Sure, it’s hard to feel especially sympathetic for a company that actively and consistently milks its franchises as much as KOEI does. It’s become a running Dynasty Warriors joke that long since became synonymous with the series, where even fans of the franchise just sort of laugh and go back to mashing the same sequence of buttons over and over again.
It’s because they continue to sell, y’see, that KOEI has kept from deviating from its cash cow, instead often attaching any manner of Empires, Legends, or new numbers without actually changing a whole lot. For those of us still enslaved to the well-worn stories of the Yellow Turban Rebellion and guys with names that look like they’re pronounced “Cow Pee,” though, the games still somehow manage to scratch a very particular itch. An itch more or less created by KOEI, no less, but it’s clear that over the years, the tireless release schedule has begun to batter and best even the most ardent Warriors fans — myself included. It’s time for a change, and for once, KOEI actually agrees. In truth, they agreed months ago when they released Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce on the no man’s land that is the PSP.
That tiger is going to eat you.Culling some of the best elements of its own series and drawing rather obvious inspiration from the Monster Hunter phenomenon that swept through Japan (though it never really seemed to catch on the States with the same fever), KOEI managed to craft something that was at once new and familiar without feeling like a hodgepodgey mess. The problem? It was released on the PSP.
The solution, then, was to bring it to a slightly more software sales-friendly platform with a bit more of a built-in, hardcore fanbase here in the States. With nary a change to the title, the game was moved to HD consoles, given four-player online, a modest upgrade to the visuals and some exclusive missions (not to mention a little KOEI/Tecmo crossover luv in the form of Ryu and Ayane from Ninja Gaiden as a playable characters) along with a few other tweaks.
By and large, though, the PSP and console games are effectively the same, which is a good thing because the addition of a second analog stick and online co-op means the game can reach a far broader audience and really gives the new approach a chance to shine — and shine it does. This is arguably the biggest change to the series… well, possibly ever. There’s enough here to keep things familiar (yes, you’ll still wade through seas of ever-spawning enemies and overtake fortresses and bases), but the focus has been pulled off just racking up a thousand KOs and offing some random boss.
Instead, things are shunted over to bite-sized missions of increasing difficulty that requires teamwork. Sure, you can recruit and level up AI-controlled team members and have them charge into the fray with you, but there’s far more strategy in setting up your officers, allowing them to essentially lay in wait and pop into a particular “room” that makes up one of the interconnected areas on any given mission. By piling on two or more of them at a time, you can trigger bonuses that will help shift the balance of power a bit by, say, boosting attack or weakening common enemies.
There’s more to it than just semi-passive effects, though. By applying said officers to a handful of slots in your home base, they’ll use their particular strengths in one of the six different shops that dot your increasingly sprawling base camp, allowing them to gain experience (even if you fail the mission) and eventually allowing you to purchase more powerful items and gear — provided you’ve got the raw materials to help them level-up once they’ve completely filled an experience meter.
This is easily the most Monster Hunter-inspired part of Strikeforce; the entire time you’re fighting, felling both bosses and enemies, swatting at crates and completing bonus objectives like completely destroying a base before taking on the usual Three Kingdoms baddies, you’re earning random raw materials. Occasionally you’ll come across restoratives, but for the most part, you’re cobbling together a collection of base bits that help you make items at the various shops once you’re back in town. Because you’re literally banking new items every few seconds while on a mission, rare drops actually end up coming into play and are used for making extra-fancy items.
It’s this constant carrot dangling that makes the whole upgrade system so enticing. Sure, you’ll still get the usual bits of experience and gold at the end of missions (more if you tackle the various bonus objectives that are tacked onto each one), but gear plays a bigger part than it did in the past — as does customizing your weapons.
Get your friends and kick some butt.This comes in a handful of different forms. You can notch orbs into various weapons and armor that give you more strength and spend raw materials to upgrade the weapons’ base stats too, of course, but there’s another option: chi. Each character can slot a particular upgrade into each of their limbs, imbuing them with the usual kind of fast meter recharges and increased capacity stuff that the series has seen for ages, but now, it’s an almost constant quest to find a particular item or use them to upgrade something, and for OCD types that need to chase that next big level-up, Strikeforce can feel like absolute crack — and it only gets better when you see other people online with uber gear.
Somehow, KOEI has transformed its game into a mix of loot-whoring and button mashing in a way that isn’t really stealing from dungeon crawls or monster slaying experiences. It’s distinctly Dynasty Warriors and yet… not. Given that you can effectively swap between characters and level them up without ever dropping out of the home base (gold and items stay, though weapons, orbs, chi and the like have to be re-leveled), you’re given an absolutely massive amount of room to let your stable of characters grow.
Unfortunately, the game’s PSP roots are still readily apparent. The bite-sized rooms, the corridors, the slightly wonky camera (at least until you tweak it to be more sensitive), the less-than-consistent textures… none of this will come as a surprise to the Dynasty Warriors faithful, of course, but it’s still a little sad to see something still feel intrinsically like a port-up effort. Given that KOEI isn’t stopping their relentless pursuit of the almighty quasi-sequel and with Strikeforce 2 already hitting PSPs in Japan, it doesn’t sound like this will end up growing into its own bona-fide console effort.
How evil do you have to be to make a panda cry?Let’s be clear here: that’s not necessarily the death knell for the series. Long-time players will have already resigned themselves to getting something that isn’t rife with super-hi-res textures and buttery smooth framerate, but it could dissuade those that already have it in their head that this is just a cheap cash-in. Indeed, hearing familiar music, seeing overused characters and exploring environments that are cut and pasted between missions can be tiring to say the least, but the fact that KOEI was willing to give the series a shot in the arm could well be reason enough to give it another chance. This is not just another sequel, and now’s all you naysayers’ first opportunity in years to see what happens when things really are messed with — and to impressive effect if I do say so myself.
Though it’s unfortunately a port-up of a handheld concept, what started on the PSP with Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce has blossomed into an honest-to-goodness mission-based, social loot crawl. As much item collection as it is button mashing, the changes are both dramatic and welcome — and dramatic enough that KOEI may have actually found a way to shut up some of the haters. OK, like six of ‘em.