The Dynasty Warriors franchise is famed as much for never changing as much as it is for being easy. For many, however, the games have served as a gateway drug to the novel they’re all based on, the Chinese literary classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong as well as other Chinese classics. Some of the characters Omega Force and Koei Tecmo pull from the novel and into their hack-and-slash franchise are done really well, as I’ve gone over at least twice before.
But woe, a roster consisting of 90+ characters is not all going to churn out roses. This time around, I’m here to look at some of the lumps of coal in the proverbial Dynasty Warriors character stocking. Like before, I’ll be using the novel itself, not the actual historical Three Kingdoms War. That’d be a very different – and equally depressing – list.
Quick shout out to Total War and that game injecting an entire adrenaline shot of interest into this literary classic with their latest installment.
5. Daqiao and Xiaoqiao – The Qiao Sisters
In my previous two related pieces, I’ve mentioned that virtually every Dynasty Warriors female character changes for the better because women are treated horribly and like property in the Three Kingdoms novel. These two may be the only exceptions.
In the novels, the Qiao sisters are a pair of beauties that are renowned all through the land for not just their looks, but their appreciation for the written word. They are courted by and eventually marry the duo of Zhou Yu and Sun Ce, two sworn brothers and two major figures of what would become the Kingdom of Wu. They’re not really brought up much afterwards, but Xiaoqiao, who married Zhou Yu, was used by Shu strategist supreme Zhuge Liang in a ploy. He pissed Zhou Yu off so much by just suggesting they hand over the famed beauty to Cao Cao and maybe he’d go away. The tactic provoked Zhou Yu enough to convince his lord go to war with Cao Cao, leading to the famous and pivotal Battle of Chibi.
In the games, neither lady is exactly anything to write home about in terms of importance or moveset. I personally love Daqiao in the Dynasty Warriors: Empire games and usually name her my strategist because her ploys are cheap and they get results. The sisters are not exactly the most fun to use, but their character designs and dialogue do stand out – for the worse. Why is that you ask? Because they’re portrayed like they’re schoolgirls.
The older sister, Daqiao, acts like a reserved honors student and looks no older than seventeen while Xiaoqiao is supposed to be sixteen, but has enough shrill, annoying energy to be mistaken for an even younger girl. While I’m happy they’re in the games and getting a chance to step out, the fact that these borderline child brides’ marriages to two prominent adult male figures is emphasized and not glossed over in the slightest makes their entire inclusion uncomfortable as hell.
An argument could be made that it was the norm for the era, but considering the fact that Dynasty Warriors changes up things like Diaochan’s age (she too is sixteen in the novel but appears in-game no younger than her 20s), they could’ve easily done something else for the Qiaos.
4. Ling Tong & Gan Ning
Maybe this is cheating a bit having back-to-back entries of dual characters, but like the Qiao sisters, these two are so closely tied together, their portrayals are inseparable. Also like the Qiao sisters, Ling Tong and Gan Ning suffer greatly from character tropes that clash horribly with not just classical Chinese characters, but with Western audiences as well.
In the Three Kingdoms novel, Ling Tong and Gan Ning are equally hot-headed generals who, despite fighting for the same side, never meet for quite some time. This is because their advisers and strategists knew to keep them far apart because of one teensy event that caused a lifelong grudge between the two: back when Gan Ning was a bandit, he killed Ling Tong’s father. Understandably, Ling Tong hates Gan Ning with a passion and is not forgiving of him at all for his past life. This causes problems for Wu for a while, but after the two save one another’s lives, they get a bit better.
Their game portrayals aren’t exactly that far off from that, really. They’re both still shown as horses-off-the-reins level hotheads, but they’re treated the same as shonen anime rivals constantly trying to best one another and being fiery for fiery’s sake. Now, the death of the father angle is included from Ling Tong’s debut in DW 5 and carries over to DW6. However, from Dynasty Warriors 7 forward, the killing of Ling Tong’s father is completely erased as the base of their rivalry and that’s where things take a turn for the worse.
Yeah, I’m not a fan of the whole father-killing-turned-best-friend thing to begin with, but the only thing worse than actually including it is pretending it never happened. Both men suffer immeasurably from this incredibly important nugget of truth becoming absent from their characterization entirely. What makes it even worse is that prior to Ling Tong being introduced, Gan Ning was actually okay on his own. Once the rivals shared the screen, however, they became defined by one another and drag each other to the characterization graveyard.
Plus, Ling Tong’s bouncing fighting stance makes me anxious and Gan Ning’s bells that ring literally every time he makes a move annoy me to no end. Call it petty, but it’s my list.
3. Wei Yan
Here’s probably the most subjective one on the list. I will admit – I love Wei Yan as he is in the Dynasty Warriors games. He’s one of the most fun characters to play with thanks to his distinct fighting style and awesome and memorable design, but it is hard to believe a character like him is completely faithful to the source. And by “hard” I mean “there’s no way in hell anyone talked like The Hulk in ancient China.”
The source material cites Wei Yan as a brilliant strategist who tags along with the Kingdom of Shu. In my previous article, I referenced Lu Su as a guy who got dumbed down so Shu master strategist Zhuge Liang could look like the coolest kid in school. Well, when Lu Su died, someone had to take up his mantle and that guy was Wei Yan. He’s not stupid by any means, but he’s just made to look completely inept in the presence of the almighty mind of the Sleeping Dragon. To make matters worse, he interrupts Zhuge Liang in the middle of the latter’s “life prolonging” ceremony, being indirectly blamed for the death of maybe the narrative’s most important character. All because they want him to sound stupid.
As stated, the DW portrayal of Wei Yan is actually really effin’ cool. He fights with a cool spear that he freakin’ break dance fights with. To top it off, his costumes are always super dope and make him look like an ancient Chinese version of Tekken’s Yoshimitsu; hell, his DW8 costume is basically him in a Rey Mysterio mask. The problem here is just how far the games lean into Wei Yan being made into a fool by straight up making him into a barbarian who speaks in broken sentences like “Liu Bei…friend” and “You…strong.” It’s, uh, quite a drop from “brilliant but outclassed adviser” to “actual savage.”
This one could go either way, really. A case could be made that Wei Yan is better because of all this, making him an incredibly recognizable character on an enormous roster, but in terms of doing service to the character in a flattering and honest way, he fails extremely hard.
2. Yuan Shao
The incredibly prestigious Yuan family is so annoying to most people, they probably don’t think about them being better or worse than anything but dead. But even starter villains have a backstory that can make you feel at least a little bad for them.
Three Kingdoms gives the whole Yuan clan an air of pretentiousness for being of such nobility and Yuan Shao doesn’t shy away from any of that. His brother, Yuan Shu, has it even more in spades, but Shao is much less “brash” and more “hesitant.” His noble stature often leaves him in positions of expectation vs. what he wishes to do, which really paralyzes him at points. I don’t mean that he wants to live a normal life without war; he’s just really indecisive when it comes to war strategies.
He’s too scared of spending resources and leaving his comfortable position. So he still kind of sucks. He is, however, a devout father. At the Battle of Guandu, the first truly huge battle in the novel, Yuan Shao refuses to order an attack on an opening in Cao Cao’s forces because his youngest son is ill. It costs him the battle and all of his political power but you can’t say Yuan Shao didn’t care about his babies.
Contrast this to the DW games where he never shuts up about his family name. Like, ever. Similar to some characters continually screaming about “Justice!” or “Benevolence!” every two lines, Yuan Shao’s verbal tic is basically “My noble clan/name!” This characterization makes it plenty easier to lump him in with Zhang Jiao and Dong Zhuo as the trio of the first villains of the story even prior to three kingdoms forming.
Also “villain” is kind of a harsh term for Shao overall. Jiao is a religious zealot, Zhuo is a cruel despot, and Yuan Shao is just pretentious. His hesitancy is gone, any air he has of being an actual threat to Cao Cao is highly diminished, and he exits stage left in every game without it ever really being made a big deal of despite the significance of the Battle of Guandu. No amount of noble blood can make up for a poor portrayal.
1. Cao Cao
Now wait just a minute. Before anyone gets mad, hear me out. I’m not saying the DW portrayal of Three Kingdom’s biggest villain is horrible and worse or not accurate. Much like the character himself, there is so much more to this than some surface-level adaptational displacement.
As stated, Cao Cao (pronounced “T’sao T’sao” and sometimes spelled as such) is set up as the single biggest villain in the first two-thirds of the novel. His presence is daunting and terrifying and always perpetually looming over every other character, especially those who align with Wu and Shu. Following the Battle of Guandu, Cao Cao absorbed all the land and influence Yuan Shao had, making him the single most powerful warlord in the entire country. He’s a consistently paranoid man, forever wary of assassination attempts – probably because he’s introduced to us in a failed assassination conspiracy to murder Dong Zhuo.
He regularly punishes his officers, putting many of them to death for things such as critiquing his poetry, then burying them with full military honors. Despite his perceived villany, his state is the best and most prosperous for the oft-forgotten everyday citizens, as he helps stabilize the country’s struggling agricultural and economic situation. He also never cares for things like social standing and family ties, as he is an equal opportunity recruiter who just wants talent no matter your origin. He lays the groundwork for the Kingdom of Wei, the remnants of which become the faction that eventually ends the Three Kingdoms War.
He supposedly stands against everything designated protagonist Liu Bei stands for and is undisputedly the novel’s biggest and most important character not named Zhuge Liang. In fact, this literary version of Cao Cao is one of the biggest and most influential characters in Chinese history; on par with someone like Hamlet is to the West. He’s a crafty man who knows that the laws of the land don’t apply in times of chaos and has the vision and ambition to get it done.
The Dynasty Warriors games barely scrape the tip of the spear with this man.
To be fair, it’s not in the style of Dynasty Warriors to do something like that. The DW games seem to apply certain personality tropes to every single character as a way to differentiate them, which is a necessity with the roster size they boast that only gets bigger and bigger with every installment.
Virtually every major character has to get reduced in some way to something digestible during short battles, but many of them are still kept pretty faithful or retain some nugget of truth. Characters like Guan Yu and Sun Quan keep plenty of what makes them important in the novel. While Cao Cao does keep his ambition and his “Hero of Chaos” elements, he’s just far too complex a character for the franchise to really portray the way he deserves.
Things like the Chinese drama series Three Kingdoms (2010) or the 2009 John Woo epic movie Red Cliff or even Koei’s own Romance of the Three Kingdoms strategy games have that liberty, but not the simplified hack-and-slash series. These games fail Cao Cao not because they’re bad or distort his character, but simply because the man himself – both in literature and history – is bigger than most anything trying to play him right.
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