Romance of the Three Kingdoms XVI may be one of the most approachable in the entire series, while still providing a great deal of depth for strategy / simulation veterans such as myself. It is still only going to appeal to a somewhat smallish niche I suspect, but I am certainly the target audience and found it difficult to put down.
I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I have a rather long-running love of the Romance games. Way back on the NES, I got hooked on the original Romance of the Three Kingdoms (as well as a handful of other KOEI strategy games), and I followed the series for years to come. That affection spilled over into other games featuring the characters (like the Dynasty Warriors games and the long-forgotten Destiny of an Emperor. I also took it upon myself to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms as a senior in high school. So, it is say that I’m a fan of the source material.
However, the franchise has undergone some serious changes from its origins as a turn-based strategy game to more of a real-time hybrid. When the series saw a resurgence a few years ago, it was a dense thing packed with a great deal of micromanagement that I still had a great deal of fun with, but was by no means approachable. Romance of the Three Kingdoms XVI has taken strides to make it more accessible through a simplified war system and a vastly improved interface (though I do wish the ‘confirm’ option was consistently an ‘X’ button press, instead of a triangle for 95% of the actions. I’m just used to ‘X’ being the confirmation in most games, and it is a little odd how it only serves that purpose in a handful of specific command windows, but this is a pretty minor quibble).
For veterans of the series, I look at Romance of the Three Kingdoms XVI as a bit of a mash-up between releases nine and eleven, with a heavy focus on rulership over the individual officers. The hexagon grid and combat remind me a bit of the Civilization series now, as units encounter one another and the behind the scenes math starts to take place. This will undoubtedly frustrate some users, as they have less nuanced control over how the battles play out, but at the same time it puts an emphasis on proper preparation of your units before sending them out in the first place. Different formations provide varying bonuses depending on the type of combat that is anticipated, and it is a thrill to see a powerful tactic broken out during the middle of a battle, automated or not. There are still plenty of considerations at play here however, such as terrain or cutting off supply lines that can impact morale and help to shake up the numbers a bit behind the scenes. Continuing the theme of automation, duels sometimes occur when you would least expect them to, and they are also handled with no direct intervention. If there is one area I would have liked to see a bit more control, it is right here as they are cinematic and greatly impact the outcome of the battle.
The theme of streamlining commands is found in other places as well. You assign a commander to oversee a region, and you assign them to one out of three tasks: improving commerce (gold), agriculture (supplies) or barracks (soldiers). Different commanders can move the needle better in some areas than others, and striking the proper balance is tremendously important for success. You more or less can set them and forget them as they level that aspect up, though sometimes you may have to pivot depending on which commanders are available or if a region starts to flounder in one area when compared to the others. This becomes more of an issue in later game scenarios when forces are sometimes thinned out too much. I usually find it easy to gain early momentum, but as I take over more regions, and the overall quality of my commanders goes down, I sometimes struggled to keep the quality up in my prior locations.
Even with the various quality of life / speed of gameplay changes that have been introduced, there is still plenty to micromanage most of the time. Searching regions could yield officers or special items that can boost stats and loyalty. You need to pay attention to your generals and keep their loyalty up via rewarding them, as enemy rulers can be pretty damned aggressive when secretly recruiting your generals. There were a few times I found myself moderately flummoxed to find out one of my better generals, who had a loyalty of 96 or 97 has suddenly been poached. Whatever math is happening here behind the scenes, I feel this is one area that could be tweaked, as it happens to me at least a few teams every campaign with no real discernable reason.
The reason I classify this title as a hybrid real-time/turn-based strategy game is you issue your commands in a paused state, same as the AI, and then the actions take place in parallel. This has been the case for some time, but I believe the streamlined combat and controls make this a far less dense beast to manage than it has been in some of the other recent releases. If you have played popular strategy games like Frozen Synapse, you have a pretty good idea what I mean by parallel, uninformed turns. I might have sent two units off in one direction to claim unmarked lands, only to then realize that I overplayed my hand and my grouchy neighboring ruler sent a large task force to try and attack one of my now less-guarded cities. The entire gameplay structure is wrapped around a continual sense of risk versus reward as the turns play out.
There were absolutely sessions where I got frustrated with what I thought were well-designed plans that got mucked up by unexpected decisions by my opponents. The old turn-based style is still something I would like to see come back to the series in some fashion, even if it is one of the spin-off releases that are sometimes published, but I will admit that the hybrid style used now is certainly more challenging as well. Frustrations aside, there were multiple times I would end my game, stand up to go grab a beer while telling myself it was time to move onto something else for awhile since I had just dropped a ‘quick’ five or seven hours in without realizing it. And then, more often than not, I fired up a new campaign with all new parameters and rolled off another quarter of my day, so I can attest to the addictive quality of this particular release.