by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Romance arrives to the West
I can never quite shake the feeling that Asian developers are always a few steps behind their Western counterparts. Koei Tecmo, a powerhouse on the arcade and console side of gaming, has been struggling to make it onto Western PCs and in my mind their inability to innovate has been their biggest obstacle. Their latest offering, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII, brings back memories of a time when I fought MS-DOS’ infuriating memory management and the Japanese language to be able to play the games in this series. A lot has changed since, but unfortunately the game doesn’t just feel like it was stuck in time, it seems to have gone backwards.
Strategy with a hefty dose of diplomacy
Romance of the Three Kingdoms tells the story of China during the Han Dynasty. An impoverished population decides to take matters into their own hands and war is ravaging the land. With an empire at stake, heroes and villains seek either peace or power. You, the player, are in the thick of it.
At heart, a Romance of the Three Kingdoms game is a strategy game that revolves around conquering the map of China. The map is split up into provinces, each controlled by a dominant city and its governor. Unlike most strategy games, conquest isn’t simply a matter of gathering resources and building armies. Skilled men and women will build your empire, you just have to point them in the right direction.
Depending on the role that you decide to take upon yourself, you start either as an officer, a governor or a ruler. As an officer, the actions available to you are initially restricted but you can slowly work your way up to the top of the food chain and gain full control of your faction. You do this by carrying out tasks and buttering up other characters to gain favour and fame. Without Facebook, expanding your friend list is a little more complicated than it is to today: you will be spending copious amounts of time travelling between places, gifting expensive items and asking your friends for introductions to their friends. Should you get really buddy-buddy with someone, the bond between the two of you will increase your character stats, making fraternizing a worthwhile effort.
At least it would be if other factions weren’t methodically conquering the map while you spend 100 days travelling back and forth between cities to woo your target. In most scenarios, you’ll never actually get the chance to go from officer to ruler before one of the other factions has beaten you to the punch and grown to a point where they have become unbeatable. The officer path isn’t particularly fun to play with as a result.
Battle against the Interface
Not worse than playing with the interface, though. Romance of the Three Kingdoms games have always been complex and it is no small task translating that complexity into an intuitive interface. There is a bewildering number of buttons, pick lists, sub menus and screens to sift through and the game’s recommendation to play the tutorial-ish Hero mode first is sound advice. Even with that help, it takes considerable time to figure out what to do and I imagine the game will be particularly hard on newcomers to the series.
For XIII, the developers finally made the switch from a 2D to a 3D engine. I say finally, but I wish they had not at all. It is painfully clear that they have little aptitude for 3D graphics or engines. While the hand-drawn art is beautiful as ever – a hallmark for the franchise as a whole – I’ve not seen a campaign map this ugly and so devoid of detail since the very first strategy games started using 3D a decade and a half ago. Visually, combat fares a tiny bit better, but that in turn suffers from even clunkier controls than you struggle with on the campaign map. To top it all off, unit behaviour is highly erratic. I’ve seen units get stuck behind walls, or move away from the action instead of towards it when that was clearly a bad decision. The most hilarious, though, was a full company of horsemen climbing up on the walls to defend against spear while still on horseback. I’m sure that happened all the time in ancient times. In short, it’s a mess.
Romance is the high point of the experience
The only thing that Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII has going for it, is the unique Romance gameplay. No other game has ever succeeded in blending roleplaying, empire management and real-time strategy successfully into a single package. When you’re not busy sulking about the disappointing graphics or fuming over the horrendous controls, playing as a ruler is as fun as ever. Liaising with potential officers to bring them under your banner, assigning tasks to your staff to improve your cities and raising armies to subjugate neighbouring towns is a tremendous amount of work, but equally satisfying when it all comes together.
It is a shame, then, that this is such a clunky, ugly mess of a game. It is rare enough that an English version of a Romance of the Three Kingdoms comes to Western shores by any other way than import and it makes me sad that – this – will be the first experience with the series for new players. It pains me to say it, but it would have been better if Koei Tecmo had decided to release XII on Steam first, as that is clearly superior over this new sibling.
Unique premise of RTK games keeps this from being a total bust
Lousy graphics and an infuriating interface