After Fire Emblem: Awakening came out, it was very clear that Intelligent Systems was taking a deliberate step backwards. Decades of steady evolution suddenly regressed into simplified strategy, inoffensive narratives, and easily digestible anime tropes disguised as characters. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – it was what needed to be done to get the franchise in the hands of modern audiences. However, that left some fans of older titles like Path of Radiance and Sacred Stones wanting something meatier. Something that felt like a true step forward for SRPGs, and not a simplification made for easy mass consumption. Surprisingly, it ended up being Omega Force to listen to that demand and retrofit their Dynasty Warriors franchise to meet it. The result was Dynasty Warriors: Godseekers, a smart and nuanced SRPG that takes almost everything that made titles like Fire Emblem and Advance Wars work in the first place, then improves upon it in major ways.

The plot is yet another riff on Romance of the Three Kingdoms, like every other Dynasty Warriors title before it. This time, however, there’s some patently silly magic thrown into the mix, with the core cast discovering a pink-haired girl encased in a glowing pillar. As it turns out, the girl is named Xixia, has some sort control over fate itself, which just so happens to be tied to five elemental stones. These stones fall into the hands of the likes of longtime villains like Cao Cao, and it’s up to the intreptid Zhao Yun and Lei Bin to stop them from completely wrecking Warring States era China with magical powers.Dynasty Warriors: Godseekers Review – A Smart Twist on SRPGs 1In case it wasn’t clear, the main narrative in Dynasty Warriors: Godseekers is very silly – the same kind of endearing camp that fans have come to expect from the franchise. However, as fans have also come to expect hidden layers of depth if they know where to look. Putting aside the magic orbs and floating girl that can control fate, there is a fair bit of political intrigue at work throughout the story, and a lot of effort is made to make each and every character as developed as possible. This results in an absurd riff on Chinese history that is nevertheless filled to the brim with interesting lore and compelling characters in a plot stretched over ten or so main chapters and god-knows-how-many side chapters that is equal amounts goofy and thought-out.

For the first time since the PlayStation 2 era though, the way that narrative is explored isn’t through furiously slamming on buttons. Hearkening back to the pair of Dynasty Tactics games, Omega Force has gone into SRPG territory this time around, and the results are pretty great. Speaking as a fan of the genre, Godseekers has some of the most refined gameplay this side of Disgaea, and effortlessly surpasses the mechanics of any SRPG I’ve played in quite some time. Fans of grids, movement limitations, small hitboxes, and good old RNG will feel right at home here.

However, what strikes me most about Dynasty Warriors: Godseekers is how much freedom I felt playing it. Yes, all of the hallmarks of the genre are on full display, but the presentation is a cut above the competition. Players are given complete control of the camera, not confined to any one position at any point. The maps almost always have multiple levels and are usually filled with tight corridors, and the ability to just swivel the camera around at any point (even during attack animations) feels so liberating to somebody raised on stuff like Final Fantasy Tactics. Snapping between units is an uncomplicated and speedy process, figuring out hitboxes is a breeze, and getting the lay of the land to make the perfect strategy is a cinch. For people turned off by SRPG gameplay, Dynasty Warriors: Godseekers offers some of the most streamlined I’ve ever encountered. For fans of the genre like myself, it’s easier than ever to plan out elaborate strategies before executing.Dynasty Warriors: Godseekers Review – A Smart Twist on SRPGs 2And Godseekers is very elaborate. There are a lot of mechanics to learn, but after some early tutorials, they start feeling like second nature. Keeping units close together to pair up Synchro Attacks, learning how to quickly charge special Musou moves, maximizing how many enemies each unit can take out at one time – it is a complicated game. Yet, unlike many other titles of its ilk, it never feels unwelcoming. There’s a handy index of every mechanic accessible at any time, and there are always side missions of varying difficulties available to hone skills and grind levels. Learning how to play the game and play it well is a fun learning process, and the gameplay itself is so smooth that messing up and learning from mistakes is a satisfying experience.

While what few SRPG franchises are left seem content with sticking in their lanes, Dynasty Warriors: Godseekers is exactly what I want from this genre. It’s a smart evolution of and a bold twist on familiar mechanics, delivered in a stylish package with a fun narrative, interesting characters, and heaps of content – including a surprisingly deep riff on Fire Emblem’s Support system. For lapsed fans of Intelligent Systems’ franchise, or people just looking for a really great SRPG that isn’t afraid to try new things, Omega Force has delivered one of the most surprising successes of 2017.