We recently recorded a series of podcasts about games that launched with the major consoles, and in doing so we talked about what might be the greatest pack-in game of all time. My immediate thought was of Super Mario World, but someone else quickly chimed in with "Tetris." Here you have two strong contenders for the title, but also two very different approaches to video game design. Pretty much the only big thing they have in common is their ability to keep you wanting to play just a little more. Just . . . a little . . . more.
Dynasty Warriors Next is the Vita's Tetris. Well, kind of.
Given that so many Dynasty Warriors titles are out there (along with spinoffs like Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage and Warriors: Legends of Troy), some readers might feel that the market is oversaturated with them and might question my judgment when they read the next sentence, but hear me out. Dynasty Warriors Next is the Vita's Tetris. Well, kind of.
It's not the most original game in the world, and I doubt it has even a tenth of the mainstream appeal of everyone's favorite Russian puzzle classic, but it can really make you play for a couple of hours straight then have you miss playing it about two minutes after you turn of the system. (Just . . . a little . . . more.) For the foreseeable future, even if I end up with a dozen Vita titles and dozens of gigabytes of PSP games on different memory cards, there is one game that's always coming with me. If Dynasty Warriors Next isn't in your Vita, then make sure it's near your Vita. You never know when you're going to have some extra time to kill (no pun intended).
And I'd bet I'm far from the only person that feels this type of appreciation for the game. The reason there are so many musou titles is that people keep buying them. You can say what you will about developers making these in their sleep at this point, but video games are a big business and musou is a proven commodity.
"What is a musou game," you ask? In general, it's all about generals. You enter the battlefield as a hero against swarms of lesser enemies, who crash on you in a giant groups. As the camera follows you, you can unleash various dial-a-combos and flashy special attacks to put away literally hundreds of enemies over the course of the stage until the battlefield is captured. Between battles, you can upgrade your combatants with different items (which confer attribute boosts and other benefits) and weapons (which boost stats and may also allow for extra combos).
Dynasty Warriors Next follows tradition in that you are once again commanding heroes from the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Campaign Mode, which took me about twenty hours at an unhurried pace, focuses on various storylines while allowing you to play and develop your characters. Sometimes you are required to use a specific character and sometimes you can use whoever is available. More heroes are unlocked as you meet and defeat them in battle. By the time I was done with the campaign, however, I had only unlocked about two dozen of the sixty-five playable characters.
Conquest Mode is where I went to try unlocking the rest of the roster. It plays largely like the campaign, but the focus is less on story and more on strategy. You choose how many armies are vying for control of the map, then you choose your general. After that, each army takes turns capturing territories. Each disputed area has a number assigned to it, such that lower-ranked territories cannot take over those with a higher rank. But those ranks can increase after a piece of land is captured, and they can also increase as part of a lottery that takes place at the end of each turn. In that way, you can built up a block of unassailable territories and use them as a base for further expansion.
This works well most of the time, but I have gotten to a point where I was just trading land back and forth with an enemy, turn after turn after turn, because neither of us had enough power to make a move on the other's capital. (Capturing the territory with the head general in it results in the immediate capture of all his other lands.) Eventually, you can persevere, but it would have helped a lot if I could have "moved troops" from one of my well-protected areas to the front lines so that the war could be won more quickly, rather than just losing and winning back land repeatedly. (In Conquest Mode, if your opponent makes a move on one of your territories, he will automatically capture it. You only play out the battle when you are the aggressor.)
The real key to Conquest is in wisely selecting your officers. Each person on your team has a specific "strategy" he espouses. These are benefits that are conferred if you select that strategy before a battle - up to a maximum of four. Many of these are simple, like a speed or damage boost, but there are some extremely helpful ones that are not as common - e.g., allowing you to ignore the enemy's guard, preventing the enemy from capturing a territory on its next turn, or boosting the rank of two of your territories automatically. Officers can start grumbling if their strategies are ignored or if they themselves are underutilized in battle, but they can become close comrades (with friends come gifts) if you turn to them frequently. This is in addition to all the peasant problems, thieves, royal tributes, and whatever else you have to deal with as a commander that can all affect your bottom line.
Conquest Mode can also be played online, but you won't be running around on the same screen as your human adversaries. Instead, the game collects data from all the players involved and uses that. This means that if you have network features enabled, you could find yourself up against someone else's created character while you're on your way through the battlefield. Other players can also issue challenges you can try to meet. If you want to engage in more traditional multiplayer, you can find some warm bodies with Dynasty Warriors Next in your area and set up an ad-hoc connection that will allow you to engage in co-operative combat in Coalition Mode.
Finally, in case you're worried about this being a repetitive button masher that you can sleepwalk your way through, let me assure you that there is a lot more to do than just tap-tap-tap. There is a fairly liberal, but not unwelcomely frequent, use of mini games between levels and, more commonly, interspersed with the rest of the gameplay. Just when you're getting in the groove of combo-ing the attacking horders into unconsciousness, you may be contronted with a group of charging tigers, or a line of archers shooting volleys of arrows at you. In these instances, the action moves into first-person view and you have to use the touchscreen to tap or swipe the threats away within a set number of seconds. Special attacks are augmented by touch controls: flicks, circles, taps, or drags on either the front or rear of the Vita. Between campaign skirmishes you may find yourself racing on a horse, mowing down a swarm of soldiers with projectiles, or revealing hidden kanji to determine strategy. There are several ways that Dynasty Warriors Next uses to get you to switch up your grip, all of which are a mandatory part of the game.
The only mini game I kind of wish you could disable in the options is the Duel. About once a stage (stages are usually something like ten to thirty minutes apiece, depending on the complexity of the map and the way you like to play) you will encounter an enemy officer who will draw the scene off the battlefield and into a tighter frame, kind of like you might expect from a boxing game with an immovable camera. In Duel view, your enemy blocks - while you cannot. The same opponent you will kill in the field five minutes later with two good combos suddenly has the defense of a tank. And it's all about touch controls. You react to onscreen cues to chip away at the enemy until he falls. The problem is that the life bars on some of these guys get to be pretty ridiculous. Once you figure out how to properly handle a duel, they become pretty easy, so they are just these boring forced intermissions after a while.
Of course, while you are figuring out the best way to win a duel, they will be annoying in a different way. Beyond the early stages, the opponent has so many hit points and you have so few that you may feel like you need luck more than skill to win. I played Dynasty Warriors Next on the bus a lot, and it was a big pain in the neck to waste so much of the ride trying to beat some jerk that I trashed a hundred times outside the Duel. So it's annoying before you figure out all the tricks and still annoying after you get good. Shorten those life bars, Koei, or make it more strategic next time.
The verdict? Buy this game and keep it around if you're an action game fan. I tried not to use too many dashes and parantheses in this review, but let me tell you, there is a lot in Dynasty Warriors Next that I didn't cover in detail. This ranges from riding elephants and hiding in contraptions of war to taking pictures with the Vita camera and decorating them. Some of it is pretty minor, but it all adds up, and I wouldn't be surprised if you got one hundred hours of gameplay out of this little cartridge.