Dynasty Warriors 8 once again folds the territorial conflicts of Three Kingdoms-era China into a histrionic hack and slash: it’s a formula that’s served Koei well since the turn of the century, and you’d be foolish to expect anything drastically different here. Yet while the publisher fair churns out the Warriors spin-offs and add-ons, the mainline entries always feel like they’ve had a bit of extra love lavished on them, and that’s certainly evident this time. The recipe may be familiar, butDynasty Warriors 8 skillfully addresses fan criticisms in the most engaging, well-rounded entry in the series to date.
It does this not just by adding more stuff, as is the way of the sequel, but by making that stuff matter. So while a host of new playable characters takes the roster well over the 70 mark (and thus making it a bit confusing for the uninitiated), this time they all handle differently thanks to distinctive moves and special attacks. Take two of the nine newcomers, for example: the Wu kingdom’s suave Lu Su sweeps aside opponents with a rake, while Shu’s Guan Xing carries a pair of wingblades, gliding and swooping across the battlefield. I also enjoyed Jin’s Jia Chong, albeit less for his combat style than his dark personality and devious machinations; he’s the kind of ally you can never fully trust. They’re brought to life with the usual hammy or overly mannered performances that have grown oddly endearing over the years, though it’s about time Omega Force did something about the battle cries of the defeated, which repeat ad nauseam.EX attack triggered by a simple combo. The second weapon they carry into battle can be selected from a generous array of alternatives that only increases the longer you play and the more officers you beat. While in the past it’s been all too easy to stick with the same weapon type, here you’re actively encouraged to switch during battle thanks to a new affinity mechanic: for Heaven, Earth, and Man (read: rock, paper, scissors). Deliver repeated attacks to opposing officers holding a weaker weapon type and you can launch into an unstoppable flurry of blows that not only looks great, but rapidly drains your rival’s health bar – and usually takes out any nearby troops into the bargain. An exclamation mark alerts you to enemies with a stronger alignment, but even here you can turn things to your advantage: wait for them to launch a charge attack and a well-timed switch can lead to a powerful counter.
Finishing off an opponent like this is satisfying enough, but you’ll also benefit in other ways. Defeating officers with a full health bar or while they’re afflicted with a status effect, for example, upgrades a series of abilities, of which five can be equipped at any time. These offer passive buffs like increased fortitude against projectile attacks, or more frequent item drops. In fact, by the time I’d finished the second of the four campaigns - each of which lasts around five hours - every enemy with a title was coughing up weapons, meat buns, gold, and refills for my Musou gauge, enabling me to pull off those spectacular special attacks increasingly often.
DW8 has a much stronger sense of progression than its predecessors.
The latter is particularly useful when it comes to making the most of your character’s Rage meter. When filled, a click of the right stick allows you to go on an extended rampage, and combined with a Musou attack, you can chain a truly ludicrous number of hits (well into four-figure territory) until you’ve bled the gauge dry. Essentially you become a human cyclone, striding forward as clusters of dazed grunts whirl around you; it’s particularly amusing as Jin officer Zhong Hui, who waltzes along spinning his finger in the air, casually conducting this whirlwind of pain.
Indeed, most characters have subtly tweaked movesets, and everyone benefits from three unique Musou attacks: ground and airborne variants are joined by a third special move. The latter is your reward for reaching a higher character level, just one element that gives DW8 a much stronger sense of progression than its predecessors. It’s persistent across all game types, too, so you can start the next kingdom’s story (or a different mode) with the abilities and weapons you unlocked in the previous one. In other words, starting over doesn’t feel like a step backwards.
The four campaigns offer more variety, while their longevity is boosted by branching paths, triggered by failing or fulfilling certain objectives. In some cases, it’s as simple as character appearances in later battles; in others you get to play side stories or several battles in a whole new hypothetical timeline that rewrites history. The objectives are kept secret until you complete them or finish the campaign, meaning you won’t have to keep plugging away using different tactics until you happen across them by accident.
Ambition mode is another successful addition. Offering a twist on the aptly named Legend mode from DW7: Xtreme Legends, it asks you to build up a settlement from meagre foundations, turning a dilapidated camp into a thriving city, fit for welcoming the Emperor to your cause. Its missions are short compared with the epic battles of the campaign: brisk skirmishes allow you to pick up materials to develop shops and facilities, while rescue missions earn you additional fame, which in turn allows you to recruit allies from battles. Famous officers bested in duels can be pressed into service as bodyguards, offering support bonuses as their bonds with you grow, as well as dual Musou attacks if they’re close by when you let loose.
Again, there’s a tangible sense of progression, each trip outside the gates prompting a development of some sort, whether it’s the arrival of a merchant selling animal companions (because who doesn’t want to ride a bear into battle?) or troops you’d sent to another province returning with a sizeable haul of materials to forge new weapons. You’re handsomely rewarded for engaging in successive battles in a single outing, though with your health bar only replenishing a little between encounters, there’s always the risk you’ll return empty handed. It’s a smart piece of design in a mode that is, like so much of Dynasty Warriors 8, a welcome refinement of past ideas.