Genre: War Strategy Simulation
Release Date: June 21, 2005
Games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms X make it plain how badly we game journalists misuse the term “strategy game” when we apply it to titles like Disgaea and Final Fantasy Tactics. Those titles center on using tactics to get through a single battle at a time; Romance has you carefully plotting the course of a single soldier’s lifetime and the destiny in kingdoms. It sounds very broad and epic, but for the most part, the gameplay doesn’t live up to the titles potential. The Romance series has been running since the NES days with only minor alterations to the basic spirit and thrust of the gameplay, catering to a group of die-hard fans on a variety of platforms. While the old games in the series are legendary, this latest PS2 installment doesn’t seem to have done the basic gameplay of the series any favors. The PS2 version struck me as simply, and unfortunately, subpar. Only the biggest fans of Koei’s games will be able to enjoy this game at all.
It’s sad, because there are a lot of things in R3KX that should be lots of fun, and certainly aren’t bad ideas. The game builds several layers of complexity into its plan, in the interests of catering to both sophisticated vets of the series and new players. For instance, you can opt to play the game in several different modes that vary according to what kind of characters you want to use. Vets can design their own officer or pick one of the historical figures from the novel to play as, and newbies can take a “Personality Test” that will match them up with a beginning historical figure based on their answers to basic “what is important to you” questions. The danger of this, of course, is that not every type of character type is equally easy to learn the game with. For my first character, I got a diplomatic type of character that I was hopelessly incapable of learning how to play the game with. I had to try again and answer questions to make sure I got a more straightforward combat-ready kind of character, who was a bit easier to manage early in the game. Making an officer is a complicated affair that lets you customize your new character with amazing detail, and then basically go through a campaign with them. By playing with historical figures, you earn the chance to recruit other major characters from the games.
Regardless of what mode you play in, game flow is basically always the same. You start as a no-name character, and must first work to impress a major leader so you can become a Vassal. You impress a leader by giving gifts, having friendly conversations, and performing feats around the town that boost your Fame level. Once you’re suitably famous, you take orders from your ruler and do things to increase your class as officer. Prove yourself as a Vassal and you’ll become a Viceroy, ruling a city in your sovereign’s stead. The final game mode is Sovereign, where you basically begin controlling your own nation, full of your own Vassals and Officers, and pursue your own goals in campaign mode. The ultimate goal of the game seems to be conquering ancient China for yourself, but it’s a bit hard to tell since the game is so open-ended. I had as much fun simply becoming a super-famous Officer as I did trying to play as a Viceroy or Sovereign. Different game modes are keyed to different historical personalities, so you can cut directly to the kind of game you like by picking an appropriate historical character once you’ve unlocked him.
Now, conquering ancient China, or just wandering around in it having adventures, should be fun. Unfortunately, it’s not, because advancing from lower to higher game modes just boils down to endlessly going on fetch quests, spending money to raise stats, and other incredibly repetitive tasks. There are some minigames thrown in to break up the monotony, such as the sequence you go through for winning duels to becoming a debater. Unfortunately, how well you do in these sequences is basically a function of how high you can boost your character stats and how many skills you can get, so after the first few times they become intensely repetitive. The other main half of the game is in combat, where you can move units in a battle, or whole armies, around to do your bidding. Battle is actually fairly engrossing once you learn the complicated controls, and if you don’t want to you can just let the game’s AI take over and move units for you. The AI is fairly inefficient, though, and units you could win a battle with on your own can easily lose an automatically controlled fight. However, battles are very slow affairs, and quickly become tedious on maps that involve lots of units or uninteresting terrain. They’re also hurt by the game’s love of extremely powerful random events, such as rainstorms and flooding, as major forces in the outcome of a battle. Campaign scale battles are more fun and you can go through them a lot more quickly, but also lack the depth of the full-on pitched battles. In essence, the problem with R3KX’s gameplay is that most of the gameplay options are simply variations on a simple “use my big stats to make this happen” theme, and it becomes obvious that skill doesn’t matter much to anything but a handful of pitched battles and the full-on campaigns. Since you accomplish every task except for the various battles by simply clicking on highly similar menu options, the game starts to feel like a mind-numbing click-fest after only a few hours.
The game’s entertainment value is also seriously, seriously hurt by its highly antiquated sense of presentation. I’m not criticizing the game for relying mostly on still art and extremely tiny 2D sprites for the odd moment when you see something moving on-screen; it’s just the sheer indifference to showing the player anything happening on screen. The only 3D models you see in the game, from the dueling sequences, are incredibly tiny and lack any sort of interesting details or complex attack animations. Most of the 2D animations are just as simplistic, and also move with painful slowness even when using the “speed up” option. When you’re not in a special sequence like a battle, you don’t see animation at all; instead locations are represented by still art that never changes. You don’t even get alternate expressions for the various characters, or any chance to see full-body designs for them. It’s as if Koei went out of its way to strip the game of any possibility of lasting visual interest, which is hard to grasp given that attention to fine graphical details is a good part of what makes Dynasty Warriors a more engrossing game series than it should be.
Sound for the game is if anything worse than the visual presentation, which is saying a lot. The actual tracks are pretty good, if nothing mind-breaking, but in the course of a week’s worth of gameplay I heard about six different songs. One of them has a particularly grating synth approximation of an operatic male voice. This is, of course, the song you listen to the most. This is an appalling level of indifference to the player’s experience of a game; simply not putting any music in the game at all would’ve been kinder than repeating certain pieces so heavily. It’s especially disturbing given that the R3K games were once renowned for having beautiful scores, worked on by the likes of veteran Japanese composer Yoko Kanno. The game would’ve been vastly more enjoyable with a wider variety of music to listen to as you adventure, or even a screen where you could select songs to listen to. As it is, R3KX is very much a game where you turn the sound off entirely and just listen to something else as you play.
Die-hard fans are probably playing this game and enjoying it, but if you aren’t already one of those die-hards, give this game a pass. If you must play it, you’ll probably enjoy the PC version that has some online multiplayer options a lot more than the neutered PS2 port. R3KX is not a total failure of the game, and it’s possible to have fun with it for a few hours here and there, but it absolutely doesn’t live up to the franchise’s reputation. Back in the days when these titles were on the NES, R3K games were the yardstick by which obsessive gamers measured each other; if you could conquer one of these massively cerebral and difficult games, you earned the right to call yourself the best of the best. R3KX, with its lack of real challenge, story, or presentation values, is just not in any way a memorable game. Koei is capable of much better, as Dynasty Warriors and their upcoming PC title Uncharted Waters attests to, and there’s no excuse for releasing such a poor game under the name of what was once their flagship franchise.