The lights are on
I remember the last Dynasty Warriors installment I played before this. Oddly enough, I can't remember which installment it was, most likely due to the forgettable gameplay. So, when I finally played this game recently - which I'd originally used to collect dust samples - I didn't quite know what to expect, aside from the series' signature over-the-top Musou attacks. Mixing in more strategy elements and abilities to customize the various fighters and add depth to the overall gameplay, not to mention several scenarios set in the Three Kingdoms period of Imperial China, Empires sounds like it has all the makings of a classic action/strategy focused game, until you examine it's game history. Like before, Empires unfortunately suffers from terribly unoriginal combat and moronic AI that suck the life out of in-game battles.
This is a game I have a love/hate relationship with. Any semblance of a true story is practically nonexistent, with a bunch of placeholder scenes that pop up as you progress and build your fame while trying to unify the nations. In order to do this of course, you'll have to conquer other lands by taking over key fortresses and bases, with varying scenarios and environments in effect. There are some hidden movies that can be unlocked by finding or playing as certain characters during these events, but aside from this, you'll probably find yourself completely disregarding the story in favor of the few highlights to be found in the gameplay, although you can create your own character to develop apart from the main roster. Either way, your characters will start off small, micromanaging your actions -each costs money- until your status increases with each victory and acquisition of territory.
As a chance to waste time, Empires shines in its excellent incorporation of strategy, with a large amount of collectibles and special tactics that you can discover while managing your fledgling nation, some which unlock based on the choices you make. For instance, if you make benevolent choices, such as listening to the populace of your nation or donating money to them, you'll get "Philanthropy", an extremely useful ability you can use to boost your approval rating among your citizens. If you're a particularly bad ruler, then tactics like "Conscript" will unlock- this ability allows you to draft soldiers to your military. However, most abilities randomly unlock, so the only drawback is that you sometimes have to depend on chance to get new abilities, of which there are plenty.
There are also abilities that unlock only when you've accomplished key scenarios. Take for instance, "Hard March"; this tactic unlocks whenever you have a territory that is not connected to your main territory - players can only invade areas adjacent to their territories initially. Using this ability will allow your characters to invade any territory, regardless of that officer's location, for a single turn, making "Hard March" an excellent tactic to use when you don't want to slog through multiple fortresses to defeat a ruler.
How you treat your citizens will eventually have some effect on you later in battle; if you're a terrible emperor, for instance, don't be surprise to find your own peasants revolting against you and assisting the enemy. Unfortunately however, these added repercussions don't really make conquering other lands any easier if you're a good emperor, so it's best to focus on manipulating the enemy than worrying about your own.
As you develop your nation and gain some political clout, don't be surprised if nations that would normally attempt to invade your territory - which you can defend via the officers you've hired- will start asking for treaties and aid, which you can use to your advantage. As you grow even more powerful and gain more territory, you'll even be able to force your rival nations to surrender and instantly gain their territories. When it comes to the wealth of possibilities, players can't help but enjoy this rich aspect of the game. The same can't be said when you're actively involved in the action and not operating behind the scenes.
When you're on the field, you'll find yourself slogging along blandly rendered environments and fighting ridiculously unresponsive AI fodder. The weaknesses in this aspect - especially the combat and faulty block/parry system- will only become more obvious on higher difficulties. Often, you'll find yourself fighting a major lieutenant, only to see them abruptly turn and run away from you for several minutes. The rest of combat feels like a button mashing marathon, with a sparse number of combos your characters can perform - three at most, literally, which you'll spam until your Musou gauge fills so that you can wipe out dozens of dimwitted troops.
The special tactics you can use to swing battles in your favor - such as employing flame-throwing Juggernauts and wild animals like Tigers- will only prove useful because they can't be killed, though their programming has improved slightly. The use of sorcerers, who can freeze your enemies into place for a short period of time - when they aren't letting random enemies slaughter them- will prove useful, although I found myself taking advantage of any alliances I formed by requesting assistance. Special mounts like Elephants are a fun way to liven up an otherwise droll battle experience, although I must admit the score is entertaining fare.
If I could outline one key problem with Empires, it's blatantly obvious: there's clearly too much crap in this game and not enough refinement, especially in the AI department. Having so many characters appearing on screen at once must be a scripting nightmare; one that the creators of this game clearly weren't prepared for. You'll see the screen lag several times when floods of enemies begin appearing and on occasion, you'll find yourself waiting for a considerable period of time before the game recognizes that you've captured a base. Yet, players who love the strategy aspect will find themselves skipping battles more often than trudging through these grind sessions. I've heard the latest iteration in development will be featuring online multiplayer. Let's hope an improved combat system will make it a worthy destination.
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