A Love Letter to Dynasty Warriors

In order to throughly examine this work and provide fair criticism, this article contains spoilers.
You have been warned.

When I was 9 years old, I received what would be my gateway drug to gaming. It came in the form of a PlayStation 2 demo disk containing two franchises that I would be hooked on for life, three I would continue to play iterations of throughout my youth,  and others that showed me what gaming could be. That demo disk? Jampack Winter 2001. It contained the kind of big hitter games you could never expect to get all in one place nowadays: Final Fantasy X, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, SSX Tricky, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Baldur's Gate, and most importantly to me, Dynasty Warriors 3.

Dynasty Warriors introduced me to an aspect of history I had known nothing about at the time and a cast of characters with distinct personalities, all based on real individuals who lived during the Three Kingdoms period in China. I learned about real military campaigns, the fall of the Han dynasty, ambitious young men and women who wanted little more than to end the chaos and build their own everlasting legacies, and strategies that brought about underdog victories and the downfalls of weaker men, all through playing a video game.

The game is based on The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, and one that Hyung-Eun Kim of the Korea JoongAng Daily describes as “comparable to the Bible in East Asia,” stating that “it’s one of the most-read if not, the most-read classics in the region.” The book itself, which indeed romanticizes some events, is “seven-parts fact and three-parts fiction,” as described by Qing dynasty historian Zhang Xuecheng.  Dynasty Warriors, in its interpretation of the novel, inspired me to learn more and more about the history of China. In high school I purchased the novel to read for myself and in college I took Chinese history courses and sought out movies based around the historical events represented in the novel. Even now I find myself falling down Wikipedia holes reading about the real versions of each character and the battles they participated in.

Dynasty Warriors does a very good job of interpreting the novel into video game form. We get a real view into the chaotic past. The Three Kingdoms Period was one of unending strife, the main source of which were three rulers with very different backgrounds and strategies who all thought they were the ideal solution to the chaos that had swallowed the land underneath the weakening Han dynasty before they rose to power.

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Liu Bei, after many struggles in gaining his own territory, raised the flag of Shu in the east. Shu is treated as the just side in the conflict both in the novel and in the game. Their outfits contain swaths of white and flow about them, subtly emphasizing their pure nature. Shu is the worst. They’re all far too self-righteous while they’re contributing to the exact issue they constantly rally against, and that sort of hypocrisy just gets under my skin.

Cao Cao raised the flag of Wei in the north. Within the novel and the game he is framed as the aristocratic villain of it all, using underhanded means and shady tactics to secure his victory and kingdom. The vast majority of characters on his side have haughty, condescending, and braggadocious  attitudes and are dressed in magnificent purple and blue clothing, emphasizing their place as noble villains. There is always something interesting about these kinds of characters, but in the end they’re all just self aggrandizing dicks.

Sun Jian, known as the Tiger of Jiangdong, raised the flag of Wu in the south. They are treated as courageous and sincere people and impressive warriors within the game. Wu is perhaps the most tragic of the kingdoms, with leaders, trusted advisors, and dear friends dying young in the line of battle. In the game Wu feels like a gigantic clan, filled with familial love and trust no matter which character you choose. Their clothing is easily the skimpiest and colored red in a representation of passion, fire, and blood in an effort to make them seem unruly. Wu is my favorite of the kingdoms. With their warm and casual attitudes, and over 15 years of playing these games, diving back in to play their story feels a bit like coming home and seeing my family.

Within the Dynasty Warriors games I was given the opportunity to play through history through the lens of either of these kingdoms. I’ve learned about the doubts, passions, and motivations of each character and at large seen what truly motivated each side of the conflict at different periods throughout, how they dealt with loss, and what brought about their greatest victories and defeats in a war that spanned over 40 years and that, in the end, they all lost. This beautiful arc of history feels like the stuff of legends and myths. It’s hard to imagine something like it truly did come to pass in the way that it did. It’s not something I could ever imagine happening now, which is why it’s so interesting to me.

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It’d be disingenuous of me to say that the history of the series is the only thing that continues to draw me back to it over and over again. I love beautiful things. Beautiful views, clothes, architecture, and most importantly, beautiful people. Dynasty Warriors never fails me on any of those accounts. The characters are always almost all incredibly handsome or beautiful in their own unique ways. While the costumes for both men and women are either extremely practical, bulky, or skimpy, they are also extravagant. Quite a few of the men are shirtless or have Fabio-esque open billowing shirts and a few of the girls are wearing short shorts covered by skirts, but each one of those there are 5 others wearing sleek lightweight combat armor. The characters are never treated as sex objects despite how attractive they may be. It seems that every iteration has added at least one new character for me to fall in love with.

Back in the day when I played Pokémon more frequently, Pokémon Sapphire Version had always been my favorite because you could find hidden bases and decorate them to your heart's content. My favorite part of the addition of an open world to Dynasty Warriors came the opportunity to create what the game calls “hideaways” in the most interesting and beautiful of the game’s varied vistas and decorate them, much like you could in Pokémon Sapphire Version. The best part of these hideaways though, is that I can now invite the characters I love and want to meet for the first time over to hang out with me. On their third visit they either confess feelings to my character, talk about how happy they are to have gained their friendship, or make a blunt or subtle comment about sleeping with them. Quite a few of these voice lines have made me blush severely and I’ve been sending them to friends to revel in my surprise with me. It isn’t true interaction or something that matters elsewhere like you would see in a Mass Effect game, but it’s still a nice treat in a game that had nothing similar before. I enjoy getting to learn about the personalities of my favorite characters off of the battlefield.

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A big staple of the series is its 1 versus 1000 combat. It can be easy to rack up at least 2000 kills in one chapter, to the awe of your comrades on the field. Each thousand is met with a hearty call of, “You are a true warrior of the Three Kingdoms,” by one of your allies which always makes me feel like a badass. After having a long or shitty day at work coming home to plop down in my bed and play Dynasty Warriors’ constant, somewhat repetitive, combat while being praised nonstop is the ultimate pick me up.

The best part of the newest version of Dynasty Warriors is that everything I do matters. It’s awesome to watch my influence on the land spread ahead of each battle and how my faction’s strategies for the large battle ahead are progressing. This sense of depth to the activities and the feeling of real strategy and reason behind the quests I’m being given makes doing missions feel gratifying, as if I’m really an integral part of the battle at large.

The map of the game is incredibly large and beautiful. Because of its size, China has wildly varying climates and flora and fauna. To the north is tundra and barren deserts, to the southwest there are lush tropical jungles, the southeast contains desert beaches, and the center is a mix of river plains and towering mountains. Many times when I hop on to Dynasty Warriors it is to wind down and relax or just waste some time before moving on to another activity. In these times I find joy in riding around and revealing pieces of the map, frequently stumbling across beautiful sites including views from mountain tops through to the ocean and horizon, or majestic waterfalls hidden in the dense forestry. These quiet peaceful moments provide a pleasant respite from whatever else I may need to do with my day.

For years Dynasty Warriors has been my home. Whatever other games I may visit I will always come back to Dynasty Warriors. The driven and ambitious characters, sprawling story spanning many years, and combat it’s easy to lose yourself in have always kept me engaged and waiting for the next iteration. The creation of an open world has only fed into my love for the series. There are still problems with the game but it’s easy for me to overlook them. Many people see Dynasty Warriors as a plotless hack and slash game that exists solely to fulfill a player power fantasy, but that is far from the truth. It taught me about the real lives, ambitions, and deaths of people from ancient China and about a time period I’d never even considered before and did it while engaging me in exciting battles and some of the most clever strategies ever devised.