The Three Kingdoms era is an interesting choice of setting for this latest entry in SEGA’s strategy series, though not entirely surprising. This pivotal historic saga has been the subject of many books, movies, and video games, with Koei’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms franchise having long been a genre mainstay for more than 30 years.
It shares a title with Luo Guanzhong’s 14th century epic – a dramatised retelling of events following the fall of China’s Han dynasty. Fans of Koei’s other flagship series, Dynasty Warriors, may also be familiar with some of the key characters who make an appearance such as Guan Yu, Lu Bu, and Zhao Yun.
Although not as immediately appealing to westerners as the rise and fall of Rome, the colonial conquests of the 18th century, or unending conflicts of Medieval Europe, Ancient China is steeped in lore and intrigue. However, with so many generals, factions, and regions to juggle in your head, having a more narrative-driven, fictional focus makes this all easier to swallow and contextualise while still hitting those same beats in the historic timeline.
As in any Total War game, most of your time will be spent entrenched in one of its many campaigns. Where the more grounded Records mode will feel more familiar to fans, Three Kingdoms defaults to its the Romance mode that adds a bit more flavour and spices up a few key mechanics. For instance, your generals will be enshrined as heroic characters capable of impressive feats on the battlefield, and can be used as spies, scouts, and diplomats to further your political machinations in the turn-based campaign.
There’s a clear parallel to Creative Assembly’s recent Warhammer spin-offs here. Although not completely overpowered (charging an enemy army head-on with no support will often earn a quick, albeit heroic death) generals lend bonuses and abilities that can help influence battles if used effectively. Used effectively, they can secure a flank of your army, instead of being tucked away within the ranks of otherwise unspectacular units to keep them safe.
There’s also a new duel mechanic that’s been introduced, allowing two characters to go one-on-one as their armies continue to battle around them. This helps add some much-needed pizazz to some of the drier battles, especially when zooming in to watch their combat animations, parrying blows and leaping over one another.
For those completely new to the Total War franchise, the campaign can all be a bit overwhelming at first. The series combines turn-based governance and upkeep of your controlled territories with sprawling real-time battles. Since those earliest Total War games, Creative Assembly has continued to try and find the most comfortable and efficient way of easing players into its complex web of systems and mechanics. With Three Kingdoms it does a fairly good job, at least for the basics.
Tutorials are there to show you the ropes and your advisor will provide contextual tips when clicking through menus. However, there’s a lot you need to learn yourself and as with most strategy games, I found myself starting a new campaign after several hours, able to apply all everything I’d learned in my second run, able to hit the ground running.
At its core, Total War hasn’t lost any of that rich, gooey strategy DNA. If it manages to sink its hooks in, you’re going to lose dozens, if not hundreds of hours campaigning across Ancient China. Your end goal will always veer towards complete conquest, though changes such as your main general and starting location can heavily influence how events play out.
For example, where Cao Cao excels in political puppetry and playing his enemies against each other, the more benevolent Liu Bei seeks peaceful unification. Aside from some of them having their own unique campaign mechanics, each general also has certain bonuses and elite troop types to help differentiate them.
Three Kingdoms is gorgeous strategy game that often puts the rest of the genre to shame. Although much of the game is played zoomed out, reading text, numbers, and surveying battles from the clouds above, there’s an impressive amount of detail throughout, whether looking down at the map of China or zooming into the thousands of soldiers fighting in battle. You’ll catch yourself angling the game’s camera in order to watch a particular brutal cavalry charge or one of your generals valiantly leaping towards the enemy frontline.
With all that said, coming away from the recent Total War: Warhammer II, Three Kingdoms lacks the same cinematic flare. It leans a bit too much on a historic representation, even when pursuing a fictional Romance style campaign. Story missions aren’t all that engaging and you’ll struggle to take an interest in those key figures involved with little to differentiate them, either on the campaign map or on the battlefield.
Those Warhammer games were generally easier to get a grip on too, without losing any of that complexity the series is known for. The campaign structure, menu systems, user interface, and battle overlays were all just a bit simpler to digest, yet still afforded players all the strategic options they required.