Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI

Koei has quietly released another entry in this long-running series in English, and it’s received the same sort of reception each game usually does: fan excitement, concessionary reviews in the sixes or sevens, and widespread indifference. It’s kind of a shame that the series that represents what’s perhaps the only gig in town for Civilization-style strategy on consoles is so consistently ignored by most gamers. But given this site’s previous coverage of Koei’s forays into Chinese history, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI is certainly not going to be the first to be ignored ’round here.

RTK XI takes the series back to the high-level, top-down, ruler-only model that was last seen in IX, and before that way back in VI. This time, however, the entire map of China has been divided into strategy-game hexes, and all unit movement and combat takes place right on that map, turn by turn. This does more than any RTK yet to create a cohesive arena in which agriculture, commerce, transportation, and military tactics all interact. This also gives more tactical importance to geography and opens up new possibilities for military strategy. Completely new to this game are the fortifications one can build to keep troops supplied or fend off enemy units with crossbows or catapults. The tactical use of fire, via arrows, traps, and explosives, has been refined to a science this time around, and effective use of it can present a formidable threat to any opponent. Naval tactics and river warfare are also more important here than ever before, and control of China’s great rivers is now a key aspect of any playthrough of XI.

The combat itself takes cues from Koei’s Dynasty Tactics mini-series, with chain attacks, assists, and tactics that can push enemy units into traps or combination attacks. Units must be armed with weapons (which must be manufactured) this time around, one to a man, and there are four ways to equip a unit. Pikes, spears, and cavalry each have their own flavor of tactics and form a paper-rock-scissors relationship that keeps battles from being reduced to contests of raw numbers. Crossbows have no particular weakness, but as usual, they lack the advantage in a melee attack. Officers themselves have gained further individuality beyond their stats and basic skills. Almost every officer has been assigned a unique attribute, such as Majesty or Divine Spears, which offers a special skill or advantage in combat or domestic affairs.

With the added complexity in military affairs, city maintenance has been smoothed over enough that it no longer presents the turn-by-turn tedium that can be found in previous Romances. The formerly abstract statistics for food production and city commerce are now based on farms and markets that can be built in available spaces outside a city’s walls. Granaries and mints boost production of adjacent buildings. Troop recruitment, weapon production, and shipbuilding all require their own respective city structures to be built. RTK XI doesn’t have the complex relationship of building prerequisites one might find in a PC real time strategy game, but this is still a welcome step away from the raw numbers for which the series is famous. Plus, these buildings are vulnerable to attack, which makes defending one’s borders that much more important.

This marks the first fully-3D entry in the series. All of China is represented as a relief map with miniature cities, farms, forests, rivers, plankways, and even the Great Wall itself. The whole game uses a painterly, Okami-like method of cel-shading that’s extremely effective at bringing the setting to life. Military units and battles are similarly miniature, but if they were any larger the game would be difficult to deal with. While the game’s displays are already full to bursting with maps, menus, and information, the menu system is as expertly handled and adapted to the Dual Shock as ever. Koei always clearly puts a lot of effort into adapting these mouse-driven PC games into experiences that aren’t overbearing on a gamepad, and this shows through once again.

While the soundtrack is lush and orchestrated as it has been for several entries, there are far too few music tracks, especially in the case of battle themes, and the amount of time a player will spend in battle means those few melodies will get old very quickly. Thankfully, there are separate volume options for music and sound effects.

And despite that, the game itself neither gets in the way of strategizing and plotting nor hinders the flow of the many skirmishes and pivotal battles a player will carry out during the course of a scenario. This is especially important when considering the hefty time investment (both in realtime hours and game-time years) involved in uniting an empire. While this game is still clearly aimed at previous fans and those who’ve enjoyed the original novel, RTK XI is as good as any of the previous three games at informing new players of the basics, with a lighthearted tutorial, excellent online help, and a serviceable manual. Some criticize the series for not being accessible enough or simply having too many menus and numbers to sort through, but to be honest, it would be hard to make the series more accessible than the ease XI achieves without sacrificing depth.

Building an empire from a single city, a few officers, and a rag-tag army is still one of the most compelling and satisfying experiences on consoles. And as if the near-infinite replay value offered by previous entries wasn’t enough, RTK XI has even more set scenarios and specific challenges for the expert player and anyone interested in the more pivotal situations presented by the novel (and by history). You’ll know already if you’re not interested in this kind of experience but if you played this NES game(s) and want to get back into the series, or if you simply have an interest in seeing what kind of depth is possible in a console strategy game, this is the place to jump in.

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