Review by Black Rabite

Reviewed: 07/06/05 | Updated: 06/12/06

I'm a hopeless romantic.

The tenth installment in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series has finally rolled around, and the series is just as fun as it's ever been. Once again, Koei is able to milk the Three Kingdoms era for another stellar title, and although it has its problems like every other game in the series, it’s got a whole lot going for it as well.

If you’ve never played a Romance of the Three Kingdoms game before, or at least some kind of micro-management strategy game, you’ll be lost right from the start. There’s no shortage of things you can do in this game, and someone new to the genre is going to have a tough time figuring everything out at first. Thankfully, Koei has placed a tutorial in the game. Every time you attempt to do something you've never done before, such as if you go to the Market to raise trade or if your sovereign orders you to drill a troop of soldiers, you’ll be met with instructional dialogue before you do so. Pretty much everything has a tutorial associated with it, and each one of them clearly explains how to go about doing every little thing. Once you get the hang of everything you can remove the tutorials from taking place in the options screen.

The point of the game, put simply, is to unite China. It would be hard enough if you were just trying to take castle after castle, but you're going to be facing a multitude of other rulers who all want to see China united under their banner, and they're not about to sit on the sidelines and watch you. The way you go about unifying the continent, however, is up to you. You can start up your own army and travel around the land, causing havoc for everyone and sparing no one, though you'll actually be unable to unify the continent while doing this. You can play as a lowly free officer, where you can do all of the basic commands but you have to get a move on whenever the ruler calls out your name, or as my favorite position the prefect, where you don’t get total control of the entire empire, but you get to take on the day-to-day dealings of a single city. You still take orders from you're ruler, but these orders aren't the peasant duty you were previously doing but more general guidelines of what he expects you to accomplish over the next few months. You can also play as the ruler if you’d like, although I’m much more content keeping a single city in good spirits, let alone the entire land.

Some of the options you’ll be using frequently from the very beginning until the bitter end are the domestic options. Farming, Trade, Tech and Defense are the statistics that you’ll be raising in every one of your cities, as well as Order which you’ll always need to keep an eye on as it lowers every time someone manages one of the former tasks. As you go around towns, there are little icons; they remind me of the upper torso of a Lego man, which indicate that another officer is doing something at that location. You can talk to the officer there if you want and the more you converse with a specific officer the closer you'll become to them. Once they trust you, you can learn skills and gain experience by learning from them, or you can even teach them a thing or two yourself. Officers that don’t belong to your force can be persuaded to join you, although it's much more likely that a free officer is going to join you compared to an officer of another force. You'll have to be best friends with them and do some sneaky work to lower their loyalty before you can even think about getting them to defect.

Each town is slightly different outside of the main areas. Some towns might have a foundry while another may have a lecture hall. These aren't one-of-a-kind facilities but they also don't appear in every single location. There’s also a tavern in each town, where you can take requests if you want. If you complete the request successfully, your officer’s fame will increase, as well as receiving a little money and one other perk, which is different based on the request. Some requests might send you to the marketplace to help teach a child math skills, where another one might send you to duel someone causing trouble. There are also a few more advanced requests that ask you to do things like create a map of China, which requires you to visit every city in the game once.

Dueling in this game is essentially a glorified version of rock, paper, scissors with a few more options available. I’m sure some of you used to play this kind of version when you were a kid. When your friend threw rock, you threw volcano or meteor or some other crazy, natural disaster. Well, that’s kind of the situation you’re in here, but with three choices each turn instead of one. There are three basic commands, which form a line of superiority instead of the triangle found in normal rock, paper, scissors games. Stab attacks are the strongest, followed by Slice attacks and then Sweep attacks. Attacks that are of the same value are null, and an aura appears between you and your opponent, signifying that the next successful attack will deal extra damage. You can also choose to evade an attack or guard against one. If you evade an attack, it will do no damage unless your opponent used a Sweep attack. In addition to not doing any damage, the enemy won't get to take its chosen action on the next attack. Then you have special commands, like Pound and Rush, which take up all three slots of your turn but do some amazing damage and invalidate your opponent’s entire turn, unless they got lucky and chose to evade when your special would have connected.

If you decide to play as a character that relies more on his wits than his muscles, there are debates as well. Debates place you and your opponent on a bridge, and the goal is to push them all the way to the other side, forcing them to recognize you as being more intelligent, or at least better suited at twisting others words around. Each turn you’re given a pool of circles to choose from. Each one is one of three colors and has a number one through nine in it. If you selected the higher number, your attack pushes your opposition farther across the bridge. Either way, both attacks are put down in a 3x3 board in the corner which contains the numbers one through nine. If at any time your attack makes a row of three on that board, an additional attack will occur. If all three were of the same color, you’ll push your opponent quite far across the bridge, but if all three are of different colors, you’ll suffer the damage yourself. Also, once it happens you’ll be going for the lowest number instead of the highest from then on. There are also skills, like in duels, which do different things. Some you just hold on to and they’ll automatically counter attacks by your opponent, where others can refresh your available choices or randomly mix up the numbers on the board. There's also the strongest skill available which will do good damage to your opponent and make him unable to do anything for the next two turns, essentially giving you a win. Early on in the game debating is going to be a lot harder than dueling, not only because you're likely to play as a warrior instead of a tactician your first time through but mainly because skills are so much more important in debating than they are in dueling.

In between raising your trade and defense values, you’ll also be recruiting troops into your army. Each unit of the army can hold up to 10,000 soldiers and can be of the Foot, Horse or Bow variety. Just like before, these are treated in a rock, paper scissors fashion, where the infantry loses to the cavalry, the cavalry loses to the archers, and the archers lose to the infantry. Of course, if you’ve got 10,000 troops in a Foot army and you attack a Horse army with 2,000, you’ll do just as much damage, if not more, than they do, and even though bow troops are rated better than horse, a frontal attack will still deal more damage to the archers than the cavalry.

Once you give the order to march, you’re given the option to choose which of your armies you want to take with you. As your character grows and becomes a higher ranked officer, he’s able to command more armies at once, which will eventually max out at ten armies of 10,000 troops. Then your army starts on its march to the opponent’s city, where you’ll revert over to a grid based battle style that’s seen in many Strategy Rpgs like Front Mission or Tactics Ogre. Each individual unit is given so many action points to use each day, and you’ll have to decide how you want to use them. You might want to use them all and launch seven attacks against a single troop. You might want to attack an adjacent troop twice, move to the left one square and hit another troop twice. Maybe you’ll run away, or spend your turn trying to scale the walls of the castle you're besieging.

Winning a battle is done in two ways. You either have to defeat the enemy commander (or defeat the entire opposition if you want), or you can destroy the main garrison of the enemy. If you destroy the commander, it’s all over, and you win. If you destroy the garrison, you’ll be taken inside the city for a second battle, where your forces and the enemies will be placed again, neither of you refreshed. The second battle is the same as the first, although this time when you take the capitol of the city, you win completely. No third battle. The enemy wins when it defeats your leader, if you retreat or if thirty days run out. If the second battle inside the city breaks out, you start with a fresh thirty days, so don't give up if you're on Day 28 and you're just breaking into the city. If you’re successful the castle comes under your control and its one step closer to complete domination of China. Usually the game will ask if you want to move to the town you just took over as the prefect, but your ruler may turn you down even if you say yes.

You can also request reinforcements before you officially march on the enemy. Your ruler or the viceroy of the area will decide whether reinforcements are needed in the situation, and send them to you if they want. Don't get mad and contemplate overthrowing your leader if he refuses you, he might not have much to spare at the moment. Other things you might want to set up before marching are ships and war machines, both of which can help during the battle a lot. Without war machines, taking down a garrison is going to be mighty hard, and without ships you might find yourself getting caught up in the currents of a river and being washed away from the battle all together.

Sooner or later though, you’ll find yourself tiring of these charades, and you’ll want to put an end to the other kingdoms once and for all. That’s where campaigns come in. When you start a campaign, every city in the district is represented in one massive battle. To win, you have to take your troops and wipe out every single enemy in the entire district. There’s no worrying about who is in what formation as every unit in each individual town is lumped into their own icon representing that town, so it’s quite common to see armies of 100,000 and 90,000. Once a campaign is completed, every city in that district will fall under your control. While the campaign itself takes a long time to finish if you're up against another strong force, it’s a lot quicker than normal battles in the long run and as far as I can tell you’re immune from outsiders attacking you while a campaign is underway.

The story of the series is the same in every game, and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series has become more known to gamers thanks in part to Dynasty Warriors. It’s based around an early period in Chinese history where many forces were trying to unify the country under their own banner, and you play as an actual hero of the time period, or an anti-hero if you choose. The big guns of the game are Sun Ce, Cao Cao and Liu Bei. You can play as any of the three, a friend of theirs, a family member, of just some random officer, but the story of the game is essentially whatever you want it to be. If you want some upstart who would normally fall under the weight of the three superpowers to come out the victor, that’s entirely possible. If you’d like to, you could create your own kingdom and completely re-write history from the ground up. All in all, the story is a great experience, and the novel is readily available online if you ever desire to find out more. There are eight scenarios, all of them pretty much the same other than the year in which they start, and a ninth scenario you can unlock that makes every officer ageless, so you can really test who the best of the best is.

On the note of creating your own force with which to destroy the infidels, you’re allowed to create 110 officers in the game yourself. Each officer is customizable outside of their skill sets, which later becomes fully customizable as well if you can figure out how to unlock the option. You can create a god among men, and give your character 100 in every stat, or you can create a Liu Chan, and have every stat in the single digits. It’s entirely up to you. Skills are given out randomly, but you can choose to exchange them an unlimited amount of times for a new set of random skills. You get to set what year your officer was born, how long he lives, what his portrait in the game is, as well as his demeanor and attitude in the game. You can decide who his father is, if he has a wife and his closest confidante. You can then place these created officers in their own force, or you can have them serve any of the already existing forces to bolster their rosters.

The graphics have never been the selling point of this series, and they still aren't, but this time around things are looking very good. The main map of China looks better than ever. Each officer has his own, unique portrait of which most are very well done. There's the occasional stinker but it would be hard not to find one out of so many. The actual battlefields look nice, although the army sprites are still pretty bland themselves. If you’ve ever played a Romance of the Three Kingdoms game before you’ll enjoy the graphics, as they’re easily the best the series has ever seen, but someone new to the series will probably be scratching their heads initially, wondering why the game looks so bad compared to the last few games they purchased. There’s just too much in the game itself that the graphics have never had the chance to fully develop.

The music in the game is passive. The entire game sounds great, and they use instruments to try and make the game feel like ancient China through sound alone. They succeed in doing so slightly, but you’ll be hearing certain tracks so often that you’ll eventually just ignore them. It's not uncommon for the music to change and to not take notice of it at all. Sound effects are pretty much run of the mill slashing, crashing, banging and whooshing sounds.

With everything the game offers, one would think the controls would be impossible for someone new to get the hang of. Not so. The L1 and R1 buttons cycle through lists, L2 sorts lists, X is the accept button and O is the cancel button. The only thing you might want to watch out for is using X to speed up dialogue. It’s a lot safer to use the square button instead, as sometimes you’ll be holding X down and out of nowhere you just made some kind of choice without knowing it or having any idea what the question even was, and the effects of the choice aren't always readily known.

Replayability is through the roof. Not only are there around 650 unique officers as well as all you’re created ones, but the game keeps track of all the portraits you’ve seen. Collecting everything will take a long, long time, and even after you do finally get everything, if you do, the game is still fun to just pick up and play. Doing everything in a single playthrough is most likely impossible. There might be some strict guidelines you can follow to get everything, but you wouldn’t have any fun doing so. If you’re a completionist, expect to play through the game a number of times. I've played through at least ten times and still don't have all of the portraits. I don’t know if this has already been fixed, or if it’s going to be fixed eventually, but the back of the game claims it supports 1-8 players. This is not true. This time around it’s one player only, so if you planned on picking the game up and waging war against a good friend, think again. It’s worth it regardless, but multiplayer is a major selling point to some.

In the end, the game manages to be the best the series has ever offered to its fans. It’s still not perfect, but it’s never been and probably never will be. It’s a niche series that’s never gotten much critical acclaim stateside, and that may be for the better, but every time the next installment is announced for the PC I can't help but think that it's not going to get a console port, and I can't help but think the port won't get localized. So, go ahead and buy this one, because who knows if Romance of the Three Kingdoms 11 is even going to be an option.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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