Review: Kung-fu hack the shit out of you.
When designing a game for a portable platform, you sometimes have to sacrifice or alter original concepts to make the game more friendly for a quick game on the train, the bus, the crapper, or wherever you can sneak in a bit of playtime. So far, most of the PSP games ? many of which are nearly as robust as console games ? have managed to pull this off; games like Metal Gear Acid contain individual missions rather than one straight game, Tiger Woods PGA Tour lets you save between shots, and Coded Arms is set up for intermissions between stages. Dynasty Warriors, Koei's first PSP release, is a testament to the 'quick game' philosophy, offering almost the same depth and action as its console counterparts, only organized for easy pick up and play entertainment on the go. As such, this offshoot of the popular console franchise manages to balance depth unfamiliar to many portable games, while being the perfect game to play for short periods of time. And as one of the few straight-up action titles on PSP that don't involve cars or guns, Dynasty Warriors is something unique to the library, even if the franchise itself is not anything new.
Dynasty Warriors places you in the usual world of ancient China, where factions are warring for control of the country. In this case, you choose from three different dynasties ? Wei, Wu, or Shu. At the outset each faction has a handful of characters to play as, but as you complete the roughly half-dozen missions with these original Dynasty Warriors, you unlock more ? for a grand total of 42 playable characters. The missions are played out in Musou mode, which is a basic story setup, and as you unlock stages by completing them, they can be replayed at any time within the Free mode option. Unfortunately, Dynasty Warriors is one of the few PSP games that lacks any sort of wi-fi multiplayer (as a matter of fact, it's the only
game in my collection that lacks it), which is too bad because the warring faction theme would work perfectly for head-to-head gaming. You can, however, use Ad Hoc wi-fi to trade your acquired officers (NPCs that are part of your army) with friends for their unlocked officers. It's like trading baseball cards, only putting your PSP between the spokes of your bicycle wheel is not really recommended.
For the uninitiated, Dynasty Warriors is a hybrid of action and strategy, though definitely heavy on the action. Harkening back to many old-school games, DW puts your one character against an entire army. While you do get the ability to employ up to 4 officers to assist the hundreds of generic allies, most of the time you personally need to go all Rambo and take on the hordes of enemies ? consisting of the same generic characters, officers, and 'boss' characters ? all by yourself. The strategy comes from balancing your attack on enemies versus falling back to protect allies and your own camps, all before running out of supplies or enemy occupation of your 'home' area. New to the portable version of DW, you can command officers via the d-pad, and make them use their unique abilities to assist in battle, adding a bit more depth to the strategy. However, though there is a need for occasional thought, the game is still a straight-up hack & slash action game, meaning be prepared for lots of button mashing.
On consoles, Dynasty Warriors games are massive things, each with gigantic fields to battle on, filled with hundreds, nay, thousands of characters floating around the level at any one time. This requires a lot of loading and streaming, and well, the PSP right now ain't very good at dealing with such things. And due to being portable, there's a need for a quick fix, instead of wasting 20 minutes fighting enemies while fighitng your battery life or finishing the level off before the train arrives at your destination. Thankfully, Koei took this in mind, and made Dynasty Warriors perfect for portable play. Instead of one huge field, DW uses a grid-like system, and you travel from area to area through this grid. The grid displays all the different kinds of areas; open fields, camps, supply depots, etc. It also shows who's occupying a territory, meaning you either can safely pass through an area without incident, or you battle for this territory. And when you're done, either you move on to the next point or merely save your game, making for quick games when necessary. When you restart the game later, it returns you to the exact point on the grid, which can be used to your advantage if perhaps errors are made on the battlefield ? a 2nd chance of sorts. And thankfully, aside from an initial load when you first boot the game up or resume a save, there's very minimal loading between stages, though this is because of mild streaming which eats battery life faster than some other games. But since DW is one of those 'little at a time' PSP games, it's forgivable. This isn't the kind of game to play for hours on end unless you enjoy sore fingers.
Every battle is a game of morale ? your job is to wipe out the enemy forces, but not by killing everyone ? instead, you merely need to drop the morale of your enemies. Once it reaches zero, they will retreat and the area will be 'liberated' from them. Certain enemies drop morale faster ? if you beat a commander, the morale level drops by a whole point, while basic soldiers drop it in small increments. Of course, battling commanders is a risk, as they're far superior to you quite often, which could net your own death and thus failure, so sometimes it's better to just slowly wipe out foot soldiers and avoid trouble. On the other hand, you can lose a battle the exact same way, and worse off, you lose the entire stage if you run out of supplies or your main camp is conquered before you can conquer theirs. The only way to recover supplies is to overtake an enemy supply depot ? which tend to be much more difficult stages than typical field battles. Sometimes, the morale changes drastically in positive directions ? if an ally and their army appears on a stage, their morale is added to whichever side they're on, making battles either really easy or very difficult. There's little you can do about morale with your army, it just goes down slowly as your soldiers expire. Which is why you really must play the whole Commando thing and lay waste to enemies yourself, as quickly as possible. During battles, you can change the map from the same grid you see on the main screen to a radar of sorts, to find groups of enemies to attack. However it will quickly change to the grid map if something begins to happen in other areas, whether its good or bad (and if it's really
bad, it will dump your morale by 1 point).
Dynasty Warriors puts RPG elements to use as well, for not just your character but all employed officers. The more kills you get in a stage, the more experience you receive thus the more levels you acquire. As you level, your health increases, as well as your Musou power for special moves. However, after you clear each stage, your level goes back to 1, though many stats increase depending on how well you score in a given stage. This is where the reward of killing commanders pay off, as the more worthy opponents you wipe out, the higher the points, thus the more stat advancement you get. A nice way to advance characters is through the Free mode ? as you complete a single stage, you can still level up your commanders and officers and it will affect their abilities in the main story mode. So if a stage is giving you a hell of a bad time, you just play a stage you can beat, and level their stats from there, hopefully making things easier.
In a game where the whole idea is to run around and hack the living hell out of things, you'd think it would get mighty repetitive, and it does after a while, actually. Playing through the whole game with all the different commanders almost sounds impossible because it's just the same damn thing again and again, and eventually it will get tiring like the zillion DW games on consoles. However, while it's still fresh in your mind, Dynasty Warriors can be a surprisingly varied game. The use of Musou skills makes it a little more than hack & slash ? once you're fully powered your Musou bar by attacking and building up kills, your character can unleash a huge attack that attacks a wide range of enemies ? it's quite fun to run into a pile of characters and unleash it for maximum kills in a short period of time (with all the violence it's amazing this game gets a Teen rating, ah the things you can do by not having blood all over the place). Some fights require extensive blocking and parrying, though usually only against commanders, since foot soldiers usually let you whoop on them due to being wussies. The AI can be either smart or stupid; basic soldiers do very little aside from ganging up on you, while projectile-based enemies (archers, grenade tossers) will actually run away from you when you charge toward them and reset their attack methods. Most of the major commanders and high-level officers put up much better fights ? some almost seem impervious to pain, making them good to completely ignore and concentrate on wasting his or her underlings to win battles. In many ways, your success is based upon your own brain despite the action being somewhat mindless ? if you don't bother to help allies and protect the bases of your army, you'll lose the battle. The phrase 'you've won the battle but not the war' fits perfectly into the world of Dynasty Warriors.
Considering the amount of enemies on the screen at any given time, Dynasty Warriors looks pretty impressive...usually. The biggest problem is slowdown ? when there's too many enemies on the screen at once, the game just c...r...a...w...l...s until they're cleared away. We're talking about 10 FPS here. Most stages don't have this trouble, but in a stage with hundreds of characters, it can get far too hectic for the PSP to handle (at this point in time, I'm sure future games will do away with this once developers grasp the hardware better). The other hassle is pop-up ? enemy units just appear out of nowhere, and frequently right in the middle of your screen, leaving you vulnerable for attack. This obviously doesn't hurt the game compared to the occasional slowdown, but it's goofy for enemies to appear out of the blue, poof. Otherwise, the game looks pretty good; non-generic characters have plenty of unique qualities (though there's still a lot of lookalikes...we've not come far enough where every character on screen looks different, and I doubt it will ever happen), and the fairly large stages have unique weather conditions, terrain, and landmarks, though some are basic fields without much detail other than green grass. Unfortunately, DW doesn't take advantage of the PSPs wide screen either, as the grid map and radar takes up a third of the screen, leaving the actual battle screen size roughly the same as the Game Boy Advance. Hopefully future installments will make the map smaller for more visibility ? it would be nice to see more of the field, one of the things the PSP allows for.
There's no voice acting, with merely text bubbles appearing when major events happen, but there's plenty of sound effects on the battlefield. Groans of the defeated, the sound of horses when a horseback enemy appears (or the times when you're on a horse, or even a gigantic elephant), the clang of swords, the rippling of an arrow leaving a bow, even the hiss of a grenade ready to go boom. It can be drowned out though, by the odd music. Instead of something Oriental that would fit the theme, we have Sega-style cheese rock that might get you pumped up for going postal on your enemies, but seems really out of place. There's also not a lot of it, so you'll hear the same themes over and over again. However, it's better to see them pack more gameplay into a UMD rather than dozens of musical scores which last just a few minutes during battles.