DYNASTY WARRIORS 4 / Koei / Playstation 2
Dynasty Warriors 4 is my first foray into the series, so I can't say how it stacks up to entries 2 and 3 (I do know the first one was actually some sort of Soul Edge-esque fighter on the PS1.) It did make a heck of an impression though, and seems as good a place to start as any.

If you're new as I was, Dynasty Warriors was apparently born when someone at Koei looked at their Romance of the Three Kingdoms games and said "Hmm, turn-based strategy with crummy graphics is all well and good. But what can we do to kick this concept up a notch?" Then XxxtreeEEME Marketing Guy cruised in on his rocket-powered executive chair and declared "More action! Let the player control the generals and plow into the enemy ranks with SUPERHUMAN STRENGTH! And electric guitar!" Normally this is the recipe for the most odious sort of fail, but in this particular case, somehow, something incredible was born, and the world is the better for it.

Dynasty Warriors explores the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. The three kingdoms of Shu, Wu and Wei will make war on each other for decades in an attempt to create one unified kingdom, and you're along for the ride with whichever side you care to join. The game's primary single-player mode is called Musou Mode, I would make a joke about that being Chinese for "Campaign Mode", but someone out there would take me literally and send me a snippy letter of correction complete with online dictionary citations. So you start out Musou Mode by picking one of the kingdoms, and from there one of their three top generals, and then you'll play a series of battles loosely based on actual historical conflicts from the period.

Musou Mode is pretty meaty. It's divided into six "acts", with usually three missions each that you can take on in whatever order you like. The first act is the same for all three kingdoms since they are united against the evil Dong Zhou and Lu Bu, but once they are taken out, each of the kingdoms branches off into their own campaign, coming back together in the two last acts to fight each other for supremacy. Along the way you unlock all sorts of characters for use in other modes, as well as equipment for your general. And when you've completed Musou with one of the kingdoms, you unlock new campaigns to play.

One unique quality (that's actually seen in a lot of Koei's games) is that character experience and levels carry across all game modes. So levels and items that you acquire outside of Musou get brought in when you use that character there, and vice versa. It's kind of neat, but one of the only real flaws of Musou mode is that the last two acts of each one seem to assume that you're going to be playing with a broken, maxed character that you ground up outside of Musou, and crank up the cheapness accordingly with shit tons of enemy units magically appearing on the map from everywhere, and your side forced to struggle with almost permanently low morale. If you DON'T have an overpowered character, these final maps are basically impossible.

I guess the only other real flaw of Musuo is that there's little in the way of real strategy. I was disappointed to learn you don't get to issue orders to units, everything is basically pre-scripted. The only real "strategy" is in choosing where to run to on the map and physically intervene. Which isn't even strategy so much as knowing in advance where scripted events are going to jump off and being in the neighborhood to handle them. Both your ally generals and the enemy commanders move along pre-scripted paths. They also have "zones" that they'll only engage you in, and if you get far away enough they'll back off. I guess this was to keep you from "training" too many enemy units into one area and causing the PS2 to melt down from overexertion. There's anywhere from about 500 to 1000 enemies per map, but you'll engage no more than 50-ish at a time. When the game gets up to around 50 or so in the immediate area, it really begins to chug, but the sheer amount of unique enemies with unique life bars is still pretty impressive for the PS2 hardware.

Musou is still fun just for the sheer brawling pleasure. There's nothing more satisfying than finally landing a finishing combo on some cheeseball backshooting enemy general who likes to hide behind crowds of his own men, and hearing your character exclaim "Enemy officer DEFEATED!" triumphantly. Also adding to the excellence is the glorious butt rock soundtrack. It's a lot like Guilty Gear, just with the use of traditional Chinese instruments deftly woven in. Oh, and you can play split-screen co-op in the campaigns too, for extra fun.

There's a few other modes of play but they're not that exciting. Challenge is a handful of things such as "Kill as many as possible in a minute" and etc., using any character you've unlocked via Musou so far. There's a Versus mode if you want to duel it out with another player. Free mode lets you go back and play any map you've completed in Musou with any character, to level-grind them or just for laughs (bring Dong Zhou in to take down the evil Dong Zhou for good times). There's a character creation mode but it's disappointingly limited, giving you only a tiny handful of options for appearance and choosing from an animation for your character's super move. And there's an Encyclopedia which gives you info on the real-life incarnations of all these characters.

The standard weaknesses of the beat-em-up genre do come along with this one to some degree. You beat up the same horde of clones all the time, and in the latter stages the computer cranks up the difficulty simply by being cheap. However, there's a lot to mitigate those weaknesses. A shit ton of characters to unlock and play (each of whom feel fairly different to use with different moves and super moves), an equally hefty amount of different levels, a solid co-op mode, and excellent wailing Chinese guitar rock. Dynasty Warriors 4 is ultimately pretty satisfying, and more substantial than I was expecting.
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