Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
Tell me you’ve never dreamed about being a god-like warrior in early China, destroying hordes of soldiers with a weapon twice your size in an effort to rewrite history, and I will call you a liar and/or a dullard.
Well, OK, you might just have more discerning taste in video games. I like to think I do, but the fact that I absolutely adored the two Dynasty Warriors games on the PS2 has me admitting that I like to have some mindless fun sometimes.
[In Quality Control, we discuss our guiltiest pleasures in gaming.]
For the uninitiated, the Dynasty Warriors series has you controlling one of 50-60+ important characters from the Three Kingdoms period of China to lead your faction’s forces to victory, eventually uniting the country under one banner. This usually means singlehandedly taking on waves upon waves of enemies and their suped-up generals in vast battlefields.
Because this is a hack and slash video game adaptation of the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which already jacks up the personalities and fighting prowess of historical characters, the playable characters are capable of sending dozens of enemies flying through the air with all sorts of crazy moves and combos, all the while taking little damage from the peons swarming the screen.
Only against the handful of generals who appear on each level will you really find much of a challenge combat-wise, and even then, they keel over rather easily once you get the hang of the game.
The real difficulty rests in keeping the rest of your army alive in the later levels. In those climactic battles that eventually shape China’s history, the opposing force starts out with the in-game “morale advantages” that has the enemy troops methodically wiping out your side off-screen. Once you actually show up, you see the same dumb AI units lamely swinging their swords and sticking their spears against each other every 10 seconds.
And that is ultimately the sticking point to the entire series. The gameplay is incredibly simple. Dive into a pack of enemies then pull off a combo to wipe out the six to ten minions who usually just stand in front of you waiting to get slashed, thumped or impaled. If there’s a lieutenant or general, get rid of the bodyguards first to force a one-on-one confrontation (or in the case of DW4, get suckered into an actual duel in a removed location). Reach the enemy commander usually sitting pretty at the other end of the map, then use the same strategy you used against all the other generals while spamming your special “Musou” attack whenever possible till you defeat that last officer. Rinse, repeat.
There are certain events that trigger during the course of the battles which require you to race to one part of the map to kill a specific general or a group of soldiers to gain an advantage. However, the manner of accomplishing these little “side missions” still boils down to the basic method of slaughtering the opposition.
Considering the scope of every battle, the levels themselves aren’t exactly exemplars of design. It’s either drab grey or drab brown or drab green in wide empty spaces. You can’t even get to appreciate the vastness of the areas, as the draw distance isn’t all that impressive thanks to the technical limitations of the PS2.
That also explains how the game usually just has enemies showing up in small batches. If the area starts getting crowded, enemies start popping in and out of your screen while the game slows down trying to render all of them. Naturally, this can be really frustrating when you’re surrounded and enemies you don’t see materialize behind you and smack you, unceremoniously disrupting your onslaught.
Fortunately(?), they usually just stop hitting you after one blow, looking as if they actually regretted scraping off a centimeter of your lifebar and that they need to be punished for their stupidity, thinking they could actually hurt you.
Again, only the generals are the only ones you need to worry about. Since they’re for the most part the other playable characters, they have their own different movesets and strengths and weaknesses. Of course, the AI is never really smart enough to use the characters’ abilities wisely, so every encounter has you doing the same tactic anyway. The only adjustment you’ll ever have to make is when the general gets a temporary power-up because he/she plays a vital role within that battle’s historical context.
And because it’s all based on a real years long civil war, you’ll get mostly the same battles, the same levels, the same stories, and the same characters throughout the entire series.
So why exactly did I and the millions of other Dynasty Warriors players spend countless hours on this incredibly repetitive and technically mediocre video game?
It’s because of the super cheesy hair metal filled with AWESOME RIFFS and SICK SOLOS blasting through your speakers to pump your up as you head to battle. It’s because of the unintentionally hilarious dialogue delivered with full on ham in awkwardly animated seconds-long “cutscenes” that you’ll see over and over again every time you play through the story mode to unlock all 50 characters and level up all of them.
It’s because of those (mostly) unique characters with their crazy designs and exaggerated personalities that lead you to having a warped appreciation of ancient Chinese history, thinking there was a break-dancing barbarian, a totally-not-gay-but-totally-fabulous Asian Wolverine, and twin razor fan wielding lolis that all fought on the many wars that lasted throughout the Three Kingdoms period.
It’s because of the sheer thrill and cathartic release of charging straight into a host of virtually defenseless mooks with a huge ass weapon in tow to utterly destroy them with little to no trouble and a whole lot of style, slowly but surely winning campaign after campaign that will eventually unite all warring states into one China because of you.
It’s because of how every single one of those factors coalesce into making you feel like the biggest badass in all of the Middle Kingdom whether you’re a dimwitted fatty with a big ol’ hammer, a feisty tomboy princess with circular blades of death, a scheming strategist that shoots lasers from your war fan, or a primitive ape-like jungle king eternally whipped by his fiery queen.
It’s because it nails a fundamental aspects of video games, and that’s letting the player live out a power fantasy of being a nigh-invincible super Chinese soldier repeating history over and over and over again.