The Dynasty Warriors series is one of those games that has been more or less bound by tradition from the very beginning. Whether its the game's old-style Three Kingdoms Era China setting, to its same-every-year one-versus-a-thousand army-hacking gameplay, those who'd played a Dynasty Warriors game before could be pretty sure they knew what they were getting into when they picked up the new instalment. But not any more.
Some nine games, umpteen spin-offs and more than a handful of sequels later, and developers Omega Force have taken the bold move to mix things up a bit, add in a whole heap of extra features, and make the game a bit more "modern". And the results are… mixed to say the least.
At its most basic, then, Dynasty Warriors 9 is a Dynasty Warriors game on a much larger scale, with similar ideas to the games that came before it, only this time playing out over a huge, "open world" style map. Gone are the small, room-and-corridor maze like stages, each guarded by a different general you needed to take out before making your way to the big boss, with everything instead now taking place on one big, open map. And by big, we mean massive - going from objective to objective here takes one heck of a while, whether you're on foot or on horseback, with forests, fields and towns only sparsely dotted around the gigantic empty land. Once you've explored more of the map, you'll unlock some fast travel points which make it a bit less of a slog, but there's still a heck of a lot of travelling to be done.
But while it's arguably Dynasty Warriors 9's biggest new addition, the new open world is also at the root of the game's undoing, as it all just feels too empty and expansive, spreading the action - which is really what the fans are after - too thinly.
Each story chapter has a main mission that asks you to defeat a particular high up general, with various smaller missions and side quests you can accept from villagers dotted around the game's towns. In the meanwhile, in the background, a war rages on between your forces and your opponents, mostly without all that much input from you. Smaller missions generally involve helping to secure strongholds, defeat lower down leaders and other miscellaneous grunt work, and can help make the final battle against the big boss easier, by weakening your opponent's forces, and strengthening the dozens of AI troops that'll fight alongside you. That being said, it does feel a bit weird to be going off picking mushrooms or fishing for some guy in town on a side quest, while a huge war rages around you, in pretty much a state of perpetual limbo until you decide to get involved.
When you do manage to find someone to fight, though, the familiar Dynasty Warriors formula returns, with enough fast and frantic battles against sizeable armies, with flashy combos and special moves aplenty, to remind yourself this is a Warriors game you're playing. Combat has been reworked slightly, but you'll still find yourself relying on the traditional spamming square (or its Xbox One equivalent) for weaker attacks, interspersed with the odd stronger whack on triangle, although these have now been renamed as Flow and Reactive attacks respectively. In practice, 'flow attacks' are your standard attack, which you can string into combos easily, while Reactive attacks are essentially a pop-up prompt to press triangle to dispatch an enemy in one overpowered finishing strike. Trigger attacks, which you can do by holding down R1 and pressing any of the face buttons, are more specific attack shortcuts which can send enemies flying, stun them or break their guard - and have the effect of modifying your following button mashes too, so you'll automatically follow up with an aerial attack on enemies in the air, for example. The obligatory 'Musou' gauge returns too, and when charged, a quick press of the circle button will take out dozens (or hundreds) of nearby enemies in your character-specific super-powered Musou attack. It may all sound like a lot to take in, but it's much more intuitive and straightforward in practice, where you can mostly just mash buttons, spam the odd special move and look cool doing it, as you send whole armies flying with a few sword swings.
Dynasty Warriors 9 also has more of an emphasis on story, with sizeable cutscenes and conversations punctuating the missions, along with some enjoyably cheesy voice acting. Kicking off with quelling the Yellow Turban Rebellion, you'll work through the Battle of Xiapi and other major historical battles, as you fight to decide the fate of the world in the ashes of the fallen Han Dynasty, facing off against many familiar faces along the way. Each chapter, essentially a long, sprawling level, can be played from the perspective of the three main factions, Wei, Wu and Shu, and their respective captains and characters. All in all, there's a whopping ninety different characters to unlock and play as, although in the case of the story mode, they're only playable for the time in which their historical counterparts would been alive for during the battles - so, for example, Lu Bu, mighty commander of Dong Zhuo's army, only sticks around for a short time prior to his defeat at a major battle.
It also has all the traditional open world tropes - there's materials to gather, animals to hunt and fishing to be done, all of which feed into crafting you better gear, healing items and such. There's towers (of course!) dotted around the landscape, and climbing to the top of each will give you a bird's eye view of the area, filling in various map details around about. An open world isn't necessarily a bad thing, but one of the main requirements is that it really needs to be filled with things to keep you busy - mountains of side quests, secret caves to explore, random people to talk to - and Dynasty Warriors doesn't really have any of it. By and large, you'll spend ten minutes trotting from one end of the map to the other, from mission to mission, possibly picking up a few materials along the way if you're lucky, only to spend a couple of minutes slashing up some bad guys, then have another ten minute trot back across the map to the next scuffle. You spend more time travelling than you do fighting, and for a game that's effectively made its name from its fighting action, it seems a bit of an oversight. There's not even the option for multiplayer co-op to help lighten the long journey, which is sad too.
Despite the fact open world games are fashionable at the moment, Dynasty Warriors 9 proves that one size really doesn't fit all. It may be a nice idea, and on paper, a more expansive world, more of a story and more things to do sounds like just the thing to jazz up the two-decade-old series, but in practice, all it does is slow the whole thing down, forcing you to ride from one end of the map to the other, over and over again. Once you get there, the traditional Dynasty Warriors formula returns, with its flashy, fast-paced combat, and ploughing through a huge army, which is still as fun as it's always been - but there's just not enough of it to keep things flowing. All in all, a bit of a mixed bag.