Review by IKelley

Reviewed: 12/15/03

One of the best Three Kingdoms games out there

To say that Koei has made its fair share of Three Kingdoms games is an understatement--from the standard ''Romance of the Three Kingdoms'' strategy games to the somewhat bizarre ''Sangoku Musou'' roving beat-em-ups, Koei has made dozens of games based on Luo Guanzhong's classic novel. Sangokushi Eiketsuden is one of those Three Kingdoms games that slips under most peoples' radars, though it has been made in a number of formats, first on the Super Famicom, and also on the Saturn and Playstation. However, it's a shame that people miss out on it, because it's also one of the best.

Sangokushi Eiketsuden (literally, ''Legend of Heroes from the Three Kingdoms'') is a strategy-RPG in the same vein of many others, though it is probably closest to Nintendo's Fire Emblem series in the way it plays. You play the role of Liu Bei, trying to restore the Han Dynasty to its former glory. The game starts at about chapter 5 in the novel (with Cao Cao's edict to defeat Dong Zhuo) and play to more or less the conclusion. (which makes the game extremely long) Throughout the story, the game follows the narrative of the book very closely. In fact, I'd say Eiketsuden probably follows the novel more closely than just about any other Three Kingdoms title out there. For Three Kingdoms fans, this is probably going to be one of the most attractive qualities for this game. In fact, knowledge of the novel can give you a real edge in some places--if you know for example that X general defeats Y enemy at a certain point in the novel, you can maneuver your X general up to Y enemy, and more likely than not, you'll get a cutscene and a bonus level-up for that general.

In addition, the game even lets you deviate from the ''normal'' path of the novel--for example, if you play your cards right you can save Guan Yu where he normally dies in the novel (though doing so is admittedly extremely tough) and go on to form an alliance with the kingdom of Wu. Or, if you want, you can go the ''canonical'' route, let Guan Yu die, and then declare war on Wu in vengeance. There's a good amount of flexibility in the system. I haven't played all the possible paths so I don't know the extent of the branching, but you aren't totally riding on rails, which is a good thing. On the other hand, once you reach the point in the story where Liu Bei would normally have died, the entire ''follow the novel'' idea breaks down and goes a different direction. This is to be expected in a way (as obviously you can't have your hero die mid-game) but the ''filler'' story they put in at this point is not that great, and ends with one of the dumbest deus ex machinas I've seen in a while. Still, this is a minor quibble.

The gameplay engine is very similar to other games of the genre. At the start of each battle, you pick various units from your roster of allied generals (which starts at only 3, but can go to well over 50 as you recruit new allies) to take the field and fight the enemy. Each scenario has a cap on the number of generals allowed into battle, and in some your forces are pre-set, but for the most part you get to pick and choose who you want to send in. In each battle, you have turn limit, in which you must complete at least one of the objectives to win the scenario. Which you pick is your choice. For example, your objectives might be either ''defeat the enemy leader'' or ''move to the town at the edge of the map.'' Either will complete the scenario, though the rewards will differ. Most objectives are just ''defeat the enemy leader'' but there are quite a few stages with more complex tasks. There's a fair amount of strategy involved in which one you'll try to take on.

Eiketsuden features an interesting ''unit level-up'' system. There are four ''core'' unit types, each of which is in three tiers that can be ''upgraded'': Infantry, Cavalry, Archers, and Bandits. For example Archers can be upgraded to Crossbowmen, and Crossbowmen can be upgraded to Catapults. These upgrades require your unit to be a certain level, and you need the right class-change item as well. Each unit in the game has its own advantages and disadvantages; Infantry are your ''basic'' unit with few strengths but few weaknesses, Cavalry are powerful fighters, but with few Strategies (Eiketsuden's equivalent of magic) and very limited in the type of terrain they can cross, Archers can attack from a distance but are not very strong, and Bandits can cross virtually any type of terrain but have poor defense. In addition to these ''core'' unit types, there are many other different unit types that cannot be upgraded, but are just as useful: Martial Artists that are hybrid warriors/Fire users, Suppliers that can heal other units, Drummers that use a wide variety of Strategies, Animal Trainers that are hybrid warrior/healers, Foreigners that are like Bandits who can use flood attacks, and the powerful Magicians that can use virtually any Strategy in the game. Throughout the game, you can find a fair number of items that will allow you to change your character's class to one of these ''alternate'' jobs. There's quite a lot of strategy to figuring out who to use where, especially when you figure in equipment. (Anyone can use any weapon/armor/item, but much less effectively if they're not the right unit type) The differentiation between unit types allows for very varied and detailed fights.

However, despite the good points, Eiketsuden has its share of flaws. For starters, your party becomes just too large. It's nice that you get to play virtually every general that joins Liu Bei in the novel (and even a few that don't), but by the time you reach the end of the game it's essentially impossible to keep all your units at a decent level because there are so many of them. This is compounded by the problem that the enemies you face are generally at a higher level than your highest-level party member. The net result is that a lot of your less-frequently used units become obsolete quickly. Of course this is somewhat of a minor quibble. It's even less of a quibble if you exploit the system. (if you Run in the middle of a battle, it resets to the beginning, but you keep all the experience you had gained so far)

What's less of a minor quibble is that money is far too scarce in the game, and equipment too expensive. It's literally impossible (unless you cheat) to have even half of your army decked out in the best stuff you can buy. Your units can fight perfectly well without equipment, but as you're up against forces that are generally much more powerful than you, it's not exactly easy.

On that note, the difficulty in the game is a bit odd, as missions run the gamut from really easy to almost impossible. The enemy is almost invariably a lot more powerful than you, but the AI is rather stupid so usually it ends up a pretty fair match. Sometimes this cuts both ways--when you play a mission with computer-controlled allies, their AI stupidity tends to lead them to die very quickly. Overall, the AI could have used a bit of work. On the other hand, since you can't save in the middle of a battle and enemies are overpowered, perhaps that's for the best.

Overall however in the general scheme of things, these are just minor flaws in an overall great product. Sangokushi Eiketsuden provides a good base game system, an interesting and engaging story, lots of playtime, and is an all-around fun game to play.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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