A 'Romance' for historic simulation lovers, but a bad date for others

A 'Romance' for historic simulation lovers, but a bad date for others

If you’re a gamer who loves nothing more than digging deep into the guts of a historical simulation, where you must balance politics with military might, where battles take place with words as well as with weapons, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII” may be your cup of tea.

But if you’re more into pick-up-and-play real-time strategy games where the action doesn’t get more complex than marching units around the battlefield, the intricate nature of this new entry in a venerable series — the first in eight years — isn’t something you’ll likely enjoy unless you’re really, really willing to try something new on for size.

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“Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII” immerses players in the treacherous world of late Han Dynasty China (184 to 220 A.D. roughly), when corruption had begun to seriously erode imperial control, giving rise to peasant rebellions — the Yellow Turban Rebellion is central to the game’s early stages — as well as warlords vying for power amid the instability. The time period is generally considered to be the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, except in some academic circles that consider it more of a precursor.

But let’s leave that nit-picking to the scholars. How’s the game work?

It’s all about micromanaging, but not in the way of most other simulation games. There’s no laying out of cities, setting tax rates or wandering the map in search of resources.

Instead, you’ll be navigating the labyrinth of personal relationships and politics — making friends and influencing people, inciting betrayals, swaying opinions — while also improving cities and public morale — controlling farming, commerce and cultural development — and building up military might before embarking on a journey of conquest.

It’s generally best to introduce yourself to the game through “Hero Mode,” essentially an extremely extended, mission-based tutorial that explains the game’s incredibly involved structure.

At the beginning, it’s a little overly slow-going, I’m afraid, and can seem a little ridiculous from a Western perspective — but only because the game glosses over a lot of history.

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For example, the first mission centers on the historic figure of Liu Bei. As we meet him, he’s a poor young man sel­ling mats he’s woven in his town’s marketplace. Upset by the tumult of the time — the peasant Yellow Turban Uprising against the corrupt imperial government has got him down — he desires to save his country, but has neither the strength nor the money. He encounters two similar-minded fellows by chance, and together they vow to take over the country, putting down the peasants first, then taking control. Oh, by the way, Bei of the Liu family reveals he’s the descendant of a Han Dynasty prince.

The way Liu’s history is presented, it seems ridiculous that three random down-on-their-luck, penniless guys can somehow hope to raise an army and take over a vast country. But Liu Bei is a genuine historic figure who actually was impoverished in his youth and went on to amass great power. The game’s just glossing over his ambition and family connections and how powerful such things were back in that day.

As far as gameplay goes, that first mission is nothing more than a way to teach the player how to navigate the overly complicated menu system — we’re talking menus within menus within menus, with multiple ways to access them — talk to people and give them gifts, travel from city to city and pause and unpause the clock. It’s technically a real-time strategy game, but one where you often will stop time so you can issue orders without things spiraling out of control.

You have to keep going through one mission after another to learn how to train and deploy an army; build up a city’s resources; handle debates, duels, spycraft and diplomacy, field battles, sieges and naval warfare — all set against an extensive historic backdrop.

It’s helpful to know that — again from a Western perspective — “heroes” is a bit of a misnomer for many of the personages the player will control over time. They’re heroes in the sense they are powerful, influential figures in their society, though by our standards many seem villainous and self-serving.

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Once you’ve learned to handle the controls, you can enter the “Main” gameplay mode, where you can set up the game however you like — with a time-period choice helping preformat the setup a little — and try to take over the country through warcraft and/or guile and diplomacy. You can also create your own fake historical personages to play with.

It’s complex; it’s involving; it’s flawed.

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Controlling battles is theoretically simple, where you click on units or groups of units and tell them where to go and who to attack. But where the on-screen cursor appears to be and where it actually needs to be in order to select a unit or enemy are often worlds apart. That’s sloppy.

Battlefield AI also isn’t anything to write home about, with enemies often easy enough to defeat with simple swarm tactics.

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And the units on the field of battle are all drawn to be the same size, regardless of whether they represent 2,000 men or 10,000. It detracts from a sense of visual drama.

A few mission indicators on the overall map would be welcome, too, when trying to find individual cities on the map. If you don’t know second- and third-century Chinese geography, it’s really easy to get lost.

So I’ll repeat, if you love historical simulations where you can get your hands really dirty with micromanaging the world, pick up “Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII.” Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.

Joel Leizer is The News-Gazette’s Playing Critic. Contact him at jleizer@news-gazette.com.

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII”
PlayStation 4, PC via Steam.
$59.99.
E10+ for everyone 10 and up.

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