Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV is the latest entry in Dynasty Warriors publisher Koei’s turn-based strategy franchise, which has been around since 1985 but rarely sees a release outside of Japan or North America. In fact, the first title in the franchise to land on European shores was VIII on the PlayStation 2 in 2004, a whole two years after its Japanese release. Since then only two other titles in the series have seen EU releases, until now.
Unsurprisingly, this is my first experience with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, given the franchise went out of its way to avoid being known by non-Japanese players (even the North American releases were comparatively sporadic in terms of which systems even received the game) but as a turn-based strategy fan, I was eager to get to grips with it.
The game feels like a more arcade-oriented spin on the Total War series, with a focus on famous historical battles in Japanese history, you are given a group of special generals and advisors whom you can assign to key roles around your burgeoning kingdom, such as running your cities or managing the local areas to gather resources, or conquering unclaimed territory and battling rival armies. Each character has their own specialist areas so choosing the right role for them can make the world of difference.
The game offers more simplified mechanics when compared to the depth of titles like Total War yet, weirdly, sometimes feel more cumbersome than their more complex cousin. This is likely due to the game being available on console and how imprecise a controller is compared to a mouse. You will find yourself having to navigate very detailed menu screens, hopping from one highlighted button to the other, rather than having a mouse pointer to glide effortlessly between your choices. There is an in+depth tutorial section that helps get you acclimated with the mechanics and the style of play, this is strongly recommended as if feels very distinct from games such as Civilization or Total War. I am an ardent Civ player and I found myself struggling with this game until I sank some time into the tutorial stages and, even after that, the adjustment period was quite unforgiving at first. As with many strategy games, there comes a moment where everything just clicks together, and you will find yourself engrossed in your campaigns and somehow not making a complete mess of things. Unless you are a seasoned veteran of the franchise, do not expect to simply pick this up and master it in half an hour, it is a significant time investment and whether that investment is worth it will depend entirely on how interested you are in this style of game.
The broader arcade style of presentation is also quite jarring for a Western fan of the genre, at least for someone who has never played a title in this franchise before. Whereas most Western entries have a very dry, studious look and feel to them, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV feels like it belongs in the Dynasty Warriors/Warriors Orochi canon. Characters are vividly detailed and the pop-ups that alert you to conflicts are bold and dramatic; colourful lettering explodes onto the screen, the key players in the conflict appear in static images with highly expressive faces. When two generals come to blows the game does not cut away to some elaborate recreation of the battlefield, as it does in Total War, rather we see the two generals engage in a quick and impactful one-on-one duel. This is the key distinction between a simulation and an arcade game, for me. A game like Total War wants to immerse you in the finer details, take its time playing out a scenario, whereas Romance of the Three Kingdoms favours a more decisive, immediate play style. Forward momentum is everything in this game and one of the biggest differences between it and the West’s more established names.
As a major fan of turn-based strategy games, despite not being particularly masterful at them, I found Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV to be quite enjoyable and engaging enough to not feel like a waste of energy. While it does not come close to the sort of depth of area management found in Civ or the complexity of combat found in Total War, it made up for all that with a swifter play style that felt refreshing after decades of slower, more considered entries in the genre.
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