Koei’s Dynasty Warriors series is one of the longest-running game franchises ever, and could even teach hardcore licence milkers such as Nintendo and Capcom a thing or two. This is surprising for a licence that has, despite several iterations and spin-offs, remained almost exactly the same since day one.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I was once a big fan of the epic battles the series produced, and have played the majority of the series (and its offspring). To some degree, I still enjoy the odd scrap in historic China, but, no matter how much of a fan you are, there’s no denying the series’ continued course towards downright boredom. Just how many identikit, mindless button-mashing sequels can the company spit out before they come up with anything new – anything at all?
Maybe today will be an answer to that question, as I embark on a PSP-flavoured tour of the Three Kingdoms in Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce. No, this isn’t a Power Rangers-themed outing, so don’t panic, it’s simply a rather badly named incarnation of the familiar Chinese uber-warriors, on the small screen.
Strikeforce takes the majority of the DW series and crams it into the pint-sized PSP, but, in order to make said cramming possible, it also makes several changes to the familiar formula. The most immediately notable change in this translation is the reduction in the battlefield sizes, which are now far smaller scale arenas, separated by gates (which load areas into memory when you enter them). Battles are now shorter, and most will last around 5-10 minutes.
Also, the usual masses of enemies and allies battling it out onscreen are gone. Instead, this time you’re on your own (unless you play the new multiplayer feature, but more on that later), and you’ll only face a handful of enemies at any one time, rather than legions of troops all milling around.
Missions have been redesigned for the PSP. So, rather than a large scale battle against an opposing army, instead you’ll fight through a couple of arena-like sections before fighting a boss, or you may need to run around the level’s various arenas to find items that need to be collected.
It’s not just the missions that have been altered, though, and while DW veterans will notice that plenty has been scaled down here, there have been a few nice additions.
The game now features a ‘city’ section. This hub is where you’ll find yourself in between missions, and here you can use items and money you find in battle to buy and create new weapons, augmentations for weapons, learn new special attacks and increase your various abilities. This is done by using stored items and money, and before you’ll be able to access better weapons you’ll also need to upgrade each section of the town (such as the blacksmith, marketplace and academy). This is done by using officer cards that you’ll get from friendly generals in the city. These have varying effects, and once you return from battle, any increase in city shop status will be applied. So, use a general card that adds five points to your blacksmith and you’ll find that your blacksmith has advanced those five points while you’ve been away.
As you level up the city shops you’ll gain access to better weapons and abilities, which can then be created/learned using items you find. The system is relatively simple, but it does work in a more interesting way than simply finding random weapons and items on the battlefield as in previous DW titles, and adds some much-needed depth into the game.
As usual, there’s a huge roster of fighters available, and each can be levelled up as you progress, becoming more and more powerful. The Musou system also returns, letting you charge up power attacks. This time these attacks are more varied, with several ground, air and ranged attacks available to add to combo potential. Fill up your Musou bar and you’ll also be able to use the new Fury (or ‘Awakening’) mode. This turns your character into a beefed up, super-human version of themselves, which renders them practically unstoppable, which is enjoyable while it lasts, and is particularly useful in boss fights.
Your chosen scrapper can also hold two weapons at once, which can be switched at any time. This opens up the game even more, and you can tailor your approach depending on the weapons you choose to take. For example, you could take a staff weapon, with its long reach for open battles with many foes, and a smaller, quicker sword for one-on-one scraps.
Another new move Koei has added is the ability to dash around with the push of the right trigger. This helps to add to the simple button-mashing play a little, and boosts your evasion skills. The dash can also be used to give you prolonged periods in the air after jumping, and can close distance on foes and make long jumps over pits possible.
This air time is important, as many of your foes can actually fly around at will, and so it helps even the odds a little. However, these flying enemies can, unfortunately, be very frustrating, even with your abilities. After the millionth time an off-screen, fireball-throwing assailant knocks you flying, leaving you little avenue to retaliate, the nerves start to fray. This airborne combat also brings another of the game’s biggest problems into play – the shoddy camera.
DW has never had a particularly great camera, but in past editions at least the majority of the action was grounded, and so camera twitching was minimal. Now that people can fly around at will however, this is no longer the case, and often the camera becomes your greatest foe, hiding enemies from sight, making ranged attacks beat you down time and time again, and, when attempting to use the new lock-on system, you’ll often find yourself locking on to enemies miles away, rather than the intended target of the soldier stood right next to you. Grrrr.
It’s also a shame that the game is so chock-full of cheap shots. So many enemies can knock you flying with a single hit, which is even more frustrating when you’re shoved off a high ledge. There are also many instances where you’ll simply be battered down, over and over again, without any chance of retaliating. The Yellow Turban boss fight is a prime, early example of this, as legions of flying monks lay the smack down on you with massive energy balls constantly.
This frustratingly sharp difficulty curve won’t endear the game towards newcomers, and even DW fans may think twice. While the aim here is clearly to replay earlier scraps in order to level up, this is a beat ‘em up, not an RPG. It’s hardly a deep enough gaming experience to grind away and level up. How much repetitive button mashing can we really take?
Fighting through a series of levels is one thing, but having to replay earlier levels just to stand a chance at a later confrontation is another, and quite frankly, requires more in-depth gameplay. Some may warm to this longevity mechanic, but if your idea of fun isn’t endlessly bashing light and heavy attack buttons, then you’ll soon tire. Of course, DW has always been this kind of game, even on full-size systems, so I can’t penalise it too much. It is what it is after all – a portable Dynasty Warriors.
The final additional feature is surely one of the best, and one that should help with the difficulty – the multiplayer. Strikeforce allows up to four PSP owners to team up and scrap away at once. This, like all beat ‘em ups, is where the game really shines, and fighting alongside friends is far more enjoyable that the solo experience.
Sadly though, the game only supports ad-hoc wireless connections, and features no Internet-enabled options. If you’ve got four friends that you regularly meet up with for PSP gaming, then fine. But I suspect the majority won’t have this option, which will waste what is certainly the game’s best feature.
Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce is a decent enough DW outing, and a good portable option for fans of the series. Its new features are welcome, although they still can’t hide the increasingly stale gameplay. The controls are simple enough, but the camera represents a serious problem, especially given the airborne element.
Fans of DW who have yet to tire of the series will certainly have a blast with this, and newcomers may find it an interesting diversion in short doses. As with all other DW iterations, though, longevity isn’t the game’s strongpoint, and most players will get bored after a few days.