When DW7 is good, it's pretty fricking good. But when it's bad - it's awful.
The beat 'em up action delivers the best lulz I've seen from the series so far. It's more over the top than ever, but it works. If I'm cackling with glee at a fat guy bowling everyone over Sonic-style, or headbutting them into the stratosphere, that's a damn good indication that I'll have even more fun playing him. You can equip two weapons and switch between them mid-combo. There's a decent variety, from your usual swords and spears to a healthy assortment of magic armaments. (My personal favorite addition: a paintbrush. YA RLY) You also get to climb on catapults and other fun toys, blasting away at walls and sending peons flying.
That's all fine and dandy. Too bad the storytelling dropped the ball off the failboat into the deepest part of the ocean.
It was promising. Oh, was it ever. With its huge cast - the biggest ever in the series - DW7 switched to kingdom-focused stories. You fight each battle with one particular pre-selected character, and the events play out in seamless cut scenes to smoothly transition between narration and battlefield action. I was genuinely excited about this change. In previous games, character-specific stories were hit or miss in quality - especially those that had to stretch a whole career out of a one-hit wonder. Kingdom stories, with one designated star per stage, would give everyone a chance to shine in the context of an overarching narrative. The new cut scene system would allow for cinematic drama with allies and enemies alike - an interactive action movie of sorts, a leap forward from the usual Dynasty Warriors battles.
Instead, KOEI disproportionately focuses on its poster children while leaving the rest out in the cold - to the point of stealing spotlights that clearly belonged to others. The spoilertastic example isn't the extent of botched priorities and wasted potential. But it is a main point of interest that I specifically ruined for myself, and that shocked me at just how poorly it was done.
Here there be spoilers for Wei and Wu. You have been forewarned.
Let me tell you a bit about the Battle of Fancheng. In 219, Guan Yu sailed a massive army up the Han River to attack. (At least 40,000 men, and that's quite a conservative estimate.) Cao Ren was garrisoned there with two full armies in support. As Guan Yu approached, heavy seasonal rains caused the entire plain around Fancheng to flood. All the support troops were captured, leaving Cao Ren with 1,000 men to start with and 10,000 drafted from every able body in the city. Isolated, flooded, and surrounded by the original founding grandfather of ZZ Top, he held Fancheng for three months until Xu Huang arrived to relieve him. The two of them collaborated to drive off Guan Yu.
In other words - a dramatic turnabout, a crowning achievement, a career cornerstone for two of the best generals in Wei's army. I couldn't wait to see it realized.
Guess who you play for the first part of the battle.
Xiahou Dun. Great guy, but he had dickflop to do with Fancheng in history or legend.
Guess who you play for the other part of the battle.
Second verse, same as the first.
And guess what sort of events he has with Cao Ren and Xu Huang. Guess how the game takes advantage of its new cinematic presentation to highlight their pivotal roles in this battle.
If you guessed that it doesn't, I wish I had a prize to give you. Because you're absolutely correct.
Xu Huang shows up and says one line. Maybe two. Either way, no cut scene. You make your way to the castle stronghold and get a pretty show of it flooding. You run in, and there's Cao Ren standing there like a doofus. Again, no cut scene, nothing even remotely badass. Just one sadfaced line. Sima Yi, of all people, is the main supporting figure here, judging from how often he speaks.
From what I gather, KOEI did this to feature Xiahou Dun as a main character in Wei's story. They also wanted to end Wei's story by finishing off the conflict between Xiahou Dun and Guan Yu, a fan favorite rivalry that was prominent in earlier games. (Of course, Epic Beard Man gets a quality intro when Dun goes to confront him.) Still, that's no excuse whatsoever to phone in Cao Ren and Xu Huang, especially because the battles are designed to sacrifice flexibility in flow for the sake of a more specific and cinematic narrative.
This narrow focus on popular relationships extends to Wu's side of the battle as well. Historically, Wu also played a part in Guan Yu's defeat. The games handle this by having their army join Wei at Fancheng. I wanted collaboration and interaction between the main men on each side. Wu's side is all about Lu Meng/Lu Xun - touchy feely death scene and all - with some comments from the Gan Ning peanut gallery. (And a line or two from Xu Huang, and Cao Ren doesn't speak at all.)
What about variety? What about depth of characterization? What about addressing the series' common criticisms of reheating the same old shit with a slightly different flavor? What about giving a red ratfuck about the many loyal fans of niche characters who have so much untapped potential that KOEI hasn't even sneezed at? Sure, there's always fanfiction, but why can't we get some canon fodder to chew on once in a while?
End of spoilers.
Granted, there is a conquest mode with specific battles for each character. This may compensate for some of the mishandled story stages, but it doesn't go far enough. A kingdom story should give each major player their rightful moment of awesomeness in its proper context, even if you don't get to play as them in that specific battle. Anything less is a shameful disservice to the fans. Way to fail, KOEI. Way to fail.