Our relationship with the Dynasty Warriors saga has been a bumpy one to say the least. When the series made its long-awaited current-gen debut with Dynasty Warriors 6 it marked an unexpected step back for KOEI; revisions to the combat and a shortened roster of characters led to disputes between dedicated fans and an air of uncertainty as to which direction Omega Force would take the next instalment.
Last year saw a dramatic turn around with the launch of Dynasty Warriors 7; a blend of old and new, it marked a much-needed return to form for the franchise, bringing with it a new cinematic, set-piece centric vibe. The same can’t be said about the game’s expansion which launched later in 2011 however. Despite adding a new game mode and three characters, Dynasty Warriors 7 Xtreme Legends proved alarmingly mediocre, with a severe lack of original content and over-arching substance.[drop2]Where the console instalments have been mildly sporadic in quality, handheld Warriors titles (bar the Orochi spin-off series) have a propensity of either feeling light on the ground or being direct ports of their console counterparts. Though there are a string of evident similarities between Dynasty Warriors 7 and the series’ first Vita title, NEXT, there are also a slew of new and returning features, making it a great all-round package for newcomers and grizzled Three Kingdoms veterans alike.
As always, the exposition remains unchanged. A quasi-historic narrative set in Three Kingdoms China is propped up by a cast of transparent yet mostly likeable characters who fans will already have an intimate relationship with. Since the year 2000 we’ve been re-treading the same ground with each passing instalment, though as with Dynasty Warriors 7, KOEI is looking to expand the saga’s rich lore by exploring the events after the battle at Wu Zhang Plains, following the conquest of Jin. Historic significance aside, this means more scenarios and characters are thrown into mix.
The first, most noticeable change in NEXT is the redesigned campaign mode. In past iterations, campaigns have been split into three or more playable segments, each one focusing on the perspective of one faction or even individual characters. This time around the story has been woven into a single tapestry, players switching between factions after each chapter as to get the full picture. The use of a timeline and map also help to identify how the results of each historic battle reshaped China, the campaign still granting equal amount of screen time for each side of the conflict.
In many ways, the new design feels similar to the Empires expansions most Warriors fans will be accustomed to. A good percentage of the battles in each chapter are just as linear in structure as they have always been, though on some occasions the player will be allowed to select to their character and which generals to accompany them. This tactical spin on the 13-year old formula is enforced even further in conquest mode. Here, you can essentially build your own epic campaign scaled for up to a max of five warring factions, selecting your ruler and a tight cluster of subordinates to take into battle. It’s succinct, and if you happen to select the largest map size, could last you for days, though a few crummy design choices will temper impatient players. Territory management is presented as more of a board game than a tactical overlay, territory ratings used to dictate which areas on the map can be attacked by adjacent regions. It’s a scatter-gun system, and though some will appreciate the change, others will be pining for the traditional Empire format.
Regardless of how they are set-up, battles remains completely unchanged at their core. Dynasty Warriors is still about pummelling legions of incoming peons and generals, racking up triple-digit combos, and unleashing screen-clearing finishers. It’s mindless, chaotic fun and though the decade-old formula has lost occasionally lost steam between instalments, the way battles are presented in NEXT keeps it from growing stale. There is still a creeping element of repetition, especially when playing for prolonged sessions, though battles have been appropriately condensed to suit on-the-go play. Skirmishes have been scaled back to 5-10 minutes, allowing for short bursts of play that keep the player engaged as opposed to the half-hour slogs we’ve had to endure in console iterations.
Where Vita-specific functions have proved a blight in other launch games, Omega Force has handled them surprisingly well. In battle, players will occasionally stumble across ambush scenarios which trigger mini-games, often instructing the player to swipe at incoming projects or tap charging opponents. Lasting only a few seconds and without the need for loading screens, they blend seamlessly into combat and serve as a welcome change of pace instead of an obstruction. The touch panels and accelerometer are also worked into the series’ signature “Musou” attacks, though the Infinity Blade-inspired duels are alarmingly drab with a lack of variety.[drop]A cluster of new and returning features also help to enhance the overall package. The much-loved item system is back, allowing players to equip their characters with stat-buffs and other miscellaneous perks and abilities before going into battle. To alleviate the flow of combat, touch commands have also been covertly integrated; by expanding the mini-map you can now drag ally unit icons across the field of battle, directing them to either attack or defend selected bases. Amid other features, we also have the anticipated return of edit mode. Here players, can piece together their own legendary warrior using a variety of costumes and weapons before making them playable in conquest mode. It may borrow heavily from previous edit options available in Warriors titles, but it’s a neat addition nonetheless.
Even with dozens of soldiers duking it out on screen, NEXT is easily one of the best-looking games on the system. Characters are well-designed and move with seamless fluidity, visual fidelity still being a major staple in the hack and slash franchise. Environments could do with a bit more variety, but there’s really nothing to complain about given that most of the time your eyes will be locked on the constant flurry of weapons. As for the cutscenes, they look simply stunning on the Vita’s scrumptious OLED display.
A lot of audio has been stripped from Dynasty Warriors 7, though the campaign comes tagged with new dialogue exchanges between missions. The series’ stable of voice actors return, and though there are some cringe-worthy performances, they are easily overlooked. Packed with crunching combat sound effects, its easy to get immersed when trenched in battle, the franchise’s iconic rock themes adjusting appropriately to even given circumstance.
- Over 60 playable characters with updated arsenal of weapons.
- Draws inspiration from previous Warriors games.
- Looks superb, glitch-free.
- Condensed level design makes NEXT the most accessible game in the franchise.
- Soundtrack still adds a unique touch.
- Edit mode.
- Re-designed campaign.
- Conquest mode feels slightly out of place.
- Duels feel under-developed.
- Online interactions are mostly transparent.
- Won’t convert those who have disliked previous instalments.
Dynasty Warriors NEXT marks a hike in quality for the series’ branch of portable titles, which are now almost on par with their console counterparts. With that said, the game just falls shorts of greatness, though not due to technical limitations. It may be original, though conquest mode seems half-baked in comparison to other modes we’ve seen in the past. A slightly watered-down version of DW7’s Chronicle mode may have been more suitable.
The best feature of the game is the one that warrants most attention however. By scaling back the epic-scale battle sizes and weaving in nifty mini-games, NEXT is the first title in the series that doesn’t feel like a chore, an element that has plagued the franchise for years now.