After 32 hours (!!!) of hacking, slashing, and all manner of running around on giant battlefields with horses, I think I’m finally ready to make a judgment call on this thing.
Dynasty Warriors is a series that most people either love with a passion far from reasonable or a distaste with its “simple” design and achievements. If you had pegged me as a Dynasty Warriors fan circa 2001, I wouldn’t deny it; I played far, far too much Dynasty Warriors 3 that year and the next. It wasn’t enough to quite cause me carpal tunnel syndrome, but it was enough to get me into the novel on which it bases its complicated, bewildering narrative. I hadn’t read a book of that length, and probably never will again, but it’s a fascinating journey to read through a foreign nation’s central tale. In fact, it improves the games massively.
See, Dynasty Warriors truly remains a product of an entirely different cultural context; in Japan and most of Asia, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms continues to provide pop culture with many entertainment venues, from film (Red Cliff became one of my favorite films, for instance), television series, and (most importantly) video games. The dynamic and nearly endless list of characters, their relationships, and the wars they fought nearly two thousand years ago continue to enthrall audiences around the globe. If you imagine the situation that way, then perceive Dynasty Warriors as a Japanese anime-inspired take on a Chinese touchstone. If it sounds like the pre-eminent text in Asian culture…well, it is, much in the same way the Bible remains the common knowledge of Western culture, if not in a religious sense. In the Bible’s words:
All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.
Great works and truth persist throughout the ages. Much like you need a basic understanding of Christianity to understand the West, you really need a cursory understanding of the Three Kingdoms period to understand the East. I realize the giant assumption this sounds like, but the novel contains all of the elements of Confucian, Taoist, and (in some ways) Buddhist thought. All of these are inextricably linked to this cultural context, and even Western influence has not fully diminished it.
Because of the weird reverence/irrerence for the source material in Japan (depends on who you ask), it’s a remarkably accurate one, at least in terms of details. Koei originally came to prominence through Kou Shibusawa’s Historical Simulation Series; these games sought, through strategic turn-based styles, to replicate the political, social, and military conflicts of different ages from the Three Kingdoms to the modern day. Most of them are pretty brilliant strategy games to boot, the mechanical/game adaptations of history and novels in a way nobody’s tried before or since. It’s almost unfortunate that Koei no longer makes unique experiences like this anymore, replaced by the juggernaut of the Warriors series.
Dynasty Warriors’ second iteration proved a massive hit that far exceeded Koei’s usual financial expectations, and eventually that star faded as the Warriors series dominated Koei’s video game output for the next decade. None of this means they lost their penchant for historical affairs; rather, Dynasty Warriors plays like a giant fanfiction version of the Three Kingdoms story, embellishing and adding new characters when necessary. It plays it fast, loose, and exciting – because that makes for a better video game, duh!
The game’s main Story Mode allows you to play through the fate of one of the Three Kingdoms: Wei, Wu, and Shu. Each of them starts from what Koei, apparently, sees as essential events in the political intrigue of the story, and then moves through at a rapid clip through fifty or more years of conflict. Koei takes great care to throw you right into the battles at hand, depicting the events in real-time and using cutscenes to emphasize important events. Line aren’t taken directly from the novel (after all, we’re talking about a translation (Chinese) of a translation (Japanese) of a translation (English) here), but you get enough of the general idea to make any historical novel fan’s heart flutter. Sorry, this stuff gets me worked up! I love this novel, and I honestly wished more people had the time to actually read it. Since Koei pretty much introduced me to the whole saga in the first place, they deserve some special credit for giving me interest to even read it in the first place.
Now, the unfortunate part with this focus means that I consider Dynasty Warriors itself a rather impenetrable experience to the layman. If you know nothing about the novel or its story, then this looks and sounds like a cheesy Chinese soap opera. The English voice acting doesn’t help; Koei plays up the ham intentionally to appeal to Western audiences, turning it into a giant B-movie with chop-socky kung fu stereotypes everywhere. Koei faces a cultural barrier here, and I believe that’s really one of their only options to actually appeal to us without any form of re-education. Furthermore, even the Japanese turns appropriately histrionic at turns (just from tone and inflection), but that’s a common anime trope. At the same time, that craziness makes a lot more sense when characters frequently talk about abstract concepts like benevolence, justice, power, and philosophical musings, so I believe the Japanese really falls more in line with the original intent. Course, that’s an opinion.
Further, the story contained in Dynasty Warriors 8 really doesn’t bother to cater to anyone unfamiliar with the source material. On the one hand, that’s nearly an impossible task on some level; on the other hand, choosing anything but Shu leads you right into the thick of things with nearly zero context and a bunch of funny names. Even then, I would find most people hard-pressed to remember all these events and foreign names. There’s no recommended order, and that’s a shame. If you play Jin first (technically the resolution of the conflict itself), then you’ll find yourself completely and utterly lost. It’s a shame that Koei doesn’t bother to coordinate this experience at all, though this remains consistent with their Historical Simulation series. Still, you’d imagine after thirty or more entire they’d make an effort to appeal to the non-fan, but I guess Japanese companies stay conservative with successful properties.