The very first time I was a guest writer for Kotaku, I wrote about Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV, which was my favorite in the series. I’ve played ROTKIV too many times to count as its strategy gaming at its best. I did play many of the games after IV, but missed IX-XII. With the recent announcement of ROTKXIV, I picked up part XIII to see what had changed in the past decade and how the series had improved using the graphical capabilities of the PS4.
Honestly, I wanted to like Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII more than I did.
The Romance games are almost like Pokemon with famous historical figures from the eponymous Chinese saga, mixed together with the PC strategy classic, Civilization. In terms of the Three Kingdoms saga itself, think Game of Thrones fused with the works of Shakespeare, only set in China around 200 C.E., and you’ll have an idea of how important and influential it is in Asia.
What’s great about the games are that you can recruit some of the best generals and tacticians in the different factions, from warriors like Xu Chu and Zhao Yun, then unite them together under your banner. The epic novels were an important part of my childhood, so the possibility of rival warlords like Cao Cao and Lu Bu serving under Liu Bei blew my mind. I mentioned this in my last article, but I loved how the game let me rewrite history. Some of my favorite characters died under tragic circumstances in the novel. Through the ROTK games, I was able to rewrite their fates. Saving Guan Yu and Zhang Fei from dying when they did (and hence avoiding the fall of a grief-stricken Liu Bei going after Sun Quan, only to face disastrous consequences) was one of my favorite parts. Not only that, but the portrait art for the series has always been fantastic, and ROTKXIII has some of the best art in that sense. It gave many obscure characters a face, especially since the cast of hundreds in the books can be hard to keep track of.
While the core concepts remain similar, the execution in XIII was vastly different and there were lots of nice changes. The evolution of the interface and turned based elements confused me initially, but I liked how the game has embraced real time. In previous iterations, you were given the opportunity to make your commands city by city, then have your turn come to an end while other warlords made their moves. Now, everything is in real time and the days tick by, making things feel more natural. Need to go on a diplomatic mission? The game will tell you how many days you need and actually go with your step by step through the process. You can engage in debates with the advisors of foreign leaders to try to get them to do what you want as well.
The streamlining simplifies commands and delegation is important here. So is trusting your advisors, which will in turn improve your relationship and rapport. They’ll suggest a course of action via icons in the lower part of the screen, like training your soldiers to increase proficiency in spears, horses, and bows, or taking steps to improve commerce. You can also grab a drink together to strengthen your bond. This is an improvement over the older iterations, which basically amounted to giving your followers gold as gifts to increase their loyalty. The individual characters can also gain experience points by their actions in attributes like leadership, war, and intelligence, adding a RPG element to the gameplay. It’s a nice feature, allowing your characters to actually grow throughout the campaign instead of having their stats remain the same.
Koei has added the ability to build facilities like a tavern and brewery (which reminded me of Civilization) as well as research different techs to improve the city, like a sentiment boost or gate reinforcements. I do wish the individual cities could have done more to differentiate themselves based on their real world locations.
In the books, each city had its own unique characteristics and a fascinating history behind it, explaining, in part, why certain warlords wanted to acquire them. Incorporating some of those elements and maybe even allowing players to walk within the actual city would have been fascinating. For example, seeing the lush scenery of Chengdu would make the Shu capital feel as valuable as it did when Zhuge Liang first described the land to Liu Bei (I’ve visited Chengdu before and it’s really an amazing city). Actraiser back on the SNES did a great job making you actually care about each of the regions you lorded over. ROTKXIII does have different layouts for each city, but too many times, they become a list of stats that blended into one another with my primary focus turning to the border towns from where I could launch battles.
When it comes to warfare, there are some significant changes. Similar to the political/city building aspect, the fights take place in real-time. In one sense, there is a chaotic authenticity to the experience that makes them more engaging. You can deploy up to ten units per battlefield and call in reinforcements to assist you. The frenetic battles are like real time xiangqi (Chinese chess) and include naval battles and siege warfare. The strategic aspect can be overwhelming at first, even with the ability to pause. I sent a few armies to take over an opposing castle, only to face a flood of reinforcements pouring in all at once against me. It was a tough battle that I lost, until I realized I could use this as a ploy. I’d send out one massive army first, which would cause reinforcements from my enemies to send their armies and leave behind only nominal forces to defend their other cities. I’d send in other units to mop up those other areas. Rinse and repeat.
My biggest disappointment is that the graphics look like they could have been on the PS1 or PS2. I know the ROTK games have never been about the graphics, but ROTKIII has fantastic cutscenes and Koei has shown they can recreate amazing battles in the Dynasty Warrior games. XIII’s cluster of low-polygonal soldiers moving about the battlefield felt just a notch about what I’d experienced on consoles from previous generations. At the least, I was hoping to see the armies led by the officers I’d chosen. While there are portraits of the generals above each army, I wanted to see the stronger warriors actually mow down foot soldiers in battle. Seeing how each of the characters fights in the book was part of their character building, like the way Guan Yu kills a dangerous foe before the wine he was offered by Cao Cao cooled down, or Zhang Fei faces off against the entirety of Cao Cao’s army by himself on the Changban Bridge.
While there are duels in ROTKXIII, the one-on-one confrontations plays out more like rock-paper-scissors. I know this is the way it’s been in the past, but some evolution here would have been welcome, especially if they gave players more control over the individual fights.
A lot of my requests have to do with the fact that with every new iteration, my expectations grow. There are several Three Kingdoms TV shows and movies, and the battles are some of the most memorable parts with long arrays of soldiers facing off against one another. Often times, the victory isn’t about who has the most soldiers; it’s about which generals and tacticians understand the enemy psychology to exploit them. This was the case in the John Woo directed film, Red Cliff, which was about the great Battle of Chibi from the Three Kingdoms, showcasing the machinations of Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu against Cao Cao.
ROTKXIII doesn’t recreate that epic scale, but clumps individual units until they kind of blend into one another. With the power of the PS4, I wished Koei could have brought battles from films like Red Cliff to life. It didn’t have to go full Dynasty Warriors, but more accurate visual representation would have made the game’s battles have so much more gravity. Instead, I have to admit, at times, it felt like the tactical strategy analog of grinding for experience levels (each castle powering up your force).
One other change I felt conflicted about was that soldiers are no longer drafted as a command, but automatically enlisted depending on the city you’re in and its population. I didn’t like this change because it took away from the sense of control. While untrained soldiers don’t last long against battle hardened ones, this automation at times felt like it prolonged battles as foes would just keep respawning indefinitely.
But ultimately, the most important question and the one that matters most is, how fun is Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII? And that’s the thing. Despite all my gripes, despite my longing for better visuals, I couldn’t stop playing. The core of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games are so good, all these decades later, I spent several nights unable to stop playing it.
I generally select Liu Bei and pick the timeline when the three kingdoms are already set up with tactical genius, Zhuge Liang, by my side. There are six scenarios and a story mode as well that serves as a useful tutorial campaign and an introduction to the story.
A big reason I wanted to dive back into the latest Romance of the Three Kingdoms game is that there’s a newer version of the Chinese show that I’ve been enjoying. The actor who plays Cao Cao, Chen Jianbin, was awesome. Cao Cao is often portrayed as an evil warlord, but I liked this more balanced portrayal of a leader who instituted a strong meritocracy and brought order to the world. Chen Jianbin does a great job showing Cao Cao’s charm, leadership, and ruthlessness when it comes to achieving his objective. “I’d rather betray the world, than let the world betray me,” Cao Cao famously declared. While he’s magnanimous to those who serve him loyally, he’ll also take whatever steps are necessary to secure his power.
What makes the series so attractive are the timeless stories. Fate, injustice, persistence, and interpersonal relationships are at the forefront of every scene. There’s the supremely powerful, but ultimately incompetent, Yuan Shao, who is as frustrating a boss as a person can have. There’s Sun Ce, toiling under a master he hates, until he seizes his own destiny and carves out his own empire in the Wu region.
The story occurs across multiple generations and small actions that happened decades ago come back to have a major impact later in the narrative. While some of the story is “romanticized,” as the title suggests, it’s based on actual history, making it all the more compelling. Just recently, I was going through a very difficult time, struggling with the situation. In Episode 14 of the Three Kingdoms show, I was deeply moved to watch the plight of Liu Bei during a disastrous campaign where he’s ordered to attack the rebel, Yuan Shu. The close friend he appointed as governor of their capital, Zhang Fei, loses the city in a drunken bout to the rival general Lu Bu. Liu Bei then finds himself pinned between the fiercely treacherous Lu Bu on his rear, and his enemy, the corrupt warlord Yuan Shu. Liu Bei’s trusted friend, Zhang Fei, has failed him, he’s lost his family, and his life is at risk. “There is no refuge for us,” Liu Bei states in despair. “We can neither go forward nor retreat. Is Heaven truly determined to destroy me?” In this moment of trial, he doesn’t get upset and try to get vengeance or retrieve the castle that was stolen from him in what would have been a futile attempt, despite his generals wanting to do that. Liu Bei carefully considers his options, and acts with humility and compassion towards Zhang Fei. His acceptance of his fate, and his strength in confronting defeat with dignity and honor, was very powerful for me, and a reminder to always keep your eye on the bigger picture.
There are so many stories like this I can recount, numerous times where lessons from Three Kingdoms have helped me navigate some of the trickier situations in my life. The chance to simulate some of my favorite stories is what makes all the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games so special. And it’s also why decades from now, despite any quibbles, I’ll probably still be playing whatever number the series is at.