Koei is best known for their ever-popular Warriors franchise. Over the years it has become their calling card with myriad sequels, spin-offs, and expansions, not to mention a growing bevy of crossovers. However, this over-the-top brand of action stands in stark contrast to those earliest games Koei built their legacy upon.
Next to Nobunaga’s Ambition, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the longest-running grand strategy series out there, celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. If the name wasn’t already a dead giveaway, the franchise is based upon the historical novel of the same name, charting the fall of China’s Han dynasty in 169AD and leading to the eventual reunification more than a century later.
At its core, ROTK’s grand strategy trappings remain intact. You’ll choose from a list of scenarios (some historic and others that pose fictional “what if?” questions) before selecting a participating faction, each with their own hierarchy of unique officers. As always, the aim of the game is to conquer and unify China under your banner, whether you assume the role of religious revolutionary, Zhang Jiao, despotic tyrant, Dong Zhuo, or the benevolent Liu Bei, among the huge list of available generals.
It’s fair to say that some knowledge of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is desperately needed to enjoy this game to its fullest. Although there are encyclopedia entries on hand to fill in the blanks, ROTK has always assumed a level of familiarity with the source material. The literary novels are obvious the best touchstone, though anyone who has played Dynasty Warriors should feel comfortable discerning between some factions, events, and key characters.
XIV still uses a turn-based template with players assigning orders, dispatching armies, and conducting domestic affairs, then hitting a button to watch everything play out. There’s a satisfying blend of territory management that war-waging series fans should be accustomed to by now. Your ultimate end goal is to destroy any opposing factions or bring them into your alliance, ROTK giving you a whole range of options to achieve either.
It can be pretty daunting at first with a sizeable network of menus to sift through, some of them quite vague in what they actually do. Even though the tutorials help cover the basics, there are many mechanics and features you’ll simply have to get a feel for in your first few campaigns.
With this being the fourteenth entry in the series, there was a worry that Koei would be hesitant to try something new and shake up the formula. While XIV definitely hits those same beats as past games, there’s a key change that has a significant impact on game flow; this time around the campaign map has been split into hundreds of tiny hexes, giving players a better visual representation of the territories they own as well as those belonging to allies, enemies, and other neutral factions.
This certainly helps when it comes to eyeing up which cities to capture and generally gauging the power of your adversaries. What’s interesting about this new system however is that you’ll need to send out armies to manually capture each little grid to add it your territory. The game asks you to treat the map as a kind of canvas, your units painting streaks across it.
It’s a different and more direct way of portioning up the map, though one that has its caveats. Capturing each grid can mean issuing a series of finicky movement orders to your armies and while there’s an option to do this automatically, it doesn’t always work. Watching a general march around in circles and completely missing rogue hexes is pretty frustrating.
Not everyone will be particularly keen on how the game is paced, either. While it’s no secret that grand strategy titles are notorious time sinks, the best ones manage to maintain a tempo that has players fully immersed – that “one more turn” factor. Sadly, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV doesn’t have that quality. Although there’s definitely a rhythm, you’ll find yourself drumming to the same strategic beats with little gameplay variety, especially in those early stages.
Meanwhile the overall presentation here is good with the soundtrack and accompanying artwork being particularly excellent as always. However, the gameplay visuals aren’t quite as memorable – you’ll spend most of your time staring at the same campaign map, menus, and icons with only the occasional break to watch generals duelling. Again, that’s par for the course when it comes to grand strategy, but having more stylised visuals would have been a bonus.