Romance Of The Three Kingdoms XI PS2, PC Review

Ahh, Koei. Quite literally one of the world’s greatest game developers, bringing us such delights as the Dynasty Warriors series, the glorious Gitaroo Man, and even publishing the Nippon Ichi back-catalogue and Persona 3 here in Europe. They are, however, best known for their historically accurate simulations; the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series (or RotTKXI, from now on, due to me being a lazy journalist), based on the tome of the same name. As far back as the NES, gamers have been taking part in the battles that actually took place in the turbulent years of early AD feudal China. Starting out as a game revolving around resource management and strategic unit combat, since the series hit the PS2 an RPG element has been added, allowing the player to take up other roles within the kingdom, rather than just being the ruler.

I was first introduced to the series with its tenth instalment about a year or so ago, due to a review on the incredible (and much missed) Consolevania. The boys had thrown up a few recommendations that I had tried out in the past, and they’d hit the spot completely, so I figured it was worth giving them another go. At first, I thought they’d got it horribly wrong this time. It is slow – painfully slow, at times – and all you really do is navigate through a series of menus and read more text than even the author of the original novel, Luo Ghanzhong, could be bothered to write. However, after giving it a few hours to learn the ropes and start to truly have a grasp over your empire, you are suddenly hopelessly addicted. Be it socializing with fellow officers, upping the taxes or even giving the call to send your men to battle, each little thing becomes key to your overall goal of conquering China. Somehow, Koei have managed to create simultaneously the most boring and most exciting game ever made.

Now, presumably few of you have experience in ruling over your own dynasty. Koei seem aware of this, and have created a tutorial so all of us less-experienced potential rulers can catch up on what it takes to be a successful warlord. As it turns out, it takes quite a lot. The tutorial here is practically a game in its own right, taking a few hours to truly get to the bottom of each menu and facet of gameplay. Quite honestly, how anyone expects your average Dynasty Warriors fan to sit through this is clearly some kind of a fool. The reward, however, is one of the deepest and richest strategy games you’ll ever play. Thing is, if you’ve come this far, chances are you already knew that. You already knew about the sheer level of micro-management on offer. Building armies right down to single unit details, raising and lowering taxes and meeting with various dignitaries, all with that final goal of conquering China.

So, what’s new this time? First of all, everything has been given a welcome facelift. The main map screen is now rendered fully in 3D, with units getting a really nice touch of cel-shading. The menus have been further streamlined and in doing so have actually increased the speed of some aspects of the game. You no longer have to flip between several different screens just to manage your people or enter a battle, as all of this can be done from the new universal map. For seasoned players, this is by far the most intriguing change. Keeping track of your empire’s expansion and the various battles that take place is so much easier with everything laid out on this new grid-based screen. When you’re keeping track of battles on several fronts, scrolling backwards and forwards between your armies and keeping track of what is happening close to home, you’ll be thankful of this simple addition to the usual interface.

Sometimes though, turn-based just doesn’t cut it and you’ve got to get your hands dirty with some “real-time” action. The duels are one of the most fun parts of the game; you and another general hacking away at each others’ health over the course of fifty quick-fire turns. It uses a rock/paper/scissors method to work out what attacks are effective/defended and adds a surprising sense of pace and urgency to an otherwise notoriously plodding game.

It is LONG, too. As if the multiple-hour tutorials didn’t give you that impression, over the 20+ campaigns, very few will take you any less than ten hours to complete properly. There is a lot of game on offer here, even without taking into consideration the sheer amount of source material available to read in the menu screen – to be honest, you’re probably better off getting yourself a copy of the book! You can also tinker with almost every aspect of the skirmishes, from stuff like historical deaths, to whether or not women officers will be present to allow magic use!

As a slight criticism, the version we played is the for the PC, and it suffers slightly from “console conversion-itis”. All of the menus and interface seem geared towards control pad use, but as a strategy game, it doesn’t annoy quite as much as it does in, say, Oblivion. Ugh.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with RotTK also happens to be its biggest strength. It makes no attempt to open itself up to newcomers, instead choosing to continue to revel in its deep historical accuracy. Casual gamers should stay well away – unless of course, they are actively seeking a cure for insomnia. For those of you with the patience to learn the ins and outs of ruling an empire, there is very little out there as deep as the RotTK games. Personally, this review says full power to them. It is refreshing to see a game so unflinchingly, so stubbornly sticking by its guns to deliver a gaming experience that may not be to everyone’s tastes, but for those who it does appeal to, there simply is no substitute.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI is almost certainly the last of the series on this generation of consoles, and does leave one wondering where exactly are they going to take it next? It’s not like there are going to be any more chapters added to the original novel (and its a long enough read as it is). Adding these extra bells and whistles to the already solid formula make this a worthwhile purchase to newcomers even slightly interested in the series, whereas seasoned RotTK players will either give this one a miss or find some fun tinkering with the new additions. Either way, Koei have delivered another top quality entry in the genre they do better than anyone else. Here at DarkZero, we await the first truly next-gen version with bated breath.

7 out of 10
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