Dynasty Warriors Advance - One More for the Wu Clan!
If any one franchise I love could be described as a ‘guilty pleasure’, I don’t think it could be anything but the Dynasty Warriors franchise - and the ‘musou’ sub genre beyond - that would be the answer. I mean, what’s not to love? It’s a power fantasy, through and through, one man vs a thousand. I’ve played more than a dozen of these titles; Dynasty Warriors, Samurai Warriors (my personal favorite!!), Hyrule Warriors, Pirate Warriors, Orochi… the list just goes on! But it’s kind of crazy that in the last, what, ten years I’ve been playing these games, I never knew that Dynasty Warriors released a strange little title for the Game Boy Advance of all things. Seriously, my mind kind of boggled at the thought - how does one turn the big, 3D bombastic insanity of Dynasty Warriors… into a title fitting of the name, and on the little handheld that could? Well… you don’t, kind of. You’ll, uh, you’ll see what I mean.
I feel like most people reading this have an idea of what Dynasty Warriors is - it’s pure goddamn dopamine, baby! But seriously, Dynasty Warriors has always been about two things - crazy depictions of the Three Kingdoms era of ancient China, and pitting you as a more-or-less lone warrior against thousands and thousands of foes. But there’s more to it than that! There’s elements of time management, to assist an entire battlefield at once. There’s a genuinely good - if slightly silly - storyline, and there’s a lot of heart and soul written into the character interactions. I was genuinely excited to see if these elements were replicated in this funny little handheld entry.
Well… let’s see, shall we?
This oft-forgotten tactical side of Dynasty Warriors is arguably the one most underlined in Dynasty Warriors Advance; instead of the battles taking place in large, 3D environments, Advance places the player and his allies on a grid-based map, more akin to your Fire Emblem then your classic Dynasty Warriors experience. There isn’t too much to it, honestly, but it gives the illusion of a greater battle taking place whilst considering the smaller scale of the hardware they’re working with. I really, really like the turn-based strategy of this game in concept. Moving, turn by turn, across maps to influence swings of morale and saving allies sounds exciting, but in reality, you’re still essentially the only player on the field achieving anything of note. I mean, sure, that’s the standard for these games, so I wasn't too surprised. Honestly, the turn-based approach to the franchise doesn’t do too much for me on a gameplay level, but I really liked the look and feel of moving across the map, giving the game a much larger, almost grand-strategy feeling to the wider battles, if that makes sense. Seeing little interactions take place, ambushes and routs and whatnot are really satisfying, as repetitive as some - or most - parts of this game can be, actually achieving objectives and leading the way to victory can be super satisfying. Man, I really wish Intelligent Systems got their hands on the Three Kingdoms license - I feel like they could do something special with a setting like this.
I mean, imagine it; a wide, inter-generational conflict, featuring three major factions, each of which is populated by beautiful characters who you grow invested in, but you’ll ultimately have to pick a side, and lead your forces against your foes. It’s not like Intelligent Systems have made a game like that before, right?
Uh, anyway, let’s move on to the meat and potatoes of the gameplay - the actual combat. Now, when you and another enemy on the map meet on the same spot, that’s when the big draw of Dynasty Warrior, adapted to the GBA, comes out to play. Each spot you can move to on the map is treated as a separate ‘arena’, so to speak, and when you engage with another enemy, you’ll be dropped into the ‘arena’ and be tasked with defeating a certain amount of foes in a limited environment. And honestly, it’s surprising how well they replicated a microcosm of the ‘pure’ Dynasty Warriors experience. You’ve got your basic combos, your special Musou attacks, and even a weird little system where the more hits you land, the more tiny little extra buffs you can get. Enemy commanders can also join in these more personal fights, but they don’t really put up too much more of an extra fight compared to the mooks, which was a shame - it’s only the actually playable characters that feel like more involved fights, but in that case the pendulum swings the other way. I don’t know if I’m bad at video games (read; I probably am), but I pretty much found that I had to find the most efficient way to bring them down, or -I- was the one who was going to get combo’d to death. Real engaging stuff. And outside of these special fights with commanders, pretty much every fight is exactly the same. You don’t get any new moves, each character has only one moveset, and there aren’t any fun modifiers or anything, at least from what I’ve seen in the Wu storyline. The console games were fun because of the innate chaos running through so many fights, but there’s none of that in Advance… It’s like if the memes about what Dynasty Warriors were true, actually.
A timer ticks down during these battles; initially, the counter is silver, and when it runs out, it’ll turn to bronze. If -that- one runs out, you won’t lose, but it’ll turn a sickly purple, which from games to food, is never a good sign. Basically, the timer works like this; if you win the battle whilst the timer is silver, you’ll earn a Triumph, giving you an extra move on your next turn. Bronze, it’s just a normal victory, no buffs there. If you run out of time, you’ll get a ‘Close Call’, which will make you skip your next turn. It’s not a terribly interesting system, but it gives you a bit of motivation to push through the fights more efficiently. Though, on that note, I noticed that if an enemy is attacking you, even if you get a Triumph, you don’t seem to get an extra move, which I found really annoying - it’d be a bit more interesting if you could move after a defensive Triumph, perhaps preventing you from being swarmed by multiple groups of enemies at once. It’s a bit of extra strategy that could’ve gone a long way in reducing the attrition of moments where so many enemies are coming at you at once, so it’s a shame the system only works in one way. Also, I think this game would’ve gone a long way in feeling less repetitive if they could display more foes on-screen at once. When you’re fighting 40+ enemies in one of these fights, watching them come six at time just makes the fights drag on so much more, and since the enemy numbers increase with each successive mission, it just feels like a way the game drags itself out more and more and more.
You’ve basically got three different modes to play with in this game - Musou Mode and Free Mode. The latter basically lets you play any map you’ve completed with any character, if you for some reason wanted to play Xiahou Dun murdering Cao Cao in a fit of rage. There’s also a challenge mode where there are some little time-based gauntlets to deal with, but I found these ultimately rather forgettable. Huh. Maybe Free Mode -does- have merit. Anyway, the other, main mode, of this game, Musou Mode, puts you in the shoes of a commander, and you’ll play through half a dozen stages or so featuring that commander and his faction. There are four different storylines to follow in Dynasty Warriors Advance - Three featuring each of the major factions of the Three Kingdoms period - Wei, led by Cao Cao, Wu (the best one, just so you know), led by Sun Jian (the best one, just so you know), and Shu, led by Liu Bei. Completing one of these campaigns will unlock their commander as a playable character, and completing a campaign -with one of those commanders- will unlock a fourth campaign, centered around the ever-present and ever-terrifying Lu Bu… who, honestly, isn’t that terrifying in this game, at least in the Wu campaign. He just kinda hangs out at Hulao Gate, and then fucks off somewhere. Weird.
These campaigns are just fine, I suppose. The one I played, Wu, had a few levels with some basic, yet vaguely interesting tactics, such as the Battle of Chibi, where you have to turn Cao Cao’s overwhelming forces against him through fire attacks, or an earlier battle, where you eschew the main battle entirely and make you way around the back to ambush the commander. It is a little annoying that sometimes the ‘tactics’ required of you are annoyingly stringent; for an example, in the battle to defeat Cao Cao, you’re meant to flank the enemy base from the side, but the game still gives you the option of a head on attack - or, at least it makes you think you can. I was thrown into a battle with 99 enemies, which I was like ‘cool! A hardcore fight for doing something foolhardy’, and I was excited for this alternate way to engage the enemy… but the game just kicks you out of the fight anyway. It was annoying, having that illusion of choice. The campaigns also notably have some major historical inaccuracies, even by Dynasty Warriors standards, but I think this is more to do with the limited character roster; they would have barely anyone in Wu at all, considering Sun Jian is meant to die before the second battle of the game! Though, considering Sun Jian is one of my favorite characters in Dynasty Warriors, maybe playing fast and loose with history isn’t that bad…
I’ll be honest - I only did one campaign run through of this game, because I genuinely couldn’t stomach more of this game. I know, I know… that sounds like a pretty damning review of the game, but the fact is this game just isn’t that much fun after the first mission or two. Even by Dynasty Warriors standards, this game is incredibly, INCREDIBLY repetitive. Whilst every map has different objectives and layouts, you will be doing the same things over and over again. Now, I know it’s a little ironic to be complaining that a Dynasty Warriors game is repetitive, but the fact is that the console experiences genuinely have a lot more going on. Like I said before, the battles in the core series might be a one man slaughter fests, but frequently it falls closer into the time management genre - pushing forward on one zone, before suddenly having to double back to save an ally from certain death. There really isn’t any of that here. Your objectives are simple, and there was never a moment where I worried my troops would be overwhelmed, since they seem far, far stronger then their console equivalents. And there’s also the fact that the actual person-to-person battles lose their novelty after about an hour, especially once you’re forced to fight larger and larger numbers of enemies for each encounter. Seriously, when Zhuge Liang dropped me into the Stone Sentinel Maze, and I had to fight four sets of 60+ units in a row, I’d never wanted a game to end faster.
The main way this game combats repetition is in the game's dozen or so characters. At the very least, everyone does play at least a little bit differently, but there still isn’t a lot of reason to look beyond playing, at the very most, each kingdom’s story more than once. Whilst they do play a bit different, at the end of the day it felt like every character I tried had one attack that was significantly and objectively better then the others, and I’d be looking at spending the next four and a half hours using that so move thousand and thousands of times because anything else is so much less efficient and being less efficient leads you to not getting Triumphs. That was a mouthful, wasn’t it? It’s also frustrating that some of the coolest characters in the game - the three leaders of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Cao, Sun Jian, and Liu Bei - are locked behind completing their campaign, and then only really being able to use them in Free Mode or their own campaign. I played a round or two with Sun Jian, and he was so much fun to play, but I was just so burnt out of the game already that I just couldn’t bring myself to play more than a few battles with him.
Finally, graphically and audiowise this game really does shine. The graphics are an adorable simulacrum of the main console experience, having cute little sprite chibis that I just couldn’t get enough of, and the zones in which you fight, whilst a little plain in layout, have genuine decent sprite work dedicated to them. I was a little disappointed that most of the commanders, who are given unique portraits in the tactical maps, are only depicted with generic character designs in battle. Audio-wise, they pretty much put a basic Dynasty Warriors soundtrack in this game, synthesized electric guitars and all, and that’s just something you never get sick of. I heard the victory theme a lot… and I wanted to do that guitar riff just about every time.
I really, really wanted to like this game. I love Dynasty Warriors! It’s a dumb, stupid, bombastic franchise that’s near and dear to my heart. But the fact is… this game just doesn’t really work. It’s fun for a bit - the tactical, turn-based elements are a novelty at first, and the battle system is entertaining as a microcosm of the base game’s equivalent, but it all just wears thin after a while. This isn’t an awful game, not by a longshot, but it’s just the sheer repetition, even by Dynasty Warriors standards, that brings this game down. I could see someone who isn’t familiar with Dynasty Warriors having a good time with this title, but those of us that are well versed in this funny little franchise… Well, Dynasty Warriors Advance just doesn’t really cut it beyond being a bit of a novelty.
Thank you so much for reading! This was one of the harder reviews for me to write, mostly because it felt so bad to be so hard on a franchise that I really do love. Still, that’s part of what The Game Boy Abyss is about; taking the good with the bad. Anyway, the next game will probably be one of the Kirby games released for the GBA, though I’m a little torn on whether I'll play Nightmare in Dream Land or Amazing Mirror first. I guess you’ll find out next week! As always, you can contact me through my email email@example.com, or on Twitter @lemmy7003. Thank you again for reading, and I’ll see you in my next review!