Though one of the Four Great Classical Novels in Chinese literature, Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms is not exactly required reading in the US, yet many gaming titles based on it has made its way to stateside ranging from the polarizing Dynasty Warriors series to the sporadic mobile games that make use of both the popularity and copyright-free characters. Of these titles, the strategic Romance of the Three Kingdoms has garnered a stronger following outside rather than in the US. Already on its 13th iteration, the title comes to us again on the PS4 and manages to deliver a compelling, albeit flawed, experience for strategy fans.
The story is one that’s been told countless times. Toward the end of the Han dynasty, turbulence runs throughout the country and it has basically become a free-for-all with several lords vying for control of the future. The massive difference with the Three Kingdoms series is that, as a strategy game with no clear narrative, players are free to establish their own either as a lord or an officer under that lord. Unfortunately, previous titles had given players the opportunity to start pretty far into the “based on a real story” novel, but this iteration only allows players to start as far in as the battle of Chibi, or those of John Woo’s Red Cliff for any movie fans out there.
Uniting China is no small task and there are certainly many steps for it. Rather than throwing players into the lion’s den, the game’s Hero Mode provides an adequate introduction into the life of conflict-riddled Han while offering a retelling of the original novels. It is definitely comprehensive and will give players enough tools to conquer the land. However, it ultimately ends up being a frustrating, prolonged experience. Not only will it take upwards of several hours to complete, whether or not players watch the cutscenes, but many options and commands in the game are buried under several menus that it will take even experienced players some digging to complete their objectives.
Hero Mode, while comprehensive in both its introduction and retelling, proves insufficient in satiating players’ appetite for conquest. For that, players should jump into the game’s main mode, where they are tasked with either conquering or assisting a lord’s conquest of China. The freedom here can both be empowering and daunting, though that feeling quickly subsides if players choose a more subservient role with some directions from their respective rulers. Of course, if players were to choose the role of a ruler, there would be a lot more freedom and responsibilities to go with that role, which is satisfying in its own way, my personal favorite of which is what to ultimately do with prisoners of war. While it may certainly be tempting to rush through their conquest, players will quickly find that it is important to maintain all aspects of their cities before going out to destroy others. It is almost like a battle against time and a test of players’ abilities to manage the war against others and their own denizens.
In light of the multitude of tasks at players’ hands, the title has made multitasking a breeze with a handy set of orders to command of their officers on the screen’s display. Though it can be easy to get everyone in line to execute the ruler’s commands, the one annoyance is the real-time wait that players have to go through. This title is not for the impatient, even with the game’s ability to speed up time.
Aside from doling out orders, players will also have to take command of troops or partake in duels or debates. Battles amount to little more than positioning troops on a battlefield and watching a sea of low-polygon count squads fight it out. While there are different troop types available, each of which counters another, the overall strategy tends to come down to luring out the opposition and then sending troops en masse. Duels and debates end up being a little more involved, utilizing the game’s rock-paper-scissor system and the officers’ stats to determine a winner, emphasizing that players need to choose more qualified officers for certain tasks.
Though only released on the PS4 and PC in the United States, the title originally received a PS3 release in Japan and it definitely shows. Next to the drab landscapes and low-polygon troops, players can also expect framerate dips in battles that will certainly lead to frustration. However, one has to appreciate the gorgeously illustrated portraits of the game’s officers. Next to the title’s selection of music with a notable eastern tone behind it, the title is a proper homage to the Luo Guanzhong classic. Properly reflecting both the title’s pedigree and fanbase, Three Kingdoms XIII has both Japanese and Chinese audio tracks available for use as well.
For strategy fans, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is a satisfying experience that has a wide array of tasks to complete, all the while sporting some quality of life improvements over predecessors that make the title much more playable. Unfortunately, the title does have some technical flaws and simplistic battles that may make conquering China a little less inviting.