A Romance to Last the Ages
As I have mentioned in a previous review, the Koei side of Koei Tecmo loves itself some history-based games. One of their most prolific and long-running series, including the game we are looking at today, is based upon the story of the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history.
This time period was one of the most violent and bloody in Chinese history, so of course, it’s perfect for adapting into a video game! Originally released in Japan in 1985 for multiple systems, including the NES and MSX, Romance of the Three Kingdoms turned this period and the 14th century historical novel of the same name into a strategy game.
The game has since seen a massive number of sequels and spinoffs spanning nearly every console and personal computer imaginable, with the majority of mainline releases also receiving English localizations. However, North America hasn’t seen an entry since the PC release of the eleventh title back in 2008.
In January of this year, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII was released in Japan, and the PC release was available worldwide via Steam. However, this version was not localized; if you wanted to play the newest entry, you had to do so in Japanese.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the series, though, Koei Tecmo decided to give this thirteenth title an official western release, letting English-speaking players fully dive into the series for the first time in eight years.
Developed by Koei and published by Koei Tecmo, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII (RTK13 hereafter) was released on July 5th, 2016, in North America for the PS4 and PC via Steam. The PS4 version was played for this review.
Learn from the Past
RTK13 offers two game modes at the outset. The first is a traditional campaign mode, which does not follow a set story. The second, “Hero Mode,” takes the player through a set of major events from the Three Kingdoms period (embelished with plot points from the historical novel) while also acting as a tutorial for the game.
The game’s story begins around the end of the Han Dynasty, beginning in 184AD. The government of the time was growing steadily more corrupt, and while under the rule of Emperor Ling, a peasant revolt broke out known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion. As the government was working to suppress the rebellion, Ling’s death and the the political dealings that followed led to the warlord Dong Zhuo taking control of the imperial capitol.
Zhuo’s oppressive rule led to a number of schemes and attempts to depose him or take his life, and what followed was a series of governers and warlords attempting to take control of the throne, notably the warlard Cao Cao. Meanwhile, the warlord Liu Bei swore an oath to the Han dynasty, along with a couple of generals, to return the dynasty to its former glory.
The interplay of politics between Zhuo, Cao, Bei, and their generals form the central story of RTK13, as the Hero Mode campaign takes us through their histories, struggles, and triumphs. The actual story presented is done so in a simplified manner, touching on the major events and decisions of each key player while downplaying some of the smaller details. There’s plenty here to get a firm grasp of the happenings during this period, without going so far as to be a full history lecture in the middle of a video game.
As the Hero Mode campaign functions mostly as a tutorial, the story told is actually rather short. If plotline is something that you look for in games, you may have some minor disappointment here. What is presented is incredibly intriguing, though, and has led me to actually do some of my own research into the time period.
To Unify China
As a grand stratetgy game, RTK13 has a massive amount of gameplay systems and options. I’d probably have to write a small novel to cover them all, so I just want to touch on the main systems and a few highlights.
In both the Hero Mode and standard campaigns, gameplay falls into two general categories: city management and war. The city management aspect is the part you will probably find yourself spending most of your time in, as it makes up a majority of the game.
Depending on the kind of character you choose to play as, you will have a staggaring amount of different options available to you to build up your controlled cities and the armies within. Improving a city’s culture or agriculture, training your troops, developing bonds with other characters, and setting up espionage missions against enemy nations are some of the many important functions available to you.
A major aspect of the development part of the game is in the relationships you build with NPCs. Diplomacy and relationships are a huge part of RTK13 and, in my opinion, are the highlight of the experience. Do you want to have a skilled minister join your cabinet, or perhaps an experienced warlord to help lead your armies? Just trying to straight-out hire them isn’t the way to go about it; you have to leverage the connections you already have. Maybe one of your ministers is acquainted with your target hire, and you can get him to put in a good word. Perhaps you’ve caught the eye of a warlord’s general through you battle prowess, letting you build a connection with the general first, and then leveraging that to hire the warlord. The web of relationships between characters is complex, and it allows for a lot of creativity in your diplomatic exploits.
On the other side of the coin is waging war, which I found to be one of the more disappointing portions of the game. After you’ve prepared your armies and selected a target, they march off to battle, and once they encounter an enemy force or arrive at your target, the game shifts from the menu-driven main portion of the game to a more directly-controlled battlefield.
Battles play out automatically, with you able to pause the actions to give each squad in your army commands. Said commands are not very specific: you can tell squads where to move, what they should attack, and whether to activate special attacks, but once you return to action, your army mostly moves on its own. I had a number of issues where squads would just straight up ignore the commands I gave them, choosing to attack a random enemy squad rather than destroy the base I wanted them to, as an example.
One last thing I’d like to mention are a couple of menu-driven systems that are used for duels between characters. One is used for actual dueling, while another is used when two characters engage in a verbal debate. In both, you are given a choice of five actions, each of which are strong or weak against each other, and you have to predict what option your opponent will use. While having debates play out like a battle is fairly unique, these battles are fairly boring and somewhat tedious in action…luckily, they’re usually over quick and they never occurred often in my campaigns.
The graphical presentation of RTK13 is, to put it simply, all over the place. Character portraits and the occasional cutscene in Hero Mode are done in an attractive realistic artstyle, reminiscent of painted portraits. These portions are some of the best artistic presentation in the game, and the sheer amount of characters with unique portraits makes this even more impressive.
The game features two styles of cutscenes as well. The most common uses camera pans and zooms over still portraits of the characters and backgrounds. While not technically impressive, the aforementioned artstyle is the most prominent here, making these scenes pleasing to look at. There are also a few fully animated cutscenes for major story moments. These scenes capture the character designs well are decently animated, although there are some awkward animations here and there.
Unfortunately, the art direction of the rest of the game is somewhat boring. City management takes place through menus over a static background and while some of them (espeically views of whatever city you’re currently working in) are nicely detailed, they’re also incredibly drab. The same goes for the battlefield portions of the game, which also have their own issues with weirdly-animated soldiers and the squads occasionally stuttering around the battlefield while engaged in battle.
East Meets West
If there’s one thing that I’d point out as my favorite part of this game, it would have to be the soundtrack. As a grand strategy and conquest game, RTK13‘s soundtrack goes for the most obvious choice: sweeping and epic orchestral pieces. Luckily, the tracks in the game are incredibly well composed, and are the kind of tracks I wouldn’t be surprised to hear performed by a live orchestra.
The soundtrack is very string-focused with brass used for emphasis, reminding me quite a bit of classical western orchestral pieces. I do find it somewhat odd, though, that a game focused on Chinese history uses such a western-style soundtrack. Very few of the tracks seem to have any Chinese or Asian influence or make use of any Asian classical instruments…although the ones that do integrate them amazingly well into the orchestra.
RTK13 also includes some voice acting in the original Japanese. Cutscenes are fully voiced, while interactions between characters in game mostly use small vocal clips. I did not find the voice acting all that remarkable, although since most of it is relegated to the short story campaign, it’s understandable as it’s not a major part of the game itself. Aside from the occasional vocal clips, voice acting is almost non-existant in the main campaign mode.
Overall, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is a greatly entertaining strategy game, and although there is quite a bit to learn to play effectively, the learning curve isn’t all that difficult. The Hero Mode campaign does a great job of teaching the various systems in the game without too much hand-holding, and the attached storyline is very intriguing.
Once you have the system down, the main campaign mode is quite fun and challenging, having to balance all of the systems and stats to ensure your survival, let alone victory. Unfortunately, the fun is hindered by the war and battle systems, which are major disappointments compared to the city development and management aspects of the game.
Those that play immensely-detailed and intricate grand strategy games like the Europa Universalis series may find this game a bit of a step down, but for strategy fans and gamers in general, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII definitely comes recommended. I do have the feeling that the PC version of this game would be much easier to play, though; some of the controller commands in the PS4 versions are awkward, and using a mouse to command battles rather than a analog-controlled cursor would definitely make things smoother.
Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo. Screenshots both taken by reviewer and courtesy of Koei Tecmo.