Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been around since Ronald Reagan’s second term. Other genres have risen and fallen, entire game system dynasties have faded, and as reliably as the tides, another game in this series keeps coming out, this time for PS4. Although, at this point, you really do have to wonder why, precisely, it’s coming to consoles in the first place.
Romance Of The Three Kingdoms XIII (PS3, PS4, Xbox One, PC)
If you’re unfamiliar, this franchise is based off the novel of the same name, which is a fictionalized take on the Three Kingdoms Period of Chinese history, China’s version of Arthurian legend. And as a video game, it sticks to tradition. Not even the box art has changed on this franchise in thirty years, let alone the music or the general tone, all of which is straight from the ’80s. Aside from the token CGI movie here and there, and the arguably necessary graphical upgrades to justify even putting this out, literally nothing has been altered. The story unfolds in a visual novel style, and you squint at tiny little units as they reduce tiny little numbers on topographically precise battlefields.
Honestly, the game needed some work, aesthetically. The visual novel bits aren’t fully voiced, and the high resolution, at this point, only serves to emphasize just how dated everything is, aside from the delightfully retro paintings. Even the CGI is uneven, some of it clearly poached from the Dynasty Warriors spin-off. Aside from a few minor flourishes, there’s just not much to this game in a modern sense.
As you might have guessed, aside from tweaking equations and adding attributes here and there, this franchise has barely changed what it’s like. You’re still fiddling with numbers and doing math to conquer China and arguably get the best ending.
Another traditional aspect of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is that like the tabletop wargames they’re based on, they are as dense, and impenetrable, as depleted uranium. There’s no interest, whatsoever, in making this game remotely friendly to new players. Even the tutorial, which is a fairly lengthy standalone campaign that introduces all of the players and loosely follows the novel, and which you can see the first battle from above, is incredibly tough to follow. It’s not helped by some confusing controls and a user interface that fills the screen with buttons while simultaneously giving you no idea what anything does.
I found myself wondering, quite often, why this wasn’t an iPad game. The interface isn’t nearly as clunky when you can physically poke the buttons. It’s especially glaring because other strategy games like XCOM and The Banner Saga have made the leap to using a controller quite handily. Once you half-figure out what you’re doing, you can get into a groove with this game. But have the manual handy unless you’ve been messing with this franchise for years.
That said, once you fiddle with it for a few hours, and get a better sense of how it works, the thirty years of refinements and tweaks really stands out. You don’t have to bulldoze everybody in your path to win; you can just as easily buy your way to the top, use diplomacy to consolidate power, and so on. That said, the game cries out for asymmetrical multiplayer; the AI is decent, but a little too easy to trick even for a casual fan of strategy games. Having a few other humans to try and conquer would have been the leap forward this series needs.
If you really love dense strategy games where you relentlessly fiddle with numbers, you’ll get hours out of this. And if you just play through the “Hero” section of the game, you’ll probably get a good twelve hours or more out of it. This is not a game that does anything by half measures.
There’s only minor DLC, there’s no microtransactions, just pure strategy. And that’s kind of refreshing, honestly, for a cult franchise. Lately, thanks to a one-two punch of the rise of mobile gaming and the plunging sales on console games, franchises like this have a tendency to try and squeeze the fans for all they can get. Koei Tecmo is refusing to do that, here, and that’s a good thing.
Strategy nerds will probably love this game, or at least enjoy how it tides them over until Civ VI hits shelves. It offers the dense, granular statistical toys and RPG-leveling perks that can suck them in for hours. If that describes you, this game is worth every penny despite the outdated UI and baffling choice of platform. If it doesn’t describe you, then, honestly, don’t bother.