Geez, Louise! It certainly has been a while, hasn’t it, friends? You thought you had gotten rid of me once and for didn’t you? Well, too bad! Like a rash you get after spending an evening with a lady of night, I am extremely hard to get rid of. And just to add a little bit more sting to my tremendous return, I have decided to talk to you all about a series everyone can agree is the best series in all of video games. Indeed, it is about darn time I educate you all on the virtues of the one and only Dynasty Warriors.
Dynasty Warriors boasts some of the most profound storytelling in all of video games. If you can pull yourself up from your riotous laughter after hearing that statement, I can then assure you I am completely serious. While the Dynasty Warriors games have always been loved (and hated) for their simple, slash ‘em up style of gameplay, the series most overlooked strength is the way in which it retells the history of ancient China. Many have wondered if video games will be able to ever make a powerful statement on the nature of war in the same vain as books such as “War and Peace” or films such as “Apocalypse Now” or “Letters from Iwo Jima.” I say it already has with the Dynasty Warriors games.
It is, perhaps, on the nose to compare Dynasty Warriors to great works of art considering it is already loosely based on one of the most influential novels ever written. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a medieval Chinese novel which itself romanticizes ancient Chinese history into a dramatic narrative, is widely regarded as one of the most seminal novels in human history and serves as the inspiration for the Warriors games. Detailing the political intrigue and personal relationships born out of one of the most tumultuous eras in Chinese history, the novel could be considered to be the predecessor for books like War and Peace, Les Miserables, or even the Game of Thrones series. Add some anime style haircuts, historically inaccurate weapons, and a few John Woo-esque fight scenes and you basically have the formula for a Dynasty Warriors game.
The single element Dynasty Warriors does better than its source material, however, is the way it presents its legendary tale. Just as in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, there are three distinct kingdoms to side with in a DW game: Wei, Shu, and Wu. Earlier games had players choosing individual characters within these three factions, but later games fleshed out the storytelling even further by giving each faction its own epic story mode. Regardless of how the player experiences the proceedings, the effect remains the same, and the story just as engaging. For you see, by not being forced into a side at the beginning of the game, the player is allowed to make up their mind as to who is truly right in the conflict.
While other games have allowed the player to experience conflict from multiple perspectives, Dynasty Warriors avoids the pitfall of making one side feel more evil than the other. Liu Bei, the Emperor of Shu, is basically the Chinese version of Superman and Cao Cao is pretty much the biggest militant douche on the planet, but somehow the game is able to make the player care about both of them regardless of the order in which they are played. If you choose to play the Wei faction first (as I did) you may find yourself getting swept up in Cao Cao’s charismatic ambition in much the same way as his followers. This makes it all the more jarring when you go on to play the side of Shu (the more classically “good” characters,) where Cao Cao is depicted as nothing short of a ruthless tyrant. Sure, the characters you are playing are basically two-dimensional cut-outs of their historical counterparts, but underneath all of the bishonen young men and wire-fu is a deeply affecting depiction of the moral subjectivity of war.
Just like any good war novel, Dynasty Warriors may enlighten you in the way war is seen by its participants when looked at from outside. As mentioned above, the Shu Kingdom spend most of their own story trying to remain pure and virtuous, but as a result, accomplish little in the way of bringing peace to land for fear of betraying their ideals. Likewise, the ruthless methods of Wei (involving everything from slaughtering peasants to constant backstabbing of allies) may seem evil, but the chaotic period in which the games are set will make you sympathize little for the timidity of the so-called “heroes.” Yes, Dynasty Warriors, of all things, may make you question your own philosophy on war and morality. Not bad for a game where you mash the “X” button a thousand time to win.
For too long, the Warriors games have been underappreciated for their nuanced story telling and compelling exploration of the nature of war. Even die-hard fans of the series are guilty of ignoring the series contributions to the way stories are told in gaming, which is a real shame. If one can look past the inherent ridiculousness of the game’s aesthetics and voice acting, one will see much more working in the framework than the games simplistic gameplay may suggest. If you haven’t tried one of these games due to its gameplay, I invite you to give them another try with the stipulation being you try to look a tad bit deeper. You may be shocked by what you feel when you are done.