I haven’t played a really good Dynasty Warriors game in a while. A few of the spin-offs were decent but in my estimation, this series hasn’t been especially impressive since the early days of the PS2. However, despite my lingering reservations heading into the Vita version of Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires – the first franchise spin-off to launch for North American Vitas – I have to admit, I’m pleased with the result. Yeah, they had to scale back the graphics from the PS4 version so the game would run smoothly on Sony’s portable, and there’s still that element of repetitiveness and some minor camera issues but for the most part, this is really fun and rewarding game.
Due to the downscaling of the graphics, this isn’t the best Vita game you’ll ever see. There are unfortunate low-res textures and mediocre character models, along with outdated visual issues like pop-in and clipping. The PS4 version wasn’t exactly a graphical tour de force to begin with, so lowering the quality for this iteration puts a damper on the experience. Yes, graphics do matter. Even so, I’d much rather have an average-looking game with consistent frame rate, and that’s no easy feat when there are a ton of characters on screen at once and the action is blazing fast. Developer Omega Force did the right thing in toning down the graphics, even if it’s still not perfect (special skills can still make the frame rate chug).
The sound is a little better thanks to a wide assortment of hard-hitting special effects that lend a sense of urgency and explosiveness to the combat. The soundtrack, much like some of the more tedious battles, can be very repetitive and the voice performances range from poor to average. But these are minor flaws because you’re always so focused on the gameplay, which continues to demand your attention at every turn. A game’s audio should reflect the goal of the product; in this case, the battlefield sounds should dominate and that’s precisely what they do. The score and voices are basically in the background, complementary without being impressive or even necessary. And the Vita’s great sound lets this high-impact title really pop in your hands.
I think I was surprised at how well Dynasty Warriors fits on a portable device. Granted, the developers had to limit the technology involved but that optimization is appreciated, and the depth and fantastic action steal the show. You’re out to conquer the whole of China and that’s no easy task. You have to recruit new soldiers into your ranks, build a functioning and thriving facility, and continually press forward into enemy territory. The best part is the balancing and pacing. Let’s face it; we’re not always sitting in our living rooms playing on a handheld device, so it’s important to have a flexible game. This one lets you sit for a few minutes, tweaking and fine-tuning your army, and also encourages longer play sessions with intense, involving battles.
At the start, you create your hero, which gives that character a more personal bent. In the main series entries, the story typically had you switching between several different characters, so you never felt attached to any one fighter. This way, with your customized hero leading the way, you start to build that all-important emotional attachment. You can select their design, armor, and skill set, and then work to improve every facet of that very personal character. This is where the role-playing feel comes into play, which I always appreciate. Dynasty Warriors has been utilizing RPG elements for a while but this is a first for me: An entry (or spin-off, whatever) where the RPG and strategy aspects actually stand toe-to-toe with the action.
A menu-based system is deeper than you might think, and each action requires one in-game month to complete. After some months pass, you’ll either host or attend a war council meeting where you set your goals for the future. The idea is to budget your time appropriately based on what you’d like to spend more time doing; do you want to work more on personal hero objectives or do you want to spend more time satisfying faction goals? You also have to consider how much time you want to spend with a particular faction before striking out on your own. The benefit of the group is having more resources but as the faction grows, it might be harder to control and it could eventually become a powerful enemy. In this way, there’s quite a bit of planning ahead.
Personally, I loved going solo because than you have full control over everything you do. You can be tactful and diplomatic in your conquering approach, or you can simply opt to crush your foes with overwhelming force. Of course, a pretty robust action mechanic sits at the core of this experience, so going the violent route is automatically more fun. But even when you’re throwing down in one of those intense confrontations, your plan is still in the back of your head. You’re still thinking about your forces and how best to utilize them; where, when and how. This cerebral element continually plays a role but when you’re really intent on dispatching hapless enemies in battle, your focus switches to the satisfying beatdown.
There are all sorts of combos and special attacks to learn and execute, and the dual weapon-switching is another bonus. You have to take over bases in any given battle; the goal is to capture the main base, which is often an extremely challenging task. Control feels just about right and Omega Force takes advantage of Vita’s touchscreen capabilities, too. Normally, I’d hate any touchscreen controls in the heat of fast-paced battle but here, it’s pretty simple: Just tap your stratagem cards and they flow out across the screen. Then, just double-tap the card you plan to use and bingo, you’re good to go. It can interrupt the flow of the battle, especially if you’re trying to pull off some special maneuvers but as far as touchscreen mechanics go, it’s relatively smooth and not especially intrusive.
The only issues I have involve the pacing of certain battles and the design of the maps. Some confrontations simply wear on far too long in my opinion, and it seems like they recycled too many areas for use in the maps. Toss in the unimpressive graphics and the occasional issues that affect the gameplay (pop-in, for one), and there is some frustration involved. There are also times when the blend of RPG, strategy and action feels somewhat overwhelming, most notably when your faction starts to get away from you, or you make a mistake with the allocation and direction of your forces. This makes the production feel somewhat prohibitive and uncompromising, which might turn off those looking for a standard hack ‘n slash experience.
Aside from these mild drawbacks, Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires is a solid, entertaining adventure that successfully mixes depth and over-the-top combat. When off the battlefield, it adopts the feel of a strategy game and when customizing and advancing your hero, you get that distinct RPG vibe. And when you hit the battlefield, the contest explodes all over that small screen. The technicals aren’t great, unfortunately, the game can be intimidating and uncompromising, and the general map design isn’t anything special. Still, for Vita owners looking for a compelling and involving title, Empires might be just the ticket. I mean, provided you haven’t already played it on PS3 or PS4. This version isn’t much different.
The Good: Great blend of deep strategy/RPG and action elements. Option to play in short bursts or for extended periods. Nice push-and-pull between faction and solo gameplay. Rewarding for those who plan and balance like champs. Solid control and combat is typically very fun.
The Bad: Scaled-back graphics are mediocre. Game can feel forbidding and intimidating at times. Map design is uninspired.
The Ugly: “Yeah, some of those textures do qualify as ‘ugly.’”