The Romance of the Three Kingdoms series is well-known among hardcore turn-based strategy fans as one of the pinnacle examples of the genre. Set in a fascinating revisionist version of Chinese history, the games have consistently provided a methodical, meticulous experience that defies the pace of their quicker RTS cousins. Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI is no different in this respect, and it's sure to attract the same crowd that its previous 10 incarnations have drawn. With such a severe and punitive learning curve, though, it isn't likely to offer much to the entry-level armchair strategist.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI presents a hefty variety of campaigns to play, each set during a different conflict of the period. The player steps into the shoes of any of a number of generals bent on a slow, methodical domination of China. To accomplish this lofty goal, the player is tasked with monitoring and managing a grocery list of resources and stats, each critical for the success of the kingdom. Complicating matters further, several of these resources are intricately interwoven and most often inversely related. Recruiting new troops, for instance, reduces a city's Order. In turn, Order dictates how effective all interactions within a town will be, and it affects the maximum revenue a town can generate.
To battle this never-ending cycle of resource generation/degradation, each city under the player's control is allotted a number of action points at the beginning of the turn. These points fuel the abilities and tasks by which the player can wrest control over the chaotic and deadly menagerie of numerals. To build massive armies, leaders will need income and food, assets that can be provided by building markets and farms, respectively. There are upgrade buildings that increase the output of adjacent stalls, but land is extremely limited so the player needs to stick to some sort of city planning model.
Specific officers will need to be put in charge of the duties to which they are most suited. Like cities, each officer comes complete with an entire set of stats that indicates his relative strengths and weaknesses. Put an officer with low Charisma in charge of recruitment, and you'll bring in fewer fresh troops. Send an officer with sub-optimal Intelligence into a debate, and he'll get thrashed. Charge a subordinate with a high War score to fight an enemy, and you'll stand a much better chance of surviving the fray. Every action performed within the city requires direct oversight from an officer, so it's important to hire new ones when possible. Unfortunately, it's often difficult to find competent and affordable ones —not unlike in life.
The raw number of troops recruited is largely meaningless. For one thing, the player will need to constantly spend action points on inspections, which restore order and allow for better financial and material returns. Further, budding armies will have a low Will score, which can be improved by running drills against officers with high War stat. Finally, the forming horde must be kitted out, with equipment following a fairly standard rock-paper-scissors (RPS) system. With all of these steps complete, and a suitable officer and two deputies assigned, units can be fielded with at least some chance for success.
This process, which can take hours to come to fruition, is repeated in every city that the player controls. Thankfully, each city subsists on its own pool of action points, so several armies can be developed concurrently. Nonetheless, the minuscule number of points and relative difficulty of completing objectives per turn lends itself to glacially slow gameplay. While the pace is inarguably more realistic than most other strategy games, this is a case in which realism doesn't necessarily equate to fun. The frustrating time factor frequently led my uninitiated mind to march small armies much sooner than was advisable, with the foreseeable outcome that an hour's worth of gameplay was unceremoniously eradicated.
To its credit, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI contains two interesting mini-games designed (presumably) to mitigate the monotony of the main game. The first, Duel, involves a brutal horseback battle between two officers. The player chooses which attacks the officer will use, and which special attack to unleash when the chance becomes available. Unfortunately, skill has very little to do with the outcome of these matches, and the fighter with the higher War stat is almost certain to succeed.
The same is true of the other mini-game, Debate. Positioned on a stone pedestal like combatants, the two arguers fling a series of RPS-like facts, logics or timings at one another in an attempt to emerge victorious. Again, as fascinating and bizarre as the game may be, it is largely based on the officer's Intelligence score, and as such rarely merits more than a glance. In both cases, the mini-games offer a too-brief break from the rest of the game.
Graphically, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI nets a handsome success. The models are gorgeously drawn and cel-shaded, resembling fantastic Chinese paintings come to life. The color palette is outstanding, able to evoke both bright eye-catching hues and antiquated, subdued sepias. This lends an admirable level of authenticity and immersion. The world map is likewise fabulously drawn, with lush terrain and beautiful seasonal effects. Troops are rendered rather poorly, but their squashed pixel-heavy sprites don't dramatically mar the overall effect. The only real graphical detraction is a product of the immense amount of data that needs to be tracked. Most battles involve several armies of various factions. Since each army is accompanied by a stat sheet, massive clashes are often disfigured by numerous menus. These aren't designed to coincide with the ancient Chinese aesthetic, and they can deliver a serious blow to immersion. Furthermore, the superfluous signs make it nearly impossible to select some units.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI scores another resounding win with its fantastic sound design. The music alone would deserve mention. Based on period Chinese music, it is flowing and sublime, a perfect backdrop to the game. During battle sequences, the music becomes operatic and forceful, perfectly reflecting the climactic nature of the game's conflicts. On top of this, all of the game's spoken dialogue is in Chinese. Normally, this might be difficult to decipher or even annoying at times, but Koei has implemented it perfectly. The deep, intense voice-overs, though rare, are a wonderful addition.
All in all, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI probably won't seduce any new players from outside of the dedicated strategy folds. Though undeniably beautiful and well designed, the game is simply too difficult to learn (the tutorial weighs in at almost six hours) and too slowly paced for most players not already attenuated to its type. While die-hard fans of the series will most certainly crave the meticulous planning and Machiavellian diplomacy RotTK XI has to offer, the game is arcane and frustratingly slow to the uninitiated.
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