Despite boasting a rich heritage, only a minority of PlayStation fans will be familiar with Romance of the Three Kingdoms. You see, since its debut way back in 1985, Koei’s long-running strategy series has been a mainstay for Japanese PC gamers. Although each major instalment has been ported to consoles in the past, very few of these have made their way to western shores and it’s easy to see why.
For those completely in the dark, Romance of the Three Kingdoms refers to the seminal works of famed author Luo Guanzhong. Written sometime during the early fourteenth century, this epic saga charts a turbulent era in ancient Chinese history as great houses rose and fell during endless conflicts that divide the country. Of course, as in any myth or legend, some parts are made up or at least semi-fictionalised, adding to the depth of the period.
If this is your first time probing this rich lore, then be warned. With no preface, there’s an awful lot to digest in terms of notable characters, factions, and events that shape this world. Even for someone who has grown up reading the source material and playing the games, scrolling through name after name almost feels like browsing a Chinese phonebook.
That said, XIII’s Hero Mode does a great job of familiarising new and veteran players with the key components that make this story. This is done through solid characterisation, the dialogue delivering just enough substance without feeling bloated or exhaustive. Sure, the occasional plot point is bound to go completely over your head but, for the most part, there’s a clear narrative arc for players to follow.
The game flow, mechanics, and systems are a far cry from what Koei fans may be expecting, having made the leap from Dynasty Warriors. Although both series share the same universe and characters, they couldn’t be further apart in terms of depth, pace, and complexity.
Where one is mind-numbingly cathartic the other requires attentive monitoring of stats and figures as a campaign unspools around you. There are no prizes for guessing which is which.
What you actually do in Romance of the Three Kingdoms and how you do it is determined by the rank of your protagonist. Upon starting a new game, players will select one of XIII’s various scenarios before choosing their character from a gigantic roster of available officers.
Their initial standing will dictate the actions and strategies available, whether you begin as a ruler, minister, vassal, or one of the many other in-game roles. No matter where those first few hours take you, unification is always the end goal. Although it’s possible to play XIII as a vagrant or mercenary, climbing the ladder is an inevitable step on the path to victory.
As an underling you’ll mostly take orders from those above you, training soldiers, tilling the fields, and patrolling settlements. All actions stem from a series of menus, each one requiring a certain amount of time to pass and a free officer to carry them out. The strategic element comes from assigning the right people for the job while triggering any bonuses that will help boost their productivity.
To that end, much of the game can be spent poring over menus, watching the days and months go by as guages slowly fill and factions interact with one another. Thankfully, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII offsets the creeping monotony with special events, some of which are character-specific. For example, upon helping to suppress a rebellion my officer was awarded a province to rule over.
While some opportunities are thrown into players’ laps, others need to be sought out. If unsatisfied with your liege lord, it’s possible to spark a revolt, conspiring with officers to cement your shady schemes.
Over on the military side, things become a bit more involved. Whether on land or sea, players will command friendly officers and their troops as they maneuver across the battlefield. Having the larger force can certainly help in determining the outcome, but XIII encourages players to activate abilities while also triggering certain formations. For example, if used at the correct time, an attack buff coupled with a pincer strike could break an intimidating enemy unit, potentially ending the fight there and then.
There’s nothing inherently bad about the battle system in place. However, compared to Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, it feels a little zoomed out for my liking. What made last year’s instalment so fun and addictive was being able to watch individual units fight on the field. Although not quite as grand in scale, it gave players a better indication of what’s happening instead of giving them character portraits and numbers to look at.
There are some neat features in XIII that don’t appear in Koei’s Sengoku strategy franchise, however. From time to time, players will engage in duels and debates: one-on-one battles that echo traditional turn-based tropes. Although fairly basic with only five options to choose from each round, they add some much needed flavour. If two mighty generals come face to face in battle, triggering a duel adds that little extra bit of drama.
Strategy aficionados will look on approvingly as fans of the series rejoice. It’s certainly not a game for everyone, yet those who find themselves hooked by Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII will struggle to break free of its hold. The fact that it plays so well on console as well as on PC shows that Koei is capable of more than mindless button bashers.
Version Tested: PS4