Review by admtanaka
A good game, but one that still suffers from all the familiar problems
I'll admit it, I'm a Romance of the Three Kingdoms fan. I've played almost every game in the series, and I've liked all of them as well. I've read the novel twice. And, being a relatively big fan of the series, I have learned that it is certainly not for everyone. All of the games, including this one, are very menu heavy, and almost entirely based in text. There are many ways to describe the graphics of Romance games, but "groundbreaking" or "flashy" are certainly not appropriate. Nevertheless, KOEI's longest running North American series is just that for a good reason - the developers focus on what the games do well, overshadowing what they don't.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms X is no exception. Like all the games before it, Romance X focuses on the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, which saw the once powerful Han dynasty crumble into rival warlord states, which eventually were consolidated into three distinct empires. Like several of its predecessors, Romance X allows the player to control any one officer during this turbulent time period, trading absolute control of an empire for a more RPG-styled approach (ala Romance 7 and 8 - and in contrast to Romance 9). I must say that I prefer the variety this approach gives to the gameplay.
Basically, the game gives the player the ability to choose from one out of 650 historical officers and play their role in uniting China, whether that role be the adviser to a ruler, a prefect of a city, a ruler himself, or even a mercenary warrior. It also adds the ability to throw up to 100 created officers into the mix. As the controlled character there are a multitude of tasks to complete, whether it is fighting in battles for your ruler, developing a city, forging relations with other officers, or assisting the townspeople in their daily lives. Although the game is certainly not as open ended as say, Morrowind, it does allow the player a great deal of freedom to develop his character as he feels fit, as well as providing a solid strategy backdrop.
The game is broken down into days, where every task takes a certain amount of days to complete. This is true whether your officer is fighting a battle, moving across China, or developing a city structure. This really adds an important element of realism to the gameplay that was lacking in previous versions, where officers could teleport from city to city almost overnight. The only casualty of this, however, is that it is completely incompatible with multiplayer (ahem, but not according to the box ~ KOEI made a minor mistake and advertised and sold the game as 1-8 players). I'll admit that while losing multiplayer really hurts the game, the vast improvement this system makes softens the blow of not being able to play with anyone else.
The gameplay has also been expanded so that there are always plenty of tasks for your officer to be completing, regardless of his rank. You can play a very more or less fulfilling game as an officer stationed in a backwater city who focuses on domestics and winning friends, although arguably the meat of the game is in fighting battles and winning territory. It is here that the game shares a similar fault with earlier renditions of the series - the battle AI simply isn't that good. Once a player gets a solid hold of the battle mechanics, it isn't too difficult crush an army 5 times larger than your own. In my time with the game, however, I've found that even with this somewhat questionable AI the game still maintains a decent challenge, since the controlled character can only be wiping the floor with the enemy in one place at a time.
There is also the option to wage a campaign for a large region of territory, engaging its entirety in battle at once. To be honest, I don't feel the designers did a very good job with this. There simply aren't enough options to make campaigns interesting, and almost all of the time the army with more soldiers wins. The few tactics that are available almost never work, and even if they do, their effects are negligible. This area of the game needed more tweaking before release.
Outside of battle, the designers have added the option to have the computer warlords act in accordance with how the events in the novel unfold. Of course, there is still a degree of randomness in the computer ruler's movements, but it is possible to play for quite a while following in an officer's footsteps throughout the novel, especially when choosing to play as an important officer. This really is a great feature because it adds a great bit of life to some of the earlier scenarios that could otherwise become stale. It also helps me to forgive the huge step backwards KOEI has made since Romance 8, where you could begin the game in any year between the Yellow Turban Rebellion and Zhuge Liang's death.
Graphically, I must say I was both impressed and disappointed in this game. Every individual officer has their own unique portrait, and I must admit that the designers have done some really phenomenal work here. Almost all the portraits are major improvements from earlier games in the series, and they frequently do a good job of speaking about the character's personality. The events of the game also come with very detailed, beautiful event stills that in some cases remind me of Renaissance paintings. My praise for the graphics, however, ends here. Battlefield graphics (and especially graphics in campaigns) are nothing that couldn't be done on the PS1, and the relatively few animated events (at least, compared to Romance 8) are not terribly impressive either. Fortunately, strategy games of this depth can often escape relatively unscathed from graphics criticism, but I would have appreciated a little more effort here.
The soundtrack, however, was quite impressive, but this almost seems par for the course for the series. Every region of China has its own unique city music, all of which I can honestly say fits the mood well. There are also several different tracks for the different events that take place throughout the game. Really my only complaint is that the game could stand to have a few more tracks just to add some variety. Although the music is really top notch, this is the kind of game that requires many hours of gameplay time, leading to a lot of the music repeating quite a bit.
Very few games can boast the replay value of Romance X. There are more than 200 items to find, plenty of events to unlock, more than 600 officers to meet, and dozens of forces to serve. Some games will follow the novel fairly closely, and others will end up completely different. With so many options, anyone who likes the game will certainly have the potential to be satisfied for a good while.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms X is certainly not a game for everybody. It suffers from lackluster graphics and a storyline that is very far removed from traditional western culture. Another review I've read has referred to the game as "esoteric," which may be a fair criticism. For players that are willing to devote the time and effort to learn its intricacies, however, this is certainly a game that can be both fun and rewarding to play.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
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