Review: Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII (PS4)

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Title: Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (5.9 GB)
Release Date: July 5, 2016
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Developer: Koei Tecmo
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: E10+
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is also available on PC.
The PlayStation 4 download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

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I don’t consider myself a stranger to games in the “strategy” genre. I cut my teeth as a youth on real-time strategy with games like Age of Empires. I frequently found time for the occasional Civilization game, and have an affinity for strategy RPGs like the Disgaea series. So I was curious about the long running Romance of the Three Kingdom series.

It turns out that Romance is a completely different beast entirely from what I might have expected. Other strategy genres reward attention to detail but this one really takes the cake when it comes to minutiae. To say this game is divisive would probably be an understatement. For better or worse, it’s hyperfocused on a very specific kind of gamer.

The setting certainly does it no favors. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is of course based on the seminal Chinese historical novel of the same name. The story has the density of a black hole and a list of characters a mile long. Even an abbreviation like in this game, there’s a lot to try to follow for those who aren’t familiar with the source material.

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I’d probably consider myself one of those unfamiliar. Before playing Romance, I could name only half a dozen of the people who show up in it. The game tries to maneuver the complex web of character interactions well but I still found my eyes glazing over as I tried to take in the story through the game’s several modes.

Not that the story is bad, far from it. The individual stories are interesting and laced with wit, humor, and interesting characters. It’s just a lot to take in for the uninitiated and navigating the interlocking story threads takes some effort if it isn’t something that’s already familiar.

… more control over certain actions …
Gameplay:
As I mentioned earlier, this is a strategy game through and through. As the strategy is mostly menu based, the lion’s share of the gameplay revolves around properly navigating the menus. Making the correct actions will lead to the player’s character advancing up through their society and hopefully help their faction rise to the top in the warring states of China.

Menu options range a lot, from enacting military plans such as training soldiers or going out on patrol, to more benign things like visiting with another officer. Some options depend purely on the character’s stats and abilities while others also rely on their relationships. The options available can also scale and change as the character works their way up or as they develop relationships with other characters.

Some actions have a chance of beginning a minigame of sorts. These minigames give the player more control over certain actions such as debates, duals, or full scale battles. Again, character stats come into play, but these usually shift the strategy such that the player has more direct involvement.

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A couple of the minigames are essentially the same thing with a different skin. Debates and duels amount to a rock-paper-scissors game. However, there are five total options and some of the options cost or regain a resource, either “will” or “spirit” depending on the mode. This adds a layer of strategy as the player knows their opponent may not have, or be incentivized to choose, certain options.

In my mind, the resource aspect of this minigame makes it a lot better. I’ve played a few games that use glorified rock-paper-scissors as a system (see Fate/Extra on the PSP) and it always felt more like luck than skill. But here, making selections with the opponent’s or the player’s will in mind adds an actual layer of skill to the luck.

The other “minigame,” which really isn’t all that mini, is the full scale battle. Easily my favorite aspect of the game, this system has the player directly controlling several troops in battle. They can order each officer, with their troops, to move and attack and officers each have their own special skills that can help turn the tide.

… I slowly began to feel out my footing …
This mode plays out in real-time, although the player can pause at any time should they decide they want to give orders. The battles incentivize using different tactics too, as terrain and mechanics like pincer attacks both play into the battle. One might, for example, try to draw an enemy commander into a bad position on a bridge and then surround them.

In a way, I like the individual components of the game more than the whole. The component games are interesting, at least in the small-ish doses the game doles them out in. But the overarching whole is really tough to get into. Knowing the possible outcomes of different actions let alone planning out a string of them didn’t come as naturally to me as in other strategy oriented games.

The game does try to help out somewhat. One entire mode, perhaps inaptly named Hero Mode, is essentially a glorified tutorial combined with the story. However the tutorials are obtuse enough that on more than one occasion I felt more like I was just flailing in the general direction they wanted me to go. I did learn things, but slowly and not in as enjoyable a way as the game probably hoped.

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In fact, I ended up eschewing the Hero Mode after a few missions instead opting just to jump into the game proper to see if I could figure it out as I went. Once I started getting going with the full set of options available to me, I slowly began to feel out my footing. It was still touch and go for how to do certain things but there are enough hints provided in the tooltips that I could suss out a general gameplan.

This main mode of the game hinges around a collection of scenarios. It drops the player into a specific time period in China with the goal of uniting the warring factions. The player can choose which faction to join or even tweak the scenario to include new factions. They can also join any character in a faction, which gives the scenario a different feel depending on if they start as a faction’s ruler or as a lowly officer.

Scenario Mode can also be customized through a variety of settings to make it easier or harder depending on the player’s needs. Some things make the main player character live longer while others affect the growth rate of cities. There are even options to force the CPU characters to try to behave according to history.

… it is incredibly dense and tough to break into …
Other modes let the player make adjustments to real officers or create custom officers who can, of course, be used in the Scenario Mode. Interestingly, there don’t seem to be limits on the custom character so it is entirely possible to make one who is essentially perfect.

Finally, the game includes a lot of unlockable extras as well as a full gallery of historical characters available in the game.

As I alluded to before, this game is really hardcore strategy. It certainly has appeal but at the same time it is incredibly dense and tough to break into. The controls leave a lot to be desired as well, with the game trying to mimic a mouse setup with the PS4 controller. Plus, for better or worse, individual campaigns can take incredibly long to play out in full from start to finish.

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Visuals:
Being mostly menu based, the game doesn’t need to try too hard on the graphics. I did find some of the menus to be a little too information heavy, making it difficult to determine which stats mattered. Usually once the game has enough options though, it will start to offer either suggestions or highlight possible outcomes.

Some things are represented visually though. Cities and towns are displayed, complete with folks bustling around on the streets. There’s an impressive sense of scale too, as zooming out from the town view will seamlessly jump into the map of local towns, to eventually the entire region, then the whole of China.

Other gameplay mechanics use the graphics to display the outcome of player actions. For example, duels graphically show the player and their opponent sparring on horseback as the player picks their rock-paper-scissors options. 2D portraits of the characters also serve as stand-ins when conversations take place or when the game displays a story cutscene.

The one mechanic that uses graphics more than menus is the full battle. Again, there’s a cool sense of scale, as being fully zoomed out shows the entire battlefield while zooming in gets to the point where individual units in a troop are shown. Unfortunately, this mode does sometimes cause the game’s framerate to dip but this doesn’t impact the gameplay in the least.

… I find the detail almost a little too stifling …
Audio:
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is, surprisingly, dual audio. Though the two spoken languages included are actually Japanese and Chinese. These are mostly for the Hero Mode story segments but characters will also give the occasional line of dialogue during Scenario play.

The soundtrack uses a lot of grand, sweeping instrumental music, especially during crucial moments in gameplay. Things get a little softer for the rest of the game but in a way that’s fitting for the style. The music wasn’t something I was often actively noticing but that may be for the best as my focus was pretty much pulled by understanding the gameplay.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only with no online component.

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Conclusion:
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is a hard game to come to a conclusion on. I feel like some of the very same things one player would like about the game, such as the slow nature or the attention to detail, would be a complete turn-off for another player. Even in the case that both of those players generally enjoyed strategy games.

Personally, I find the detail almost a little too stifling. The connection between some of the in-game actions and where my empire sits two hours of gameplay later, when I’m getting overrun by an enemy faction, is very loose. I can’t tell what I did wrong that lead to my city getting invaded and sacked, and I’m likely to just toss up my hands and close the game entirely.

Still, as a historical simulator, this had me intrigued. Even after I’d close out the game, a day later I felt compelled to jump back in, this time trying different settings: starting as a officer rather than a ruler or trying a different time period. Perhaps, given time, I could learn the systems enough to gain a much fuller appreciation for it.

It has enough upside that I would hesitantly recommend it to certain players. Not everyone, but to select people who might be interested in Chinese history or who can really get absorbed by a strategy game. My feeling is that it’s just okay but I know there are players out there who would love Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII.

Score:
6.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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Written by Andy Richardson

Andy Richardson

A longtime PlayStation fan who enjoys JRPGs and rhythm games when he’s not tweeting about his parrot.

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