The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, an ancient Chinese novel that dates back a good couple of millennia, is Koei's inspiration for its best-known games. Its Dynasty Warriors series of action games has brought the novel's legendary characters to life in chaotic battles inspired by the book, while the long-running Romance of the Three Kingdoms series (which takes its name directly from the novel) has always been a complex strategy game in which players tried to unify a warring China under one flag. Dynasty Tactics is Koei's newest series based on the novel, and it's the middle ground between the other two--it's focused squarely on exciting battles waged by thousands of soldiers at once, but it's still a deeply strategic game that rewards methodical planning and foresight. The new Dynasty Tactics 2, released a year after the first game, is a Koei-style sequel in that it largely recycles its predecessor's elements but introduces some key features. The result is an excellent strategy game that fans of the original Dynasty Tactics will enjoy for the same reasons they enjoyed the first one and that gives new players a chance to experience this highly original, entertaining, and complex style of gameplay.
Dynasty Tactics 2 is structured just like its predecessor. It features campaigns focused on a number of the powerful warlords who rose up in the wake of the fall of China's Han Empire, include Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Sun Ce. Another character, Lu Bu, joins the playable roster this time, and the campaigns feature some nicely done prerendered cutscenes, plenty of text-based dialogue between the characters, and the occasional branching point--as the leader of your faction, you'll sometimes be expected to make difficult decisions about how to proceed, which will significantly affect how the campaign progresses. Gameplay is split between a strategic layer, reminiscent of the board game Risk, in which you organize your armies and move them about the region, and the battlefield, where your armies, composed of unique officers each in charge of many thousands of soldiers, clash against their enemies. These tactical battles are the heart of Dynasty Tactics 2, and those who played the first game know that they play out uniquely--not quite like what you'd expect from other turn-based strategy games, or anything else.
The word "tactic" in this game specifically refers to the special moves available to your officers, who appear in battle almost like chess pieces on a chess board. Tactics are single-use special attacks that can cause great damage to enemy forces and that cannot be retaliated against. Some tactics can bolster the morale of friendly forces, while others can instill confusion in the enemy's ranks, preventing that officer's army from moving for the next few turns. Most tactics can only be used from certain positions, so the facing of your units relative to your enemies is always an important consideration. Effectively using your officers' various tactics--there are dozens of different options, including many new ones since the last game--is what the action on the battlefield is all about. As you proceed through a campaign, you'll unlock new, more-powerful tactics for your officers as they themselves gain experience levels and larger, stronger armies.
Tactics are useful in and of themselves but are far better when used in concert with other friendly officers' tactics. Learning how to create tactical combos is what gives Dynasty Tactics 2 its somewhat steep learning curve, as well as its depth. Essentially, your units can be made to automatically initiate their tactics in succession if positioned properly with respect to the enemy and if ordered to do so by a strategist unit (typically, a powerful officer in his own right, but he must use his turn to order the combo rather than to attack). Each tactic that is added to a combo tends to be even stronger than the last, so you can conceivably use these to defeat armies of many thousands of troops in just a single turn. As your helpless foe is bounced back and forth between your officers' crushing attacks, you'll be pleased to see your plans executed just as you'd hoped. Defeating enemy officers with these types of over-the-top combos not only earns your officers more experience points and other benefits, but also gives you a chance of capturing the enemy officers, who may then be persuaded to join your ranks after the battle.
The tactical combo system is pretty abstract at first but is actually reminiscent of the combo systems found in many Tetris-style puzzle games, or even of the sorts of strategies you'd use in a game of checkers. If you've ever played Columns, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, or Dr. Mario, you'll see the connection as you use tactical combos to devastate your enemies' ranks. There's more to Dynasty Tactics 2 than just that, though. Your strategists may use what are called "links," first to incapacitate an enemy and then to set him up for a powerful follow-up attack when another friendly unit engages that enemy. Newly added to Dynasty Tactics 2 are tactical chains, by means of which a single officer can use multiple combos in succession, which may in turn be followed up by other officers' tactics. Additionally, officers who are friends with one another--say, if they're brothers--may sometimes join in on each other's attacks. Basically, there are a great many factors to consider when putting together a tactical combo, making this by all means a sophisticated and rewarding game for anyone with an interest in strategy.
There's even more to it. Different types of battlefield units include pikemen, infantry, cavalry, archers, and even engineers, who may construct siege engines such as catapults and arbalests, which can rain death on their foes from afar. Morale is always an important consideration, as it not only determines the order in which units on the battlefield will move, but also affects whether they'll be able to use certain other special abilities. Terrain is a factor, victory conditions aren't always as straightforward as wiping out the opposition, some of the more-powerful tactics aren't guaranteed to work every time, and, in general, the computer artificial intelligence poses a good challenge. The game features multiple difficulty levels, as well as a two-player mode so that you can take on a friend. There's a ton of great gameplay here.
The strategic layer certainly isn't as interesting as the combat, but it doesn't need to be. At this more-macrocosmic level, you can assemble new armies, set new tactics for your officers, equip them with special items, even appoint them as spies--spies can be used to sow dissent in the enemy ranks before engaging them in battle. The interface for this strategic portion of the game is still a little clunky, but since the game opens with some fairly helpful step-by-step tutorial dialogue and includes a thorough manual, you shouldn't get too bewildered if you're a newcomer to the series.
Dynasty Tactics 2 looks much the same as its predecessor, meaning it looks very good. The battlefields may look simple at first, but the use of tactics often shows dramatic-looking, fully 3D sequences as the armies collide. Most of the officers have a unique look to them, and the game's look is surprisingly stylish relative to most turn-based strategy games. Dynasty Tactics 2 sounds very good, as well, and features a dynamic soundtrack that suitably evokes the era and the intensity of the conflict. English voice acting is used to good effect, granting many of the officers unique personalities, though many of them sound (seemingly intentionally) like dubbed kung-fu movie stars. At any rate, Dynasty Tactics 2 looks and sounds about as good as you'd hope from a turn-based strategy game for the PlayStation 2, though some fans of the previous game no doubt would have wanted to see more of an overhaul on this front.
Like most of Koei's follow-up products, Dynasty Tactics 2 doesn't mess with success. Its predecessor introduced a unique style of tactical turn-based combat to the PlayStation 2, with plenty of visual flair, and Dynasty Tactics 2 runs with the formula by offering dozens of new moves and options, making the gameplay even more complex and interesting. This isn't a game brimming with pick-up-and-play appeal, but if you're looking for a deep and rewarding PS2 game that you can really sink your teeth into, look no further.