Every now and again, I find a video game that’s really good at breaking up chunks of work. It’s fun, challenging enough to keep my mind active but easy enough that it rarely frustrates or stonewalls me, and it’s got obvious stopping points that reliably come every 15-45 minutes, which is long enough that I feel rested when I come back to working on something but short enough that it doesn’t eat my whole day. It was Ace Combat Zero for a while, up until I completed that game so thoroughly that there was absolutely nothing left to accomplish, and for a little bit it was Reus, which is actually on a timer so one round of it will always be 15, 30, or 60 minutes, but unfortunately that last one is too long to be usable and you eventually hit a point where it’s basically impossible to make progress without using a 60-minute game length.
As you’ve likely gathered from the title of this post, my latest success in this regard has been Dynasty Warriors 5. I was in love with the Dynasty Warriors series for about 2-3 years as a kid/young teenager, right around the era of DW4 to DW6, but never wound up playing 6 because my parents never got me a PS3 and I wasn’t in a position to buy one for myself until some five years after DW6 was released, long after I’d forgotten the series. So DW5 was kind of a nostalgia trip.
At this point I’ve beaten most of not only DW5 but also its Xtreme Legends expansialone on Medium difficulty. I don’t know if I’m going to bother going for any higher difficulties, but probably not. While you certainly can win most missions in the game on pure skill, it’s not really fun to tackle a mission if you haven’t done enough grinding to get the character you’re using up to a higher stat level, since you end up ignoring most of the enemy army one way or another to sprint for objectives in order to complete them before your own forces are overrun, as your character’s attack power is far too low to fight through enemy forces at any reasonable pace. And each of 40+ characters has to be leveled up separately if you want to complete all of their story modes on the highest difficulty.
On the other hand, the way that I use these games does actually kind of lend itself towards grind without getting too tedious.
In any case, I’ve seen most of what Dynasty Warriors 5 has to offer at least on medium difficulty, and I feel confident in two things:
First, the Dynasty Warriors series shows a lot more of its fighting game roots than it might seem at first glance (the original DW was a Soul Calibur style weapon fighter, it was only DW2 that introduced the idea of massive combats). Different characters have different movesets and bizarre, often one-note personalities in the way that fighting game characters do, in order to have an interesting diversity of characters that can be communicated in very brief snippets of dialogue. I love how insane this makes some of the DW cast, and I’m sad to see more of the more recent additions to the cast following some fairly bland anime tropes rather than being as crazy as Zhang He the murder-dancer, Wei Yan the barely articulate rage berserker, and Zhou Tai the Chinese samurai.
In any case, the conclusion I take away from these fighting game roots is that the game desperately needs a guard breaking attack that’s common to all characters. The basic rock-paper-scissors of most fighting games is a strike that can be intercepted by a block, which can be overcome by some kind of grab or throw move, which can be interrupted by a quicker strike. Dynasty Warriors has the strike and the block but lacks any grab or throw or other means of getting past the block besides running around behind the enemy. This makes duels with enemy officers feel like a frustrating and slow fight against the not-totally-precise movement controls, which gets irritating if the enemy officer is a powerful enough enemy to require several minutes to defeat. The game really wants these to be climactic duels, but they always feel awkward and clunky unless you’re playing a character with a standard (not musou – musou attacks often get around blocks but are too infrequently available to be relied on in the kinds of duels that last long enough to get tedious anyway, and God help you if you’re playing a character like Zhang He whose musou is useless) attack that can get around blocks.
Second, Dynasty Warriors 5 is terrible at communicating the story of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, despite being more character-focused than Dynasty Warriors 4. Each character has their own story mode which takes you through 4-6 battles and is supposed to tell the story of that character, sometimes expanded a bit to give them a satisfactory ending if their novel/historical self got bumped off through random chance because that is how history do and the novel added only occasional embellishments. You’d think this would be great at getting the story across, since it can focus on character moments to really get someone invested, but instead it tends to feel like you’re jumping around the timeline at random, especially for Shu characters who often start out in the Yellow Turban Rebellion or the Coalition Against Dong Zhuo and then skip ahead fifteen years to the battle of Chi Bi, completely ignoring the early shakeout period when lots of small warlords were fighting each other.
And sometimes a character’s story just compresses really poorly, like Guan Yu, who has a major role in both battles against Dong Zhuo, then skips ahead to suddenly he’s working for Cao Cao while his sworn brother Liu Bei is working for Cao Cao’s arch-nemesis Yuan Shao, and you get that Guan Yu and Liu Bei got separated somehow and accidentally wound up on opposite sides of the battle, but it’s totally unclear how, and then you have to flee from Cao Cao’s forces to meet up with Liu Bei again, but the point where you actually meet up with Liu Bei gets totally skipped and the very next battle is about chasing down Cao Cao after he flees a disastrous defeat against Liu Bei and Sun Quan at Chi Bi.
The only stage that seems to follow on from the last one is the very last stage, where after Cao Cao was defeated at Chi Bi, Guan Yu ends up in command of Liu Bei’s holdings in the nearby Jing Province, while Cao Cao’s cousin Cao Ren is in command of Fan Castle, which guards the approach deeper into Cao Cao’s territory. So, okay, after he won at Chi Bi, Liu Bei gained some territory, left Guan Yu in charge of it, and now Guan Yu is trying to expand it by pushing north into Cao Cao’s territory. It goes pretty well until Sun Quan betrays him (he has his reasons, but they’re not important here), and then, since Guan Yu is Player One in this version of the story, Guan Yu wins anyway, capturing Fan Castle. Cao Cao and Sun Quan are both at large, though, so the ending feels kind of abrupt?
You can start to piece together an idea of what’s going on after playing multiple characters’ stories, I guess, but I don’t know how easy it would be to put all those pieces together if I didn’t already know the plot. Dynasty Warriors 4 just had one story mode for each of the titular three kingdoms (plus some unlockable story modes for some of the minor warlords), and that worked way better.
Dynasty Warriors 5 also does a shockingly bad job of covering the entire sweep of the story compared to Dynasty Warriors 4, even if you ignore the Musou Mode and just play through with everything unlocked on Free Mode. For example, Dynasty Warriors 5 does not have any battle for Jing Province even in Xtreme Legends, where it seems like the obvious stage to add for Wei Yan and Huang Zhong, since Liu Bei’s conquest of Jing Province is the start of Wei Yan and Huang Zhong’s story (I almost wonder if Koei wants justice for Han Xian, who was a perfectly good governor that gets recast as a villain for the sake of this story?). Without this battle, Wei Yan and Huang Zhong just kind of appear in Liu Bei’s forces at the battle of Cheng Du. There’s no confrontation with Yuan Shu, Sun Ce’s primary rival, except in that he can show up as reinforcements in a battle between Cao Cao and Lu Bu, neither of whom are Sun Ce. There’s no assassination of Dong Zhuo by Lu Bu and Diao Chan, which is fine for the major characters’ plot arcs since you can just have Dong Zhuo be killed at Hu Lao Gate, but it’s pretty critical for Lu Bu’s story that he was the one who killed Dong Zhuo and was subsequently forced to strike out on his own. There’s no battle at Xu Province, which was the beginning of the rivalry between Liu Bei and Cao Cao which defines like 70% of the Three Kingdoms narrative. DW4 admittedly only added Xu Province in its own Xtreme Legends expansion, but still.
In exchange, DW5 gives us an extra battle in Zhuge Liang’s northern campaigns (Chen Cang Castle) and, in its Xtreme Legends expansion, Ou Xing’s rebellion. Emphasizing the enormity of the undertaking of Zhuge Liang’s northern expansions is definitely a good thing, as is filling out the years between the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the coalition against Dong Zhuo, but they’re not worth punching holes in the story of Cao Cao’s and Sun Ce’s rise to power, what Liu Bei was even doing during that time, and critical story beats for characters like Huang Zhong, Wei Yan, Lu Bu, and Diao Chan. In fact, Ou Xing’s rebellion isn’t even a particularly good way to fill in the years between the Yellow Turbans and Dong Zhuo (although it is an event of the novel), because what’s really needed is a version of the Ten Eunuchs plotline that actually tells the story rather than just referring to it. This is how Dong Zhuo seized power, so it should either be properly told or else Dong Zhuo should be depicted as already more-or-less in power as of the Yellow Turban Rebellion (which he did fight in, so it’s not like it’s a huge stretch to make him commander of the Han forces instead of He Jin, a character who is only important to the Ten Eunuchs plot arc and should absolutely be cut if you’re not going to tell that story properly).
Also, WordPress changed their editor a while ago and I don’t know where the “click to read more” line is in the new one, so this whole post is going on the front page.