This is the first Romance of the Three Kingdoms (ROTK) game I’ve ever played, so I can’t compare XIII to the rest of the series. On the other hand, I have read a translation of the ROTK novel, and I’ve probably played too much Dynasty Warriors (also published by Koei) to be healthy, so I was already invested in the characters and the drama. That being said, I get the feeling that players who don’t at least know the main characters’ names and some of the key locations will struggle to keep up with the plot in Hero Mode, or in historical scenarios in Main Mode.
Naturally, the game has an exciting and dramatic story. There’s a reason we still talk about these historical figures’ and characters’ stories almost 2000 years later. The political plot points and character relationships will interest even those with only passing prior knowledge of the ROTK history and/or novel.
I hope you’re paying attention. There will be a quiz.
Unfortunately, there is still a huge barrier to entry for new players. It took me about five hours just to play through the formal tutorial in Hero Mode. While the way they used different characters’ stories to explain different parts of the gameplay was quite clever, everything was so simplified and dumbed down that I wasn’t sure whether I had learnt how to do something properly, or if I’d just bluffed my way through because it was impossible for me to lose. The gameplay felt almost as complex as the story. It can be roughly split it into five different modes: city management, land battles, naval battles, debates and duels.
City management is probably what you’ll spend most of your time doing if you play as a character with a leadership role. It involves improving the farming, commerce and culture stats of the cities you hold, as well as forming bonds with other officers so they can help increase your stats. Building relationships also help characters fight better together on the battlefield when you (or someone else) decide it’s time to go to war.
I really did enjoy this part of the game, especially in Hero Mode, because I knew a lot of the characters and events from the novel and the Dynasty Warriors games. It did seem very complicated at first, and 25 hours of gameplay later there are still some things I’m not sure how to use, but it is covered in the tutorial section of the game quite well, unlike the battles and debates, which just throw a wall of text at you.
Land and naval battles are the same basic concept; you pit your gathered armed forces against the enemy’s and try to make them all retreat. However, on land, different terrains and unit types can affect how well you will do in battle. I like the morale system, and that there’s more to the strategy than just having more soldiers on your team. It always feels great overcoming a force bigger than your own, and while the soundtrack doesn’t have much variation, the victory march and the normal battle theme both do a great job of expressing the right emotions and making every battle feel epic and dramatic. Naval battles are similar, but they have different factors to worry about, such as your movement speed changing depending on whether you’re going upstream or downstream.
Finally, debates are for characters with high intelligence stats, and duels are for characters with high ‘war’ stats, but they are very similar. It feels a bit like playing rock-paper-scissors with five options instead of three, and it largely depends on guessing what your opponent is going to do next. It’s simple to play through, but I’ve only ever been successful with this part of the game when my character’s stats are higher than or roughly equal to my opponent’s. And somehow, I’m much better at winning duels than debates, even though they use the same mechanics!
ROTK XIII has been out for a while now in Japanese, Chinese and Korean. The English translation is good, but not perfect. I am a translator, so I won’t judge slightly wonky translations too harshly, especially since this is a huge project that was probably done on a modest budget. But in saying that, I was never confused or misled by information presented in the game, so that is a definite plus.
I do love the art in this game, however. The portraits and environments are lovely to look at, and the menus are all clear and logical. Given how much of the game consists of choosing things from menus, that’s especially important! That being said, there was only animation in the cinematic cut scenes, which are few and far between. This took a little while to get used to, but it’s no less pleasing than a nicely drawn visual novel. It does make the game seem a little out of date, though. The visual novel aspects of the game remind me a little of Fire Emblem, as does the way characters sometimes just say generic phrases instead of the actual lines in the textbox. But since there’s only Japanese and Chinese spoken language support, this may not make much difference to people who don’t know those languages.
My favourite part of the game as of the time of writing, has been Sun Ce’s stage in Hero Mode. I was finally free to employ all the things I learnt in the tutorials and in the previous campaign where I played as a minister. Playing as the ruler is more involved because all of your ministers are constantly suggesting plans of action, and you have to hold special councils and even set work goals for your different cities. This makes scenarios last longer, but if you enjoy the city management aspect of the game, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Overall, if you’re willing to put up with steep learning curves and walls of text, ROTK XIII can be very rewarding and exciting later down the track.
I suggest approaching Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII as a non-ROTK veteran with caution. If you are already familiar with this genre of game, and/or already familiar with the ROTK cast of characters, I think it’ll be a new and enjoyable way to experience the history. On the other hand, if neither of these things appeal to you, it might feel more like you’re reading an interactive history textbook that never really explains why you should care who any of these people are. It’s a difficult game to get into, but it can be very rewarding once you’ve put time and effort into learning how to play. However, maybe give a Dynasty Warriors title a whirl first if you don’t already know who’s who.