Version tested: PSP
While it's lovely to imagine that game creation is packed with artistic geniuses and auteurs beset from all sides by flashes of stunning inspiration, the harsh reality is that plenty of games are borne of more humble, even cynical, thought processes. Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce is exactly such a game, and its inspiration isn't so much worn on its sleeve as flown above its house on a flag the size of a double-decker bus.
"What's setting the charts alight in Japan that isn't Nintendo's latest Professor Cookingmama's Brain Dog?" KOEI has clearly pondered - and its answer is to combine the long-running Dynasty Warriors series with some of the magic pixie dust that's made Capcom's Monster Hunter into the saviour of the PSP in Japan. The combination of a little from Column A with a little from Column B is blatant and unapologetic.
On the surface, this remains very much a Dynasty Warriors title. Choosing a hero from the semi-mythological pantheon of Chinese history, your primary focus is on hacking and slashing through dozens of lesser mortals, stopping between battles to power up your superhuman warrior through equipment and add-on upgrades.
This much is eminently familiar to anyone who has played a Dynasty Warriors game before, and hardly complex for newcomers to pick up either. The game's controls are, for the most part, fairly simple. Each character carries two weapons (which can be changed at the blacksmith in your village), and boasts heavy and light attacks, which can be strung together, along with jumps, to make up a variety of simple combos.
I hope you like your PSP's square and triangle buttons, because you'll be mashing them a lot in Strikeforce. Those light and heavy attacks are basically the heart of the game's combat, although a handful of other features play supporting roles. Most notably, you can use the left trigger to lock on to an enemy (although the automatic lock-on occasionally focuses on a minion 20 feet away, rather than on the boss who's using a giant sword to excavate your brain via your nostrils), and the right trigger to dash forwards, as with Dynasty Warriors' recent excursions into Gundam.
The headline feature of Strikeforce, aside from its multiplayer (more of which in a moment), is the addition of new "powered up" forms for the characters, which can be unleashed after charging up the Musou bar. Unlike the fury attacks which were available previously, the new forms come with an entirely new character model, replete with ludicrously spiky appearance and crackling glow. Yes, it's essentially channelling the spirit of Dragonball or Naruto into Dynasty Warriors, but while it doesn't really change the game in a terribly significant way, it's certainly entertaining to unleash your unstoppable powered-up form on your foes for a little while.
The game's complexity, then, lies not in the combat system but in preparation and upgrading between each mission. Various sub-systems exist to be micro-managed in your village - new weapons can be forged, power-up orbs can be created to attach to slots on said weapons, and chi abilities can be learned and attached to slots on your own body. In addition, you can gradually upgrade the village itself by recruiting officers who improve your facilities after each battle.
It's not actually a terribly complex system - in fact, it strikes quite a nice balance, giving players plenty of things to tinker with but never descending into the stat-heavy nightmare of which all too many Japanese games are guilty. Most importantly, the menu systems are responsive and nicely designed, generally giving you all the information you need to make a decision on the same page - so, for instance, you can see at a glance which materials you don't have in stock when you set about forging a new set of weapons.
No, Strikeforce's problems aren't in the village - they're out on the battlefield. Here, the game's attempt to ape Monster Hunter's system of fairly short quests designed for co-op play leaves it feeling barren and lifeless by comparison to previous Dynasty Warriors games. Gone are the huge battlefields, swarming with enemies - instead, the game offers up a selection of tightly enclosed and surprisingly small arenas, populated relatively sparsely with foes and mini-bosses. Gone too is any sense of strategy or tactics; already a fairly anaemic part of the franchise, the strategy here is entirely replaced with button-mashing arena combat.
Despite this, the game is a relatively decent fit for the PSP. The smaller arenas mean that each battle lasts fifteen minutes or so, with some clocking in at well under ten minutes - perfect for a quick blast on the Tube or in a waiting room. The game also offers the option of installing 300MB of data to your memory stick, which reduces load times significantly.
There's also no question that it comes into its own when you manage to find someone to play co-op with, as many of the stages are innately designed for co-op play. But if anything, this only makes it all the more disappointing that there's no support for online multiplayer - like Monster Hunter, this works over ad-hoc local Wi-Fi only. This may be fine in Japan, where opportunities for local multiplayer on games like this are more commonplace, but for the rest of us, it's likely to mean that the most entertaining aspect of Strikeforce remains untouched.
And yet in spite of its failings, Dynasty Warriors Strikeforce is compelling, and the reason is simple - the Dynasty Warriors format, in which your balletic hero hacks and slashes his way through wave after wave of enemies, is great fun, and even a few missteps can't break that. The shorter-format missions and lack of major loading delays are perfect for the PSP, while for those who are lucky enough to have plenty of PSP-owning, Dynasty Warriors-loving friends, the co-op is a huge bonus.
Yes, it's a button-masher, but nobody does button-mashing quite as well as KOEI with Dynasty Warriors, and Strikeforce gets more important things right (great animation, fluid controls, good weapon variety, PSP-sized missions) than it gets wrong. This is far from a reinvention of the series, and it's not the great marriage of Dynasty Warriors and Monster Hunter KOEI was aiming for, but it's still a perfectly enjoyable portable addition to the series.
7 / 10