps, one day it will be. Omega Force have experimented with a few different secondary modes in addition to the main Conquest mode. Giving the strolling mode that function within the main mode would serve them well. That is a perfect place for challenges, side quests, special character moments and so on. There is clearly room to grow this out into something special in the future.
The conclusion is fairly straightforward. Dynasty Warriors 9 Empires is a satisfying action game with a light strategic layer which the player can use to maximise their chances of success on the battlefield. Despite its limitations in terms of graphics and in features in some areas, it remains great fun to play. If you like your hack ‘n’ slash action to flow and dance to your tune, then this game is for you.
Should you play it? Yes
Why… The flowing hack ‘n’ slash action is a delight
But… The graphics leave plenty to be desired
Reviewed on: PC (Steam)
Developer/Publisher: Omega Force / Koei Tecmo
Playable on: PC (Steam), Xbox One & Series X/S, PlayStation 4 & 5, Nintendo Switch and Google Stadia
Released: 15th February 2022
Review code provided by Koei Tecmo via Renaissance PR