Dynasty Warriors has always been an acquired taste, a bit like Marmite. For some, its button mashing madness goes down like cheesecake. For others, it's the button mashing madness that makes it repulsive. PSP-exclusive Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce is unlikely to change anyone's taste buds either way: if you love it, you'll love it. If you don't, you won't.
That somewhat simplified summing up is of course no good to those who are yet to decide which side of the fence they should perch upon. Dynasty Warriors is a third-person action series loosely based around the Chinese epic poem Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a yarn that's full of massive battles and brave warriors who can take on thousands of ordinary soldiers. It's famed for simulating huge battles, with massive numbers of soldiers on screen at any one time. It's also famed for being one hell of a button masher. Perhaps the most button mashing button masher ever. The series is a big hit in Japan, but in the West it's so far been one of those games that enjoys a loyal but small following. Publisher Koei hopes Strikeforce will change all that.
How? By streamlining the traditional Dynasty Warriors format for PSP play and sprinkling it with a dash of Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G and a pinch of Dragon Ball Z. Monster Hunter, as any Japan-ophile knows, is a PSP game that's pretty much transformed what it means to play the PSP in Japan. People gather together to play cooperatively, linking their PSPs wirelessly at train stations, bus stops, parks and schools. It's a proper phenomenon, and a huge sales success.
Dynasty Warriors veterans will, however, first notice how the game's been altered by developer Omega Force to fit the PSP. The arenas have been downsized and divided up into separate areas that require a brief load, and the number of enemies on screen at any one time has, inevitably, been drastically reduced. The idea here is to be able to take on a mission and finish it in around 10 minutes - perfect for your average commute.
But the core Dynasty Warriors spirit remains. You begin the game by selecting one of the many characters fans will know well from the series. There's absolutely loads of them, each with their own signature weapon, fighting style, advantages and disadvantages. After some lovely FMVs, which do a decent job of giving you a history lesson on ancient China without making your eyes bleed, it's off to the main hub: a Chinese village of some sort. From there you can jump straight into the action, taking on side missions from the noticeboard and key story missions from the village guard.
Missions have pre-set goals: kill the enemy general or capture the enemy base, for example, and a time limit within which to achieve them. To win you invariably need to wade through scores of grunts with combinations of light and heavy attacks, occasionally stopping to pick up items dropped as loot. Once you've completed your mission, it's level up time - back to the hub, rinse and repeat.
It's in the hubs that the Monster Hunter influence is felt strongest. Character customisation, one of that series' hallmarks, has been ramped up by allowing you to select any weapon type as a secondary weapon. That doesn't sound like much, but it's a big deal for Dynasty Warriors - the series has traditionally restricted the weapons used by the game's characters in an effort to retain a historically accurate feel.
In each hub (as you progress through the story the village you're staying at will change) a handful of stores allow you to purchase new items and abilities. Chi powers can be bought from the Academy, which give you new abilities like a double jump or an extra dash. These powers are equipped to one of four limbs, and are not only extremely useful out on the battlefield, but give your character model nice sparkly bits on their wrists and ankles. Lovely.
Orbs, bought from the Workshop, can be attached to weapons in order to give them statistical boosts, like increases to resistance or defense power. There's weapon crafting, too. As you level up you can exchange items to level up the various facilities in the village, unlocking more powerful orbs and Chi powers.
The idea with the hub is to provide a meeting place for players to gather before they set out on missions in parties. We were able take a few missions on with two players, which resulted in a lagless and fun experience. The game's got some impressive big bosses to hack to bits, bosses that are designed to be tackled by groups of warriors. This, clearly, is how Strikeforce is meant to be played.
Unfortunately, without online play, the chances of you coming into contact with someone who shares your Dynasty Warriors passion are rare indeed. The stark reality is that, in the West, people just don't play PSP together wirelessly. Strikeforce won't change that fact, no matter how hard Koei tries. Playing Strikeforce will be, for most people, a solitary experience.
Which is where the problems start to present themselves. Its simple combat starts to grate, and even frustrate, after extended play. Because there's little variety to proceedings (mash Square then Triangle then Sqaure again), it all becomes, well, just a bit boring. The Fury gauge, which allows you to transform into all singing and dancing glowing versions of your normal self, provides only temporary respite. In your altered state you're pretty much in God mode - you can hack everything to bits as the Fury gauge slowly depletes or you can expend it in one go by pressing the Triangle and Circle button together, resulting in a massive, death-dealing AOE combo.
Then there's the frustration that comes with third-person games on the PSP. Because the analogue nub is exclusively reserved for character movement, there's not much you can do with the camera, except centre and lock on with the L button. It's also hard to judge distance - more often than not you'll start swinging your big sword thinking you're close enough to hit an enemy, only to find the animations slicing through thin air. The camera seems designed to give you a headache.
Thankfully, you can avoid a lot of combat simply by floating above all the bad guys, a first for the series. Air fighting, ala Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is fun for the most part - you can knock enemies into the air, jump up and hit them a few times again. It's got nothing on Devil May Cry, of course, but it's a breath of fresh air for the Dynasty Warriors series, and, along with the powered up transformations, rekindles memories of similarly silly 3D arena brawler Dragon Ball Z.
It would be nice to describe the game as Dynasty Warriors meets Monster Hunter meets Dragon Ball Z, but because there's no online play the Monster Hunter bit is redundant. This is what holds Strikeforce back, ties its hands as it batters against Western borders. With it, Strikeforce may well have been one of the PSP games of 2009. Without it, it's nothing more than a decent stab at making the tried and trusted Dynasty Warriors format work on the PSP.