Oh, Dynasty Warriors. A long running franchise that epitomizes the one-man army and has never changed that formula, yet is constantly criticized for doing so. So Warriors and its spin-offs have never truly been praised for their gaming style, but they shouldn’t have to. Not every game has to be The Last of Us to be enjoyable, just like every movie doesn’t have to be Citizen Kane to be great. Or whatever the top ranked movie on Rotten Tomatoes is.
Wait, it’s The Wizard of Oz? Huh. Well then, not every game has to be The Wizard of Oz to be fun.
That said, 2018 saw the release of Dynasty Warriors 9, a game that did dare to change that format to a very divisive fan reaction. By the wayside went the old ‘shoebox’ battlefields in lieu of an open-world mechanic that is, well, lacking. Even so, 9 boasts the biggest roster any main-series Warriors game has ever held, with over ninety ancient Chinese fighters to choose from. For those unaware of why or how such a large roster could ever be assembled, one has to look at the zigzagged sources for the games’ narratives.
*Big inhale* Dynasty Warriors is a spin-off of Koei’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms turn-based strategy game, which shares the name of the actual 14th century Chinese novel which is more commonly sold as just Three Kingdoms, which is a highly, highly romanticized account of the real life Three Kingdoms War, taking place in China from 184-280 AD. *Breath of life*
So yeah. Adapting a one hundred year civil and dynastic war is a great way to pile up a mountain of characters. The problem with that is differentiating all these folks from one another and a peril that comes with doing so is deviation from their sources. Despite these deviations, or maybe because of them, some characters go from nondescript to cool to great to absolutely fantastic. For the purpose of this list, I will mostly be consulting the novel Three Kingdoms to see just a microcosm of the characters made more memorable by not actually being who they really were in history or the exaggerated text it inspired.
5. Chen Gong
Everybody loves Lu Bu. He tops every single popularity poll with his absurd amount of manly quests for the strongest opponents. His popularity in both hemispheres has caused his theme music to become the theme of the entire franchise, got him an entire game mode to himself in Dynasty Warriors 8: Extreme Legends, and of course spawned the ‘Do Not Pursue Lu Bu’ meme. Befitting for a man who was the Ancient Chinese equivalent of Achilles.
Too bad he’s a bloody idiot who would’ve made it nowhere without his strategist, Chen Gong.
It is difficult for any strategist in the game to stand out when put beside the likes of the near omnipotent Zhuge Liang and the supremely conniving Sima Yi. Chen Gong manages to stand out because instead of wanting anything like benevolence or power, he simply wants one thing: fame. Finally, a strategist character honest about why he does what he does and doesn’t hide behind morally ambiguous buzzwords. He’s a professional wrestler in a scrawny man’s body and is just as animated as one with as much as he overacts and overreacts.
This is actually in addition to how cool his character was in the novel. He breaks away from Cao Cao because the Cao man is too brutal for his tastes, only to hook up with Lu Bu and keep his faction afloat out of sheer spite for his former friend. He’s even still defiant to the end, refusing to work under Cao Cao again and opting instead to freakin’ die. He’s a man of honor, which is admirable, but makes him a dime a dozen amongst a literal nation full of them. A defiant glory-seeker is infinitely more recognizable and creates one insanely fun dynamic with the idiot bruiser he was the brains behind.
Speaking of Zhuge Liang, here comes the brilliant woman standing beside him.
It’s hard enough being a woman in the modern day. Being a woman way back when must have been an infinite hell of a nightmare, being treated as literal property to your family and later, your husband. In the novel, no female characters actually participated in battles except Zhurong, who has dubious origins to begin with.
This technically means every single female character in the Dynasty Warriors franchise destroys the source material for the better. However, because of not being there canonically, many of them don’t really have their own storylines or well-defined characters outside of their husbands or sons. Yueying steps out, even if it is low key.
While her stories are still closely linked with her husband, this isn’t as much of an issue considering the sheer amount of responsibilities Zhuge Liang was handed in keeping the entirety of Shu afloat. Even so, Yueying gets to be her own character by being an even wit for her psychic-like man. She also has the added trait of being the greatest inventor in the games, credited with creating all kinds of things like the Wooden Oxes, siege weapons, and the fire-breathing Juggernauts.
Those goddamn Juggernauts. Yep. She’s their Maker. That’s her identifier. She’s the Juggernaut, bitch.
3. Wang Yi
Another woman who makes things better by just being there, Wang Yi is perhaps the most beloved female character in the franchise next to Wang Yuanji and Lianshi. While she still has the trouble of being somewhat defined by another male character, she does so not by being related to him in any way. She becomes her own because she is an unfettered spirit of sheer and utter vengeance.
A foil to Shu’s Ma Chao, Wang Yi’s family was killed by Ma Chao before he had a bit of a change of heart. Despite switching sides and picking up a penchant for screaming “JUSTICE” every two words, The Splendid One is never forgiven by Wang Yi. She develops an obsession that will not be assuaged until he is pressed against her blades, dead.
She beautifully establishes herself apart from the pack for not just being a female character with a distinct already-dead-inside aura, but the personal crusade to end Ma Chao’s life. Personally, she forever endeared herself to me with her DLC character mission in Warriors Orochi 3, where multiple characters try to help her move one with her life, but she’s too far gone and dead set on vengeance.
She is the personification of the idea that this is a multi-sided war and every choice a “hero” makes has consequences. Add to the fact that she’s a female character whose ‘assets’ are never really exploited for fanservice and you have perhaps not just one the best female characters in the franchise, but one of its best characters period.
2. Liu Shan
Liu Shan is a man hated by a very vocal part of the Dynasty Warrior fandom because his incompetence and hesitancy to act makes him a very unworthy son and heir to both the video game franchise’s and the novel’s designated hero, Liu Bei. To add fuel to that fire, he is the leader of the Shu dynasty when they eventually surrender.
In the novel, part of this is not Liu Shan’s fault because he was flung on the ground as a baby by his own father, Mr. Benevolent himself (a scene I imagine will never make its way into a Warriors game) and the poor guy may have suffered some side effects. This is heavily implied to be the reason for his lack of reason and his portrayal as, more or less, an idiot.
The games, however, play him as more of a man who may be pretending to be an idiot to not be seen as much of a threat by the rival kingdoms. He also seems to view the fighting as not helping anyone or anything, opting to surrender to end the violence and suffering of the people under one banner – no matter who that is – as opposed to continue fighting out of some sense of pride or power like the others or those before him. He’s even asked if he still thinks of Shu post-surrender, smartly replying that he’s “too happy to think of it.” It is implied that had he given any other answer, he’d have been executed on the spot.
While Shu’s decrees of ‘benevolence’ reach memetic levels across all the games, Liu Shan is the only character in the faction to truly understand it. A more than worthy successor, I believe. Liu Shan is a rare example of Dynasty Warriors perhaps expanding not just a certain viewpoint of a character for the better, but an entire portrayal of one.
1. Zhang He
The best on this list couldn’t have been anyone else. The most flamboyant character in the entire franchise, the Vega-inspired, butterfly loving, beauty obsessed Zhang He is far and away the most distant from his novel portrayal and is one of the most recognizable characters because of it.
In the novel, Zhang He was already a badass in his own right, being a worthy general who was so good at predicting war conditions, he made even Zhuge Liang nervous. In Warriors, Zhang He gets to keep just how good he is on and off the battlefield, but does so with an amount of theatrical flair that would make a drag queen blush.
It is an entirely welcome characterization because he provides wonderful variance in a franchise drenched in overt manliness, honor, and testosterone; such a fresh breath to have such a dramatic man base all his actions on cosmetic exuberance while still being an utter badass. Granted, he’s perhaps not given his strategic brilliance in the same measure, but just how much fun he is to be around more than makes up for it.
Many agree that his portrayal in Dynasty Warriors 4 made him possibly the best character in the franchise, but his characterization has slipped more and more off the slippery slope with every new installment. Even still, the man is an absolute joy who sees beauty in all things in such a tumultuous and ugly time and does so with flair. Dear god, his flair. And we love him for it.
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