Death always caused problems in the ancient world. If a long-lived and competent ruler died, you could bet that after a few generations you’d end up with someone either incredibly incompetent, an insane tyrant, or a contested lineage and power vacuum. Needless to say, that would pretty much inevitably lead to out and out civil war.
That’s roughly what happens in Total War: Pharaoh, with the campaign starting off in 1200 BCE with the Egyptian New Kingdom era set to come to a close during the Bronze Age collapse. As Pharaoh Mernephta breathes his last breaths, it leads to a power struggle between his children – the rightful heir Seti II and his sister Tausret – rival king Amenmesse, and an upcoming military wonder kid Ramesses III. Even as they squabble over who gets to be the next Pharaoh, the world around them is changing, the Hittites to the north looking to grow and challenge Egyptian supremacy, the Canaanite city states looking to show their own collective might, and the mysterious Sea People arriving at the shores to raid and tear down everything in sight.
The campaign starts a little before all of this kicks off, giving you a chance to find your feet before the old Pharaoh dies and the real battle for supremacy occurs. As will be familiar from other Total War games, that means Ramesses starts off with a fairly small region under his control and some weaker neighbours that should be relatively easy to dominate within the opening few turns.
Delving into the real time battles once more, and there’s some good evolution and changes to see and take advantage of here, with each ruler and faction having their own particular strengths and tradeoffs. Ramesses comes with smaller, but more elite units that play well when facing against more numerous but less adept foes. There’s considerations to be made for how much fatigue you build up through combat manoeuvres, with more heavily armoured units tiring quicker, and the new unit stances to push, hold the line or strategically give ground. Depending on the difficulty, you won’t need to really master these elements, but they certainly help if you are, for example, holding a choke point. Oh, and there’s various weather effects to deal with and fire that can spread through the environment.
From that first expansion, it’s all about consolidation and continuing to grow your influence, reputation and legitimacy in relation to other rulers. On the one hand this comes from simply expanding your borders, conquering neighbours and making them vassals to your state, but what you do within your borders also matters. In addition to the familiar town and city buildings that you construct to improve your resources and military options, you also have a second layer of regional development, building monuments to yourself or gods, trading posts, army outposts, each of which has a particular bonus to your burgeoning empire.
As your influence grows, you’ll start to be able to interact with or be included in the royal court, adding a new layer of political intrigue as you can plot, scheme and extract favours. These work in a cyclical fashion with Shemsu Hor occurring every six turns (one year in-game), at which point all plots are resolved and you can start afresh. As your Legitimacy grows in the empire’s estimation, you’ll prove yourself as a worthy contender to the throne, and either you or your other rivals can trigger civil war to try and snatch it – and if you have the throne, you’ll want to watch your back.
The yearly Shemsu Hor is also a convenient structure for the Faction Commands. Once a year you can issue a special command to, in Ramesses’ case, be able to attack in march stance for one turn, which is mightily powerful when trying to chase down and wipe out an enemy army, or on Shemsu Hor itself, have the ability to add elite Medjay warriors to your ranks.
People used to believe in a lot more gods than they do now – something that Terry Pratchett loved to riff on in his Discworld novels with gods and goddesses for everything for Fate and the Moon, through to avalanches, beggars and misunderstandings. One of my favourite things in Total War Pharaoh is that you can discover new gods, happening across monuments and temples to gods of other cultures and then choosing whether to believe in them yourself – you can pick up to three to worship, with nineteen to choose from between the three playable factions. You’ll have to find their cult centres first, though, and then build your own shrines and temples to earn favour and gameplay bonuses.
This aligns with some of the cultural crossover that can be found elsewhere in the campaign – Ramesses’ northern starting point means that he will encounter the Hittites fairly early on, and then have the opportunity to choose between Egyptian and Hittites royal traditions.
As Total War: Pharaoh aims to give a historically authentic experience, it still leans into these supernatural elements for gameplay purposes, as well as some distinctive visual touches. The world as a whole is affected by one of three states known as the Pillars of Civilization – Prosperity, Crisis and outright Collapse. Each one has a big impact to how the world appears, with Collapse bringing much moodier tones and red star glyphs hanging in the night’s sky, compared to the brighter, more golden appearance and lovely cloud glyphs of Prosperity. Collapse also brings with it more natural disasters to deal with, and more Sea People attacks.
The campaign is really about rising to the top and then trying to weather the coming storm – the Bronze Age Collapse cannot be stopped, but it can be slowed and survived. Those Sea People attacks will inevitably come in larger waves and besiege your coastal towns and cities, and it’s vital to try and protect those that are home to cult centres in particular. These help to ensure the stability of a province, so you want to protect them and fortify those places, though this naturally comes at a cost to your supply chain.
Total War: Pharaoh explores a fascinating new time period for the series, toeing the line once more between historical authenticity and just being a fun new Total War game. I’m looking forward to playing more as the game heads to release in October.