The Dynasty Warriors franchise has become stagnant as of late. Incomprehensible storylines and simplistic combat mechanics make it increasingly difficult to get interested in the series' aging formula. While Strikeforce doesn't address all of these problems, it incorporates a good multiplayer experience and a number of new features that make it significantly more engaging than many of its predecessors. As a result, this Dynasty Warriors game will strike a chord for some newcomers without alienating the series faithful.
Like previous entries in the series, Strikeforce is set in the Three Kingdoms era of ancient China when three factions waged war for control of the land. After choosing your kingdom and character, you're dropped into a town to prepare for battle against the Yellow Turbans, a religious extremist group inciting rebellion across the continent. Because each mission is presented a la carte from a simple menu system, there is little emphasis on story. Each faction has five chapters of these story missions, and between each chapter, you'll be fed more exposition through perfunctory voice-overs and minimally animated cutscenes. Diehard Dynasty Warriors fans may be interested in what's going on, but for the uninitiated, the plot roughly boils down to this: Go here and kill these people. There are usually at least four story missions available that can be chosen in any order, as well as repeatable side missions that you can spend time with when you need to level up before attempting some of the more difficult story-driven objectives. Most missions are limited to 30 minutes to keep the portable game playable in small chunks, but you often won't need the entire time to complete your main objective.
A small town serves as your hub to upgrade weapons, store and exchange items, and learn new skills between missions. Using the new Chi augmentations, you can equip one special skill to each arm and leg for a total of four abilities that will help you in battle. These augmentations have a wide range of effects like increasing jump height, item potency, or dash distance. Weapons can also be upgraded to increase their damage or to expand your maximum combo length. To upgrade the Chi augmentations, weapons, and even the town stores, you'll exchange the gold and materials you've earned in battle. Because the items you find on the battlefield are randomized, loot hunting becomes a priority. If you don't find the materials you need to upgrade the specific weapon or ability you'd like, the town has a market that allows you to trade common items for loot that tends to be harder to find. However, even these trade options are randomized, occasionally making it difficult to get the right materials for the job.
The Dynasty Warriors series has a reputation for mindless button mashing, and Strikeforce is certainly no exception. You'll spend most of your time hammering on the square button to build up a combo, occasionally switching to the triangle button to perform a charge attack and break an opponent's block. Each character can equip a second weapon in addition to his or her traditional armament, which adds some variety to the combat. However, Strikeforce distinguishes itself from previous entries with the new Fury mode transformations. Building up combos fills your Fury meter, which can be unleashed to turn your character into a glowing Fury form that wreaks havoc on the battlefield with a special attack. This can be a big help during single-player missions when you're particularly overwhelmed by the sheer number of enemies on the field. Using Fury mode is also a quick and easy way to temporarily overcome the awkward camera and lock-on mechanic, which make it difficult to quickly switch between targets during battle.
Strikeforce's often overwhelming difficulty when playing solo makes the game seem tailor-made for cooperative multiplayer. You can jump into a lobby with up to three friends via the PSP's wireless ad hoc mode and play any mission just as you would in the single-player campaign. Playing with friends makes the objectives much easier simply because your enemies have to deal with multiple targets. It also makes boss fights less stressful because when more people are fighting, it's more likely that one of you will succeed. However, more important than evening out the difficulty curve is the simple fact that this Dynasty Warriors game is just more fun when playing with friends. As a nice bonus, there is free downloadable content that features some extra multiplayer-focused levels and integrates directly with the existing mission structure.
It's unfortunate that successful design elements, such as the well-implemented multiplayer component, are bogged down by some other poor presentation values. Actually, it seems as though every good design decision in Strikeforce is met with an equally questionable choice elsewhere. For example, while the environments are physically varied and reward exploration, blurry textures and repeated layouts make it difficult to navigate because many areas look the same. Having enemies to deal with on three different tiers helps break up some of the monotony typical of button mashers by forcing you to jump around and find alternate paths, but it can be frustrating when you can't even find the turrets that are taking free shots at you.
The music that plays during the town sequences is particularly soothing, yet battle themes throughout the game are forgettable, while sound effects are dull and generic. If you have an extra 300MB on your memory stick, an install option virtually eliminates all load times. This is great for a portable game where your play time may be limited. However, the game inexcusably makes pausing particularly difficult. Pressing the start button brings up a menu that obscures the action and allows your enemies to continue attacking you while you rifle through the options to reach the pause button. This extra step seems like a huge oversight in any game, let alone on a portable console that you might have to quit playing quickly.
With five story chapters for each kingdom and plenty of unlockable characters, outfits, and treasures, Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce offers a lengthy hack-and-slash experience. Despite some questionable design decisions and the obligatory level grinding, there's still a fair amount of fun to be had here. If you've got a friend or two with copies of the game, you'll get that much more value from the experience.