Dynasty Warriors 7: Empires Review
Platform(s): PlayStation 3
Genre: Action, Strategy
Developer: Omega Force
Release Date: February 26, 2013
MSRP: $49.99 (digital download only)
Note: Only European box art was available, as the North American release did not have a physical retail release.
On my initial playthrough, I picked my favorite character, Ma Chao, and served under my father while marrying Wang Yi (if you’ve played Dynasty Warriors 7: Xtreme Legends or know the Three Kingdoms novels, you’ll recognize the irony in that). On my second, I selected Xu Huang, where I began my journey as a vagabond before rising up and claiming a territory from another ruler before uniting the land under my banner. On my third, I selected Zhou Yu and served as the strategist of Sun Ce in his quest to unite the kingdom under the banner of Wu. On my fourth playthrough, I selected Zhao Yun, the resident cover boy of the Dynasty Warriors franchise, and decided to change him from kind-hearted warrior to evil tyrant, over-throwing my benevolent leader, Liu Bei, and ruling over the kingdom. On my fifth, I selected Xiahou Ba and chose to accept an offer from the Jin Dynasty to leave Wei and help them unite China as the Three Kingdoms novels recorded.
Every experience I had while playing Dynasty Warriors 7: Empires differed in some way, showing the breadth of options this user-defined experience brings to the table beyond the usual hack n’ slashing the series is so well known for. What’s always made the Empires entries so unique is that, while you still take to the battlefield and hack up hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers with ridiculously over-the-top weapons and combos, they also manage to weave in legitimate strategy elements, breaking up the monotony that typically sets in with games of this type. While DW7E, as it will be called henceforth for the sake of efficiency, manages to bring the series a few steps forward after its previously lackluster outing by improving upon those strategy elements, it still manages to fall short when compared to previous entries in the series.
The Dynasty Warriors franchise has always drawn its plot from the pages of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novels, with Dynasty Warriors 7 telling this story in expert fashion. In DW7E, besides a key battle being highlighted in each selectable scenario, the story goes out the window, as this is your story to forge as you see fit. You’ll get to take part in these battles depending on which forces you ally yourself with, like being able to participate in the Battle of Chibi depending on whether you join the Wei, Wu, or Shu forces, but they’re mostly a novelty and do nothing for the overall experience. When starting Empire Mode, you’ll get to select one of these scenarios and a character to play as. You can choose anyone from the outset, including generic officers and characters you create in the game’s somewhat robust Edit Mode.
A new element for DW7E is the addition of “Fame” types for every officer, of which there are six; Brave, Kind, Orderly, Affluent, Wise, and Evil. Each Fame type has its own set of Stratagems (more on those in a bit), as well as exclusive actions that can be taken in Empire Mode’s Strategy Phase. For instance, if your Brave Fame type is leveled enough, you’ll be able to have joint exercises with other officers in your forces, thus bettering your relationship with them. If you happen to level your Evil Fame type enough, you can throw lavish banquets that expend a ton of your resources, which pretty much ticks off every citizen of your kingdom, but helps to turn fellow officers to the Evil Fame type as well, which makes them less likely to leave you for another force.
What’s so flexible about the Fame system is that, while each character has one type they excel in, you can make them any type you wish by taking actions that increase that specific Fame type, just like how I turned Zhao Yun from Kind to Evil in the scenario I described above. Fame types also tie into the aforementioned Stratagems, which is another new addition to the series. These allow you to execute certain actions while in battle, and as you level up each Fame type, more will be at your disposal. I found a lot of these to be really useful, particularly Brave, which utilizes stat-boosting Stratagems, Wise, which allows you to set bases on fire and plant ambushes (which can be quite rewarding when you pull one off), among other things, and Evil, which pretty much makes you an indomitable force at the expense of your force’s troop strength and even your allies. Best of all, every character can equip four, a Strategist can equip five, and one extra can be equipped during the Strategy Phase, which gives you the ability to utilize a variety of Stratagems every battle. However, there are a fair share of duds.
Namely, Kind Stratagems are useless, by and far. Being able to spawn a wolf or tiger with you in battle is a neat novelty, but that’s all it is. It’s otherwise useless, as the animal is in no way helpful. The same goes with being able to respawn your fallen allies, as your allies rarely do anything anyways, so there’s no point in wasting a Stratagem slot. The only useful Kind Stratagem is “Unity”, which heals you and can be a definite boon in a pinch. The Orderly Fame type has fire arrows, which is the only useful Stratagem it has. Everything else pretty much revolves around spawning more troops, which you don’t even need in order to win the battle. In fact, Orderly has perhaps the most useless Stratagem of the bunch in “Lockup”, which shuts the doors on your frontline bases. That’s it. It’s intended to deter the enemy from capturing bases, but they’ll just stand outside and wait anyways, essentially delaying the inevitable. What’s worse is when an ally chooses to use it (yes, allied officers can use Stratagems, too), and you happen to be inside one of your own frontline bases, you’re trapped. You can’t leave your own base for about a minute. It’s annoying and frustrating, but thankfully, it doesn’t happen overly often. The enemy will even use it, but all it does is, again, delay the inevitable. What difference does it make if I stand outside their base for a minute? As soon as it opens, they’re all going to die anyway. Finally, then comes the Affluent Stratagems, which allow you to convert your bases into different types. Besides the Catapult Base, which really does help weaken adjacent enemy bases, the rest are useless, as they do nothing to slow the enemy down whilst capturing your bases. In fact, these are far more formidable when you’re the one trying to fight through them once your enemy utilizes them.
A couple of other additions to this iteration include a new character for the Shu forces. Xu Shu joins the fray as yet another strategist, wielding a “sword & hook”, which operates as a quick-moving short sword at close range, but then allows him to hook onto enemies and pull them towards him with the hook, giving him some rather flexible combat potential. One of my favorite characters, Xiahou Ba, now has a new weapon called the siege spear. Think of a giant lance with a rocket engine strapped to the back. That’s essentially what this beast of a weapon is. While slow to maneuver, it’s very powerful, with a Musou attack that can easily wipe out at least half of an enemy officer’s health. It’s also ridiculously fun to use, as I found myself laughing gleefully at the sight of launching straight up in the air, then crashing down like a rocket to end my combos, sending bodies flying in every direction. Beyond those two changes, many characters are now officially “decloned”, as Zhu Rong, Ding Feng, Da Qiao, Huang Gai, Cao Ren, and Gan Ning all now use previous DLC weapons as their new primary weapons. This still doesn’t address the fact that several characters wield the basic sword as their primary weapon, but it’s a significant step towards making every character have individual movesets, so it’s fantastic. Now, if only Omega Force could have dropped the asinine weapon-switching system, which lets any character use any weapon as their secondary, essentially throwing a wrench in the “decloning” process. I rarely if ever switch weapons, and when I do, I almost always wind up getting attacked mid-switch, so it’s more risky than it is rewarding.
A typical Empire Mode playthrough will take you several hours to accomplish. During that time, you can operate anywhere from being a free officer or vagabond that roams the land, an officer serving under a ruler, or becoming a ruler yourself. As you make your way up the ranks, more and more options open up to you. As a free officer or vagabond, the most you can do is recruit allies, shop in town, and interact with fellow officers, so you’ll want to join a force or raise your own banner before long, as it can get boring pretty quickly. Being an officer opens things up a bit, as you can complete assignments that your ruler gives you at every War Council, as well as improve your territory’s commerce, weapon development, troop strength, and more, but it still has its limitations that make it less than ideal. For instance, you’re at the mercy of your ruler in terms of diplomatic actions (like forging alliances), recruiting officers, and invading other territories. It can become a tedious and royal pain in the ass to serve someone who never wants to invade another territory, which means you’ll be spending a lot of your time defending your territories instead of conquering others. DW7E is easily at its most fun when you’re in the driver’s seat as a ruler, as you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. I just wish there were as many options as there were in previous Empires entries.
See, the Dynasty Warriors 6 era was a rough patch, where DW6 itself stripped the story mode way down, cut characters from the roster, and botched the combo system. The Empires iteration followed suit, with a criminal dialing back of options available to you strategically. DW7E is clear evidence that the franchise is still recovering, as many options that were available in Dynasty Warriors 5 Empires, which came out 7 years ago, are still missing. Instead of being able to increase the defenses of my territories, and thus staving off invasion, a new “Happiness” level system has been put into place, which is about as useful as washing you hands with mud. Evil options are only limited to taxing citizens and the aforementioned party-throwing, whereas before, I could conscript soldiers to fill my ranks all in one fell swoop. At least captured officers can be executed if you so choose, which makes its return in this iteration.
Groups of officers can’t be placed in each territory to defend them, but instead, only one can be assigned as a Prefect, which essentially makes him/her responsible for defending your territory if you choose not to get involved yourself (which rarely works). It’s just a crying shame that so many features from such an aged game are still omitted. DW5E is easily the best in the series, and while DW7E has a superior battle system, stronger graphical prowess, and a far superior soundtrack (which includes music from throughout the series’ history, making for the most robust yet), the strategic options are still a wash.
The disappointments don’t stop there. The game hasn’t aged well graphically, running on the same engine DW7 did almost two years ago, and while characters look good from a distance, they’re splotched with muddy textures up close. Animations are smooth, over-the-top, and expressive in battle, and the framerate manages to hold steady unless you have huge amounts of cavalry marching across the screen, but cutscene animations are stiff and very basic, and there’s still rampant pop-in everywhere, though it’s still commendable that the game can churn dozens of characters on screen at once. Character interactions are pathetic, with simple lines being spoken even between two siblings or close allies. For instance, as Ma Chao, I interacted with another officer, in which Ma Chao simply says “I have something to say!” The officer would respond “I see.” That’s it. A total lack of effort on Omega Force’s part, and this is how pretty much all conversations go, though with varying, yet still dull, lines. DW7E is definitely a case of the journey being far better than the destination, as the endings are bland, anti-climactic, and include a montage that represents the Fame type of your officer, which odds are doesn’t even include your officer in it, making for an awkward and pointless addition to the end of your conquest. To top things off, you’re granted the ability to give individual orders to your officers in battle as a Marshal or Ruler, but while this could have been an awesome feature to really open up some strategic options, the pathetic teammate A.I. renders it useless. I once sent five officers to one base, with one enemy officer guarding it, and they struggled to take it. I had to intervene in order for the base to fall. The game also utilizes a basic online system, where you can recruit one other player before starting up any battle, but it’s basic and only serves to make easy battles even easier.
The one final feature that requires attention is Edit Mode, which was heavily marketed prior to the game’s release. This allows you to mix and match clothing parts, adjust physical attributes a la the WWE series of games, and select the Fame type, weapon, and attributes for your characters. You can even select EX attacks that have nothing to do with your character’s weapon type, increasing the depth of customization further, even though they don’t make a whole lot of sense from a practical standpoint. Perhaps the biggest thing to note is the ability to share your characters online, where you can make them available individually, where they’ll randomly pop up in other players’ games, or make multiple characters, form them into a kingdom, and have them appear in other players’ games when playing the “A Gathering of Heroes” scenario. It’s a nice touch that brings a sort of community aspect to the game. It also makes for some fun characters, as I’ve seen the likes of Mr. T, Sephiroth, and Reimi from Star Ocean: The Last Hope pop up in my Empire Mode playthroughs. They don’t look exactly like them, as most of the creation parts match the art style of the regular playable characters (with the exception of a nod towards Fist of the North Star’s Kenshiro), but it can still be fun to make a Three Kingdoms era version of them.
When all is said and done, Dynasty Warriors 7 Empires is a solid entry in the series, as I still had a lot of fun with it. Burning bases, setting ambushes, and turning against my ruler were some of the awesome moments I had throughout the several playthroughs I experienced. It’s also nice to see a new face in the form of Xu Shu, as well as some much-needed changes to character movesets. However, it doesn’t change that fact that this series hasn’t returned to its former glory, with glaring omissions in the Strategy Phase, in particular, as well as the game just not being very fun when serving under a ruler and with some wasted opportunities in terms of Stratagems. Still, this is an entry that Warriors fans, like myself, will eat up, even if it’s only a small step forward for the franchise and not the vast improvement it needed. For Xbox 360 fans out there that were concerned about not being able to play this one, I wouldn’t sweat it. As far as I’m concerned, you still have the best Empires iteration in the franchise available on your console. Just stick with that.