Dynasty Warriors and the Myth of “Button Mashing”

I think I need to say something about this. Frankly, I’ve heard any number of games described as “button mashers”. Not only do I think this unfair, but it’s highly reductive and almost worthless as a turn of phrase. Literally any game could, in some sense, describe itself in this fashion – most particularly if it contains Quick Timer Events (TM) of the “hit this button a whole lot” variety! I do understand why people describe it that way, though. In short, they take a very narrow perspective of what constitutes “good” and “bad” in a game, often missing the forest for the trees.

As per my video post from a few days ago, most every reviewer/commentator/whatever describes Dynasty Warriors (and all the Warriors spinoffs, and Sengoku Basara for that matter) as  “button mashers”, and I simply don’t think that’s true. Dynasty Warriors 8 has incredibly long attack strings with lots of nuances in them; optimal play does requires you to know which string does what, if not for style than purely for the maximum crowd control. There’s enough variety in the 82 (count them) move sets to keep you busy finding the ones you like; add weapon switching, Musou attacks in both air and ground, Storm Edge counters, and Rage meter (which has its own Musou attack), and that’s a pretty staggering level of variety and useful stuff.

Now, whether or not you particularly need any of those tools in the game seems like the core of the “button mashing” label, rather than what’s in the game. Dynasty Warriors isn’t particularly focused on you using this combo system to its fullest potential. While I’m sure Omega Force attempts to make the fighting as interesting and kinetetically pleasing as possible – smacking a hundred guys at once as they fly in completely unrealistic ways never fails to nail that “gamefeel” – they tend to structure missions and famous battles in ways that don’t take advantage of it. The last time I bothered to play one of these games, the “objectives”, if you could call them that, functioned as extremely rough guidelines while you killed things. The Yellow Turbans could take over your home base, and you’d still win if you defeated Zhang Jiao. That setup played for nearly every single fight with the occasional “keep these dudes safe” into the mix. That’s what made them repetitive, and boring.

In the most recent entry, though, they want to emphasis playing the battles in the “correct” way, often mimicking the events as they occurred in Romance of the Three Kingdoms (at least for Story Mode). The Battle at Fan Castle, where Wu betrays Shu in order to finally retake Jing Province and kill Guan Yu, plays out in much the same way as the historical events. I tried my hardest, but I couldn’t actually prevent the flooding no matter what I did; rather, I had to go after Guan Yu and kill him, which happens in a slightly different  (exaggerated) way befitting to a video game. Fan Castle will almost always get flooded, and there’s nothing you can do. Still, in the end, Dynasty Warriors 8 wants you to pay attention to what’s happening on the map; not only does this allow for new weapon unlocks, but saving certain personnel opens new maps to play which usually present “alternate reality” scenarios to the history in the novel. It may be fanfiction, but this is neat stuff!

Dynasty Warriors 3 Hu Lao Gate

It also makes me realize how terrible Dynasty Warriors 3 looked. AUGH MY EYES

Some battles function like glorified escort missions, or sieges, or assaults, or sneak attacks; each of them tend to nail that category, often throwing wildly diverse objectives at you at a moment’s notice. Sometimes, you might just need to choose which general you want to save, or whether you’re going to back up certain people, or even attack those arbalests in time to save your comrades. If we were talking just combat, then Dynasty Warriors 8 would fall flat, but the combat really supplements the grand conflict which (fittingly) puts you at center stage in events of the past. Think about if we replaced everything with wars and conflict from America’s past (Revolutionary Warriors, calling it), and you might begin to see how interesting it is to see historical fiction adapted into video game form.

Further, if you want a pseudo-strategy game (I imagine this was mostly designed to placate Koei simulation game fans), you’re got Empires expansions or Ambition Mode, both of which send you to battlefields to take over territories rather than fulfilling historical archetypes. In a surprise to no one, that’s the sort of strategy game that could lock you into an eternal feedback loop. That’s not including the super-JRPG weapon customization, which adds a blacksmithing system to a leveling/skill system. Seriously, Dynasty Warriors contains a giant time sink if you really enjoy all of this stuff; I get a kick out of the history, but other people just love numbers going up.

SengokuBasara401

That’s why I tend to prefer Sengoku Basara: it doesn’t feel like an RPG.

Of course, Dynasty Warriors isn’t perfect at this. The frequency of unclear objectives (such as “how exactly do I stay hidden), the lack of height/depth shown on the big map, and said big map’s unclear visual notice of troop movements don’t help matters. I would almost think that Omega Force assumes we retain intimate familiarity with the narrative here, and while I am (having read the novel twice – yes, I am crazy), I doubt most Western gamers are at all. There’s a pop culture divide here, highlighted by melodramatic death scenes, talk about ambition and honor, along with horrible C-movie quality dubbing to boot (I listen to the Japanese because I really don’t need that in my life). In America, Tecmo Koei simply markets it as a dumb brawler and the dub plays that ham all the way up to eleven.

Does the company sell this brand short by basically labeling it as a dumb button masher? In a way, yes. The combat, rather than being the core element, supplements the rest of the game on display. Whether or not that’s good game design (and I staunchly say that it is not) isn’t the point of contention here; whether or not something requires you to “mash buttons” is, and I would say Dynasty Warriors does not. It can be played that way, but the same could be said for many games and still apply. Hence, I find the term pretty meaningless.

I will admit, the last time I played Dynasty Warriors 3, a decade ago, I would have said the same thing. Now, I believe that reductive description just doesn’t translate well after a decade of obvious iteration and refinement. Sure, it’s repetitive and gets boring after a while, but so does every other game at some level. To give a rating (note: three stars, probably) on the latest entry, DW8XLCE (what an acronym) wouldn’t really add much to it. The eternal search for novelty remains the gamer’s bane as well as a continual cost of human thought, and Dynasty Warriors remains a casualty of that as much as anything else. It’s more a matter of identifying what games personally fulfill you; whether or not I write criticism of it, which I certainly could in this case, should provide an opportunity to discover it. The Spirit of God floats in that sort of criticism of our endless search for new toys:

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient,deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs [a]according to the hope of eternal life.

I find this Titus passage strange precisely because the endless search for new video games that “aren’t button mashers” will always prove fruitless in the end. Maybe some person really loves Dynasty Warriors (or, say, Kingdom Hearts, oh God no) a whole lot, and finds that personally fulfilling. Great! But that does not mean we must remain silent on such things. On the other hand, reduction of a game from a cursory glance also does us no favors; look deeper, and you may find you don’t really love something you loved before. The big circle of self-reflection and improvement takes time and effort, but it makes for something much more interesting in the end.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.