If you don’t already know who these people are, Romance of the Three Kingdoms 13 is not for you

By Brenna Hillier, Tuesday, 5 July 2016 15:41 GMT

Why would anyone do this to themselves? And while we’re asking questions, how do we stop?

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I found it very difficult to start playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms 13 – and then, as with so many strategic simulator sandboxes of this kind, I found it very difficult to stop.

I haven’t finished the game successfully even once. I’ve not played any of the previous 12 games. I’m not very good at or experienced with strategy games. Nevertheless I’m here today to talk about Romance of the Three Kingdoms 13 because I’m a great big old Three Kingdoms nerd.

“Three Kingdoms” is the historical shorthand name for a period of about 60 years in Chinese history when the Han dynasty collapsed and everyone decided to get a piece of the pie for themselves. It takes its name from the division of China into an uneasy three-way split, which then imploded spectacularly, largely because people are people.

Life is a rich tapestry and human history is full of interesting times, but the Three Kingdoms period stands out thanks to Luo Guanzhong’s novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Published sometime in the 14th century – over a millennia after the events it describes – it’s a historical saga of 120 chapters, 800,000 words and over 1,000 characters. Not exactly light reading, then, but its blend of historical fact, legend, and total nonsense (more politely, poetic license and political bias) is presented so compellingly that it’s worth the effort of remembering who’s who. It feels surprisingly modern and accessible, but it’s the larger-than-life characters that have cemented its place as one of, and perhaps the, most important work in the classical Chinese canon.

It’s difficult to communicate the mental real estate Romance of the Three Kingdoms occupies in East Asia. The nearest western analogue I can think off is the Arthurian legends; stories everyone sort of knows, partly true. But Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a much bigger deal than that: one of the key characters, Guan Yu, was deified as a god of war and is worshipped to this day. Parents still scare their children into obedience by telling them Zhang Liao will come for them. And these were real people; real people whose deeds shaped a political landscape in ways that mattered for well over a thousand years, whose might and ambition and cunning are still discussed long after their last known descendants are dead.

I initially got into Three Kingdoms through Dynasty Warriors and never looked back; I play Dynasty Warriors now because I love Three Kingdoms stuff. I’m not sorry. I’ll never be sorry. Who wants to talk about Xiahou Dun eating his own eyeball after pulling the arrow out of his eye socket? Sign me the heck up for Romance of the Three Kingdoms 13. I’ll endure any number of menus.

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I’m usually dead before this stage.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms series predates Dynasty Warriors and although it shares a number of assets it’s nothing like it – or even like the strategy-lite Empire spin-off series. A far more serious affair, it ignores the fabulously camp evolution of the action series in favour of dignified, historically informed depictions. Everything’s toned down, restrained, refined; it’s serious business.

Serious business means no more leaving the difficulty on default and smashing one button to overcome the battlefield; Romance of Three Kingdoms is both a grand strategy and a tactics game, and most of the gameplay is looking at menus.

The first time I fired up Romance of the Three Kingdoms 13 I was reminded, painfully, of my regular, ill-fated attempts to get to grips with Crusader Kings 2. Just … menus. Menus, menus, menus. Walls of text. What do they all do? What are you supposed to do with them? What do they mean. Fuck knows.

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This is Zhang Liao. He’s a badass. But throw a rock, you’ll hit a badass.

Luckily, there’s a Hero Mode which serves both to introduce you to the key characters and historical events and to teach you how to play the game, and it’s pretty good – as long as you don’t accidentally skip through a few vital pages, which is disastrously easy to do because the controls are complete nonsense.

I know strategy games and control pads will never be best of friends but Koei Tecmo should think quite hard about why analog sticks work here but not there, why simple actions require combination keys to enact, why the confirm key is usually Triangle but sometimes not, why selecting individual units is do damned finicky, and so on and so on – right up until I have a rage stroke.

The controls are annoying but attention to on-screen prompts and a willingness to memorise unintuitive shortcuts will sort that out. What it won’t sort out is the terrible presentation. Perhaps it all looks a lot better in Japanese or Chinese, but somehow I doubt it. It’s not just that it’s all so text-heavy and unfriendly; the layouts don’t make a lot of sense, with vital menus buried under pages of stuff you’ll need far less often, and painfully obtuse positioning like two identically labelled columns of links. It’s a great detraction from the charming bits, like the way your little officer gallops about the map on a tiny horse.

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I have been promoted but I don’t know what my new role involves. Just like real life!

Assuming you manage to successfully master the game concepts and umpteen menus, you can graduate to the main mode – a sandbox in which you can choose a recommended character, any rando who catches your fancy – or even invent a bunch of original characters and sow them through the game. Your goal is then to be on the winning team when China is unified, whether you are lord of an enormous empire or still just some rando who looks after a region out in the boonies while the real work goes on elsewhere.

The freedom is daunting, and if like me you’re a bit average in the whole grand strategy area you may be happier quietly never being promoted. Being promoted means you have to spend a lot of time trying to make people like you so you can get them to introduce their friends and hire them to look after the empty cities you keep conquering.

What I like best is fights. In fights you control the movement of your units and it’s just like those strategy maps you see in documentaries; big sweeping arrows showing the direction of your march. You want to get the enemy in a pincer and never be in a pincer yourself. The small complications of special attacks, bases, siege weapons and fortifications are just additives to charging back and forth across the map trying to trick your enemy into running into a canyon so you can backstab ‘em, something I find deeply satisfying.

Sometimes in the middle of a fight you or another officer will get into a duel, which plays out as a sort of rock, paper scissors over five rounds, heavily weighted by the combatants’ skills and attributes. This exact same system is also used in politics, but reskinned as debating. I have only the vaguest idea how it all works despite participating in dozens of these encounters, but it’s very dramatic and exciting.

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Typical debate scene.

Despite these whimsical delights, even a casual strategy observer like myself can see that Romance of the Three Kingdoms 13 is outclassed by practically anything Paradox or The Creative Assembly produces. It’s saved by the strength of its source material, and you probably already know your mileage on that one; if you don’t feel a burning urge to chum it up with Liu Bei and pals, you’re probably better off going with something more user-friendly. This is a 30 year old series (the first game released in 1985); in all that time you’d think Koei would have picked up a copy of Total War.

Personally, I found it very difficult to start playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms 13 – and then, as with so many strategic simulator sandboxes of this kind, I found it very difficult to stop. “Just one more turn” inevitably leads to very late nights and missed appointments, and I’m forever hoping that this restart – this one – will finally be the one where I don’t succumb to disaster a few years into my ill-advised expansionist campaigns.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms releases today for PC and PS4.

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