Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII: More like “Romance of the Thirteen Menus”
When I consider all the things I enjoy in my preferred form of entertainment, I think I might be a bit of a masochist. I enjoy games that make me laugh, cry, and wrack my brain at any given moment, sometimes to the point of appearing behind my eyelids when I lie down to sleep. Usually, I scratch this itch by playing a good horror game, or at the very least a heart-punching JRPG.
I can’t deny the appeal of Historical strategy games, though. In most cases, this itch was scratched by playing a good game of Romance the Three Kingdoms VII, or digging out a game from PC’s distant past, but now I don’t have to fiddle with dosbox or trawl through my collection of PS2 games to find that elusive disc, because I can have all the historical simulation I want, right on my PS4 for my conquering needs.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is the latest in the…well, Romance of the Three Kingdoms series by Koei, which derived its story, influence, art design, and sheer length from the novel of the same name. After an infamously rocky initial release, it’s finally on US shores, complete with English text options and all the post-launch improvements for the PC version already implemented. Considering that I actually lost sleep building my armies, managing my officers, and making sure that I had an army of ass-kissers worthy of Liu Bei’s memory, you’d think it’s pretty good. And you’d be right.
Much like Luo Guanzhong’s original novel, though, when you look close enough you can see the fractures where certain bits were cobbled together.
Mostly this has to do with the map, time, and battles.
Koei Tecmo decided to take an RTS approach with this one, so time is constantly moving unless you make an effort to pause and give yourself time to think. Going to the Ministry will stop time, and certain events will pause the game, but for the most part, time is always moving.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII lets you use shortcuts when you’re either not in town or don’t want to fiddle with too many menus to assign orders to people within your sphere of influence. So, theoretically, I can tell a messenger to order my vassals back in town to crack down on swindlers, make men out of my spear unit, and set my best buddy as my military advisor while I’m on my way to enemy territory in order to convince someone to betray their boss. Unfortunately, due to the graphically interesting but inconvenient way it’s set up, doing that moving is a chore. Unless you zoom out at least halfway, the only thing you’re going to see is the back of your horse or one city at a time, which with a map this large is incredibly frustrating.
Oh, and you’d better get to love that zoom function, because you’ll be using it every time you’re not in a town. It’s the only way the game moves at a reasonable pace, since if there’s too many assets in sight at once the framerate takes a nosedive. Well, that, and it’s the only way to see what’s going on in battles.
Battles are hit and miss. On one hand, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII‘s RTS approach was ambitious, and can make battles a lot more exciting than they would have been otherwise. You can even pretend you’re playing a much more console friendly version of Total War and look at all the soldiers up-close; it’s too bad that the PS4’s processor screams in protest every time you do it.
Considering that this is a RTS / Turn-based hybrid strategy game on the PS4, the controls are actually really good. Once you get the hang of it, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII feels natural on a controller, and you can even use the touchpad to move the cursor if you really want. Zooming is a bit of a chore, since you have to hold L1 and use the right stick to zoom in and out (not to mention the slight delay), but considering other games without access to a mouse wheel, it could have been worse. Menus, commands, and even the relationship system are streamlined to make the most of the hybrid concept, and while it doesn’t give you as much control as in previous installments, it never feels like the game’s dumbed down, or too easy.
I’m not sure why Koei Tecmo decided that the Hero Mode was a good idea, though. On paper, it’s great: it’s a tutorial mode that introduces both the story of the Three Kingdoms and the game’s mechanics to newbies — except it doesn’t. The story is explained just fine, and it does serve as a very useful primer for series veterans just getting back in the swing of things, but the mechanics aren’t explained very well. It’s presented in a piecemeal way that doesn’t always express how all the different options work in the main game, or fit together as a cohesive whole.
If you’re new to the series and want to pick this one up, just find someone who’s already well-versed in it. Drag them over and make them explain everything to you, because the online manual and in-game tutorial just won’t cut it, because neither work. If you don’t know anyone, buy a strategy guide. I may have spent a good several hundred words talking about the spotty bits, but this is absolutely a worthwhile entry in the franchise. Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII has enough depth to drown in, creating your own officer and conquering China is as satisfying as ever, and even with the dumb AI and sometimes awkward gameplay, I found myself thinking about troop movements and transferring cash and supplies long after I turned my console off.
Just consider all the things I didn’t complain about to not only be functional, but pretty damn good. The music is gorgeous, the artwork is beautiful and detailed, upgrading my towns is fun and satisfying, and there’s still that sense of gratification after obliterating an enemy kingdom and having their liege and top officers work for me as my vassals.
Fans of strategy owe it to themselves to pick this one up.
Veterans of the series might be a bit more critical, though. There are better installments to the series, but this ranks highly for me, right next to the seventh and tenth games. Definitely a must-buy.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed), PC ; Publisher / Developer: Koei Tecmo Games ; Players: 1 ; Released: July 5, 2016 ; ESRB: E for Everyone 10+ ; MSRP: 59.99
Full Disclosure: This review was made possible by a review copy provided by the publisher.