Although it started out as a fighting game on PSone, Dynasty Warriors has since become synonymous with epic-scale battles featuring hundreds of on-screen enemies and a roster selection bordering the absurd. Each numbered entry has its share of spin-offs, with Empires focusing more on the strategic side of running kingdoms, becoming a ruler, and charting your own legacy. Of course there’s still the base capturing combat the series is known for, but this new iteration does little to ease in newcomers, due in large part to its vague tutorial offerings and daunting menus.
Once I chipped away at its cryptic exterior, I did manage to find a somewhat enjoyable game. In Empires, you can use the game’s in-depth character creator to craft an officer from scratch, building your way up from Free Officer to Ruler, making personal connections, getting married, and popping out rugrats along the way. Starting at the bottom is relatively slow, so it took a while for Empires to really hit its stride. However, in doing so, victories, promotions, and relationships all felt more meaningful, as opposed to just picking one of literally hundreds of legendary NPCs and jumping in with a head start.
The meat of Empires is the titular Empire Mode, which you can take your created officer through a variety of scenarios that basically end up with you overtaking territories and controlling an entire kingdom. While pre-determined NPCs may start out as a Strategist or Prefect–see; more options to do cool stuff–you hit the ground as a Free Officer. It’s here that you’ll undertake boring quests, like protecting merchants inside of bland battlegrounds, or pass the months clicking through menus until you either join an existing empire and work your way up the ranks, or build relationships with other Free Officers and attempt to raise your own flag.
“…Koei Tecmo really didn’t use this new technology for anything more than a graphical upscale, and even that’s up for debate.”
However you decide to proceed, each action takes one month to complete, and your War Council meets every 6 months to decide which territory to invade next. Working your way up to Prefect, you can attempt to persuade your ruler to attack a different target, or avoid the invasion altogether in order to gather more troops and resources. I enjoyed this idea when it worked, but rarely, if ever, did that happen. More often than not it was like talking to a brick wall, regardless of how high my likelihood of success was.
Joining in to an existing empire was much easier than trying to start my own Army of Awesome, especially as someone who mainly plays the numbered entries for the combat. I’d say it took me a solid 3 or 4 hours to really get the hang of the whole empire management thing, and even then I still found myself using any excuse I could to invade or raid an opposing territory just so I could go back to swinging a giant club around.
Tactics are cool, and I know there’s a market for this stuff, but I just didn’t have a lot of fun going through its never-ending menus in order to set up a blacksmith, negotiate a temporary alliance, or spread rumors about an opposing ruler. They’re all things that sound fun on paper, but you never see the results aside from reading numbers inside of another menu. If I saw a cut-scene full of pissed off citizens throwing rocks at me I probably would have gotten a bit more involved, but after dropping a crapload of resources to provide a feast for my loyal officers and seeing nothing but another menu pop up.. that isn’t really selling me on anything here.
If you’re in to the menu-driven strategy thing, that’s awesome, but the way its executed here is definitely not for me. Maybe if it were a little more intuitive, or perhaps explained a little better, but in its current state it’s just woefully dull and feels archaic. I got the hang of it after a while, and even then I never once said “hell yeah, I can’t wait to click ‘rest’ again!” before building another blacksmith shop.
Graphically, Empires is a mixed bag. Officers look fairly decent, but are far below what I’d expect on current-gen consoles. As expected, the brain dead troops that you slaughter by the thousands are pretty generic, and there isn’t much room for customization on their end. I did end up making a bunch of tiny dudes in pink dresses to fight alongside the hulking war machine that is Buck Savage (Fred’s older, naturally more attractive brother), but even then it was as if one group of parents shot out a thousand children and dressed them in cute matching outfits. It’s typical Dynasty Warriors, yeah, but Koei Tecmo really didn’t use this new technology for anything more than a graphical upscale, and even that’s up for debate.
Complaints aside, I did enjoy creating my officers and customizing my own scenarios, and the combat is still as fun as ever. Sure, it mostly consists of two-button combos, or building up your special meter to unleash one of three devastating attacks, but I’ve always liked the intensity of rushing to capture camps, knowing when to fall back and defend, and, in Empires, giving and following commands to control the battlefield a bit more than usual.
“Unfortunately though, Empires ends up being a mostly forgettable, technical mess of a game that doesn’t really leave me excited for the next iteration.”
Although most of Empires is hit or miss, it does suffer from a laundry list of technical flaws. Certain achievements won’t unlock if you’re playing through with a custom male character, but pop just fine if you re-roll as a female. Accessing shop menus in-game plummets the frame rate down to an embarrassing crawl, which only gets worse when more items are unlocked by opening up new stores. All of the dialogue is in Japanese, and while the game does feature English subtitles, there’s a plethora of translation issues that really kill whatever immersion exists within its paper thin narrative. I also ran in to issues where my horse would get stuck in the terrain, swarms of enemy troops would pop in out of nowhere, and, oh, I don’t know, my entire campaign data being erased after the game crashed to the home screen while saving. Nothing major, just losing all of my progress.
If you’re new to the series, or you’re not interested in fishing through menus between battles, Empires probably isn’t a good place to start. If anything, it made me want to go back and play Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate or Dynasty Warriors 8 Xtreme Legends instead, because the combat-focused campaigns are definitely more up my alley. Even still, I had some fond memories terrorizing the locals with forced taxes, and betraying my ruler to take over his kingdom for myself, and that’s not something I get to do in the other games. Unfortunately though, Empires ends up being a mostly forgettable, technical mess of a game that doesn’t really leave me excited for the next iteration.
Recommended for fans of: Strategy games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Kessen, etc., and of course Dynasty Warriors in general.
*This review is based on the Xbox One version of Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires, which is also available on PS3 and PS4. Although its expected to be graphically superior on current-gen, unless we find significant differences between each version, consider this our definitive review.
Bradley Keene is the Executive Editor here at What’s Your Tag?, generally handling reviews, public relations, and our social media communications on Facebook and Twitter. He’s an aspiring video game journalist that one day hopes to make this writing thing a living, and will always miss living in his hometown of Baltimore. If he’s not writing, he’s usually glued to a game or watching low budget horror films with his three cats. Get in touch with him by e-mail at the address above, or follow him on Twitter.