Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Say what you will about how strategy games belong on the PC, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII makes a solid case for more console titles in the genre. There are too few really good strategy games on the PlayStation 4, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII may very well be the best one on the console to date.
I go back a ridiculously long ways with the Koei strategy games. Nobunaga’s Ambition was the first of their many titles I played on the NES, and Chris was a huge fan of the title when it released updated for the PlayStation 4 last year. Despite the similarities between the two different series over the years, there are some very significant differences between them as well. To me Nobunaga’s Ambition was always more about the big picture – the territories, the sweeping policies and large scale warfare.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a game about people – interesting characters set against the backdrop of war. While there is a lot of overlap between these two games, the characters of Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII help it to rise above most other strategy titles. In fact, for a game about war, combat is often a secondary concern. Of course you will never unite China without military prowess, but victory or failure have more to do with your preparation beforehand than the actual tactics executed on the battlefield. Having taken several years/releases off from this series, some of the changes took some time to adapt to. Combat has a real-time feel to it, though you can pause and speed up/slow down the passage of time (this goes for non-combat as well when you are issuing and waiting on city-building and training commands – but it is much more important during combat), and that is a huge help. Still, there were a few times where the juggling of different units splitting off into different directions did feel like a juggling act and makes me curious what the talented teams behind this title and Nobunaga’s Ambition could do with a truly turn-based game. However, there is a lot more to this title than just waging war.
There are a lot of simulation elements in Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII. You need to make sure your city has a healthy commerce or you will lack the money needed to execute on your military desires. Raw recruits are needed to man these armies, but without training they are simply weeds waiting to be cut down. You will form alliances, declare wars and more along the way as you have to manage much more than just your army. This extra layer over just the combat has been a big part of what has always drawn me to the Koei Tecmo strategy games, and the characters in particular fascinated me with the setting of Romance. It was this game that fueled my interest in the time period, and led me to read the novel this series shares its name with.
But what about the game itself? To be honest – there is a ton here. The series has always been deep, but perhaps never deeper than it is now. I enjoy the systems at work here, though there are two truths to the game on the PlayStation 4 that simply need to be addressed. One, the visuals while generally excellent do struggle when there is a great deal of activity taking place during map/combat modes. The framerate suffers when there are a lot of marching units or you are trying to pan and spin the camera too aggressively. Secondly, the controls are far from perfect. I appreciate how hard it is to bring this kind of interface to consoles, and suspect that this reason above any other is why we do not see more of the strategy genre on them. Generally speaking, Koei Tecmo does a good job as there are lots of menus to interact with and units to click on. Once again where the interface tends to be a burden is during combat where selecting on a specific unit can be a real chore unless you are zoomed right in.
Okay, so we have those concerns duly noted, right? Because the rest of the game is generally outstanding. There is a steep learning curve here, but it is assisted by the Hero Mode of the game. In this you take the role of notable characters from the Romance storyline and are plopped down into specific events from their lives. Here the layers of the game are peeled back one at a time. You learn the basics of forming bonds with Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei as they befriend one another and swear brotherhood to one another in the Peach Garden Oath. Time to learn the basics of war and dueling? There is no better character than Lu Bu, the most recognized warrior of his time who was unparalleled in combat – but his weakness of character held him back from his greater ambitions. Throughout this process you get to delve deeper into the game slowly and steadily, with guidance while the characters who help to make Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII so interesting are also revealed.
Combat is about troops assigned to generals and the generals certainly have traits and stats that can help the outcome, but one of the areas of the game that really draws focus to the individual characters are the military and diplomatic duels. The two different mini-games are very similar, but they leverage different stats to indicate the participant’s power. In both cases you and an opponent will have a health bar, and you play a somewhat rock/paper/scissors like game (though deeper than that) where you try to strike/out argue your opponent. Different moves use action points up, so you need to balance keeping a pool of action points in your back pocket versus trying to attack your opponent. In both scenarios the winner is the one with health remaining. I was used to this from the combat duels of prior games, but had not seen this used in diplomacy. It is a little silly on the one hand, but it is also interesting because it gives you actual control over the outcome as opposed to simply leaving it to random numbered chance. It also puts more emphasis on the characters, which is a good decision in my opinion.
While the Hero Mode might be seen as training wheels, the actual game when you open it up and play is much more free of form. That being said, uniting China is anything but easy and there are many tasks to be considered as you try to grow in power and wealth. It helps that there is a nifty creation tool for editing/creating new characters. Being as familiar with the setting and the events that occurred, it was actually pretty fun to go ahead and muck things up with some of my own custom characters. Is this a suitable replacement for multiplayer? It probably depends on your preferences. A lot of players adore the strategy genre because of competitive multiplayer. I can generally do without those features, as I generally want to focus on ‘my campaign’.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is a niche game to be certain, with the kind of learning curve that could easily scare away casual strategy fans. Despite its emphasis on characters, this is not a tactics game akin to Fire Emblem, but something with a much different layer of city management and simulation layered onto it. It is a shame that the graphics engine – which looks very nice the majority of the time – seems to struggle a bit with the PlayStation 4 hardware, and no matter how well you design a user interface, a game like this is probably always going to be a smoother experience with a mouse as opposed to a controller. Those two concerns aside, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII offers a uniquely deep experience that will no doubt have me coming back for more for a good long while. It also has me hopeful that we might see even more strategy titles coming out of Koei Tecmo in the future.Score: 8.5/10