The story of Three Kingdoms-era China has been a mainstay of Dynasty Warriors since the days of the original PlayStation--and while it's gone through a number of iterations since then, Dynasty Warriors 9 represents the biggest shift away from the series' established formula since moving from a one-on-one fighting game to its more established musou form. While the feeling of cutting down entire formations of soldiers with a button press will feel more than familiar to fans of the series, the introduction of a massive open world changes the pacing in a way that allows the action to breathe. Although it suffers from a number of disappointing technical hitches and some typical open-world jank, Dynasty Warriors 9's sprawling campaign feels right at home in its new setting.
Given that the game's story mode is presented unconventionally, it can take a little while to figure out precisely what's going on. The entire story of the Three Kingdoms is told through the eyes of more than 80 separate playable characters from across four major clans--Wei, Wu, Shu, and Jin--as well as a handful of other smaller bit players. From the beginning, you're limited to a choice of three officers: Cao Cao, Sun Jian, and Liu Bei (the three lords of the Wei, Wu, and Shu clans, respectively).
Playing through each chapter unlocks the next one along with more characters, unfolding the differing perspectives of each clan throughout each battle in a way that's equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Seeing each battle from multiple perspectives is enthralling from a historical point of view--but it can mean playing through a lot of the same missions multiple times, which can be a little frustrating, given how similar each character feels on the battlefield. Thankfully, any powerful weapons, items, or horses that you acquire carries over across every mission, mitigating some of the grind.
Dynasty Warriors 9's open world is the big game-changer here, and it works to the game's advantage in many ways. This time, missions are picked up from non-player characters out in the world, and among the different cities that dot the landscape. Although the old menu-based quest option is still there if you want to merely move from mission to mission, traveling from one area to another gives you chances to find peaceful moments between each battle.
Your actions in the open world are also tied closely to each main quest. Completing sub-quests lowers the recommended character level for the main quest--so if you find a mission too difficult, you can polish off a few sub-quests to make it easier. Ditto for taking down squadrons on the open-world battlefield, which changes the frontlines and gives your clan the numerical advantage for next main mission. And while it's satisfying to watch this play out, it only felt essential when playing on the highest of the game's five difficulty levels, as combat generally feels weighted in your favor.
If you make your way off-road when moving towards the frontlines, the chances are good that you'll find a dangerous group of bandits to take down, or a pack of wild deer or tigers to hunt. Although many of the optional open-world activities--like hunting and fishing (of course there's fishing)--aren't especially inspiring in themselves, they net you ingredients which you can use to buff your attack or defense stats through cooking at a Teahouse. You can also earn special items from the Dilettante who deals in hunted goods, or trade in various different currencies earned from defeating enemies at the Coin Collector, who will trade you for scrolls (which are effectively blueprints required for crafting weapons and items from raw materials collected out in the world).
The world is massive, and in its own way quite pretty; its sparsity reflects the period, and the vast and varied environments flow seamlessly into one another. It’s serene in the way that a horseback ride through nature should be. The day/night and full weather cycles aren't just visual changes, but also affect the action: Soldiers won't march at nighttime, and bad weather slows them down. But overall, it also just looks plain grimy at times--many of the game's textures appear as though they've been lathered in thick coats of Vaseline. Cities and palaces suffer from this the most, as their elaborate architecture often fails to load with high-resolution textures at first, leaving them looking like big brown lumps in the world instead of beautiful, ancient Chinese palaces. At worst, full bases will phase into view a few moments after being loaded in to the world, but thankfully this is reasonably rare.
Aside from the randomly appearing geometry, Dynasty Warriors 9's graphical shortcomings are perhaps most noticeable in the character costumes. While character models and costume designs themselves are absolutely stunning, the textures within them lack the sort of clarity needed to work up-close. This, combined with rough animations and some truly abysmal English voice work--make sure you switch to the Chinese voice-over immediately--make the story cutscenes a little rough to look at, given the frequency with which they're shown.
Cutting down hundreds of enemies in a single sitting feels as satisfying as ever.
On the PlayStation 4 Pro, you're given a choice of two graphics options that focus on either stabilizing resolution or frame rate. Leaning toward the resolution option is meant to lock the game down to 30 frames per second at a higher resolution... but it struggles to stay anywhere near that, and looks arguably worse than when running the frame-rate-preferred option, which dials down the resolution in favor of trying to hit a consistent 60fps. And while it barely retains said consistency (especially during character-heavy battle moments), it's a far better experience overall.
If Dynasty Warriors is known for anything, its throwing huge numbers of enemies at you to cut through like a hot knife through butter, and Dynasty Warriors 9 is no different. Given the game's technical issues, it's a good thing that cutting down hundreds of enemies in a single sitting feels as satisfying as ever; entire squadrons can be laid to waste in mere moments. It's truly an epic power fantasy that, even after 50 hours of gameplay, continues to thrill. The soundtrack shifts from a softer, more traditional sound to crunching drums and wailing guitars, giving it a pure action game feel. Admittedly, the horseback combat doesn't feel all that great (mostly thanks to the horse lacking any subtlety in its movements), and using the bow can be underwhelming--but the melee combat remains the biggest draw, and the series' strongest pillar. It lacks nuance in some of the later one-on-one boss battles, but nine times out of 10, you'll come out of a battle with a smile on your face.
It's clear that Koei Tecmo and Omega Force have gone back to the drawing board with Dynasty Warriors 9, and in many ways, it's a big improvement. The new open-world format changes up the game in a way that helps the flow and pacing of its story mode, as well as its core mechanics. Despite the obvious graphical flaws and some issues with combat lacking finer controls, the streamlined menus, open world atmosphere, and laughably fun moment-to-moment play makes Dynasty Warriors 9 not just a must for fans, but worth a look for the merely curious.