There's something a little bit ironic about the fact that Dynasty Warriors DS: Fighter's Battle, a handheld update to Koei's long-running console beat-'em-up franchise, doesn't feel like it's lost much of its gameplay in translation to the DS. Sure, the combos aren't as fancy-looking, there are far fewer warriors to play as, and the game is devoid of any measure of storyline. But speaking strictly to the combat and the methodology behind it, Dynasty Warriors DS really loses very little compared to the console counterparts. However, therein lays the sad comedy of this game: It filters out everything except the worst aspect of the console titles. The mindless sword slashing against hordes of dronelike soldiers, peppered with periodic battles against officers, is practically all you get in this game. With very little in the way of tactical strategy to the proceedings, almost zilch in the way of style, and only a few generic playable characters, you'll be done with Dynasty Warriors DS faster than you can say Cao Cao.
The game starts off by having you pick from one of three characters. There's a big, slow guy with a giant hammer; a fast, little guy with a sword; and then a well-balanced guy with a spear. There are no names, stories, or any other useful info to these characters--just stats. Once you've picked, you're presented with a map of ancient China. You're up against an opponent army headed by one of the characters you didn't choose (played by either a friend via wireless play or the computer), and with each province you select, you take to the battlefield, fighting to overtake all the enemy bases before your opponent. You do that by moving across a map with a series of squares on it.
Each square is a battle scene where you have to take out a certain number of enemies or a certain type of enemy before you can move on to the next square. The game's only real strategic element is trying to figure out the best path to each of the enemy's bases before heading to the enemy's main camp and fighting the big boss waiting inside. All the while, your opponent is doing the exact same thing. If you happen to meet your opponent on one square, you quickly duel, and the loser is sent packing back to a starting square a ways away on the map.
Engaging in combat is anything but. You've got a basic attack, which can be strung together into a four-hit combo, a special attack that does only slightly more damage than a regular combo, and then a musou attack that does a stupid amount of damage but requires a full musou meter to use. There are also some special attacks that come as you collect coins from fallen enemies. Once you get enough coins, a little icon on the bottom right of the screen starts randomizing and eventually settles on one of your available attacks, such as a hail storm of giant stones, a mild earthquake, or a whirlwind that sends your opponent to some other random square on the map. The special attacks you get to use depend on which officers you choose to bring into battle with you. Before battle, you essentially choose from a series of cards that each have an officer on them. Each has a certain number of troops, certain stat ratings, and specific attacks that become available to you. These officers also act as guardians for your bases.
It's too bad that they're basically useless at it. Defeating base officers isn't much more difficult than cutting down grunts, especially if you go into the fight with a full musou meter and lay one of those attacks on them from the get-go. Instead of making the fights remotely challenging or, you know, fun, the designers decided to try to balance out the challenge by making the special attacks insanely cheap. On the normal difficulty level, victory is basically determined by how badly you get screwed by very specific enemy attacks. You will frequently find yourself on the verge of catching up with an opponent's progress, only to get whirlwinded off to some distant corner of the map. The screw jobs even come out of apparent victories. You could win a duel with an opponent and suddenly find that your opponent has been whisked off to a new square that actually puts him in better position to win. It's catch-up artificial intelligence at its worst.
That's the long and short of the whole game...emphasis on short. You go through 12 of these battles, cutting up cheap-looking 2D sprites while wandering around sometimes confusing and always ugly squares of land. Then you periodically fight boss characters (some familiar franchise faces include Cao Cao, Lu Bu, and Zhang Jiao) until you've either conquered enough provinces to win--or not. On average, that should take you just over two hours to finish. Without any unlockables to go back to play for beyond more officer cards or any real difference between the single-player and multiplayer game, that's not a lot of bang for your buck.
Dynasty Warriors DS: Fighter's Battle is a game that will please neither the hardcore fan of the series nor those just looking for a bit of hack-and-slash on the go. The stump-dumb combat won't keep you interested for long, and the obnoxiously cheap nature of the game structure will probably have you looking for your return receipt if you don't snap the cartridge in half first. It's only what you dislike about Dynasty Warriors, and none of what you like. Take a pass on this one.