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Romance Of The Three Kingdoms VII
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May 2002
DVD Media Title
ESRB Rating Everyone
After watering-down the depth of its Chinese war simulators for some sweet-looking and epic-like battles, Koei gives PlayStation 2 owners that lamented the emphasis of spectacle over depth in the "Kessen" series something to shout about. "Romance of the Three Kingdoms VII" is the latest in the long-running series of Chinese strategy war simulators that date back almost two decades, when videogames had to use tiny little colored squares and unreadable fonts to convey the epic scale of the battles and statistics piling up hour after hour. Despite a boost in resolution, font sharpness and technology from the host system, "ROTK VII" has chosen to forsake eye-candy and movie-like audio effects (like those in the two previous "Kessen" games) and go back to the anal-retentive and statistic-heavy format of its 8, 16 and 32-bit predecessors.

Taking place in the second century of China as the then-dominating Han Dynasty collapsed (one of the many micro-managed eras covered by previous "ROTK" installments), the player is given a simple task: unite China under one faction, and then keep it united by any means necessary ('A spike Lee Joint"). Lu Bu is the main man of the game, the same way Cao Cao (a recognizable character in the "Kessen"/"Dynasty Warriors" sagas) was the main figure in past "ROTK" games. One can start in any of ten different scenarios as either of five basic classes: common officer, ruler, prefect (AKA the mayor), ronin (AKA a samurai without a master) and warlord. Whatever character class one chooses comes with plenty of established figures to choose from as your on-screen alter ego (AKA a small hand-drawn portrait). You don't like any of the 535 pre-made characters? Heck, make your own out of 100 potential variables.

Ascension through the class ranks in "ROTK VII" is the key to getting the virtual clout, people loyalty and accumulated stats to becoming somebody. Needless to say for anyone that has never played a Koei Chinese war simulator prior to this one, this means staring at tiny little icons and reading dozens of stats (or writing them on a sheet of paper, like I did) for hours upon hours of mental strategizing between your man (men?) and the computer-controlled universe around him. There are no button-mashing polygon brutes to send into battle (ala Koei's "Dynasty Warriors" series) or controllable mayhem to unleash via thundering battles (like in "Kessen"). Depending on the chosen class, the player might be limiting him/herself to just issuing commands and staying anchored as the overseer of a particular location (which is the duty of a prefect, AKA city supervisor that doesn't have much in the way of battle experience).

I, for example, chose to become a ronin warrior that protects villages. This enabled me in "ROTK VII's" universe to move around more. Eventually my ronin got enough clout to become a man in charge, and his protection duties have gotten him closer to being the unifier the game's asked me to become. It only took me a few dozen hours to get here (hey, you'd play the game too if you had a PS2 at work like I do), but at this point of my "ROTK VII" game I'm stuck (with several games in progress using different classes!). Part of the reason it's easy to be dissuaded from continuing to play "ROTK VII" is the classic (antiquated) arrangement of its strategy screen, on which the tactics and troop formations have to be pondered and arranged in anticipation to a battle that has to be interpreted rather than enjoyed. This will undoubtedly appeal to any armchair general with a PS2 that dug Konami's "Ring of Red" or the handful of PSOne strategy games released in that system's lifespan ("Nectaris," "Warzone 2100," two "ROTK" installments, etc.).

Most of my previous strategizing experience with a Koei war sim came from "Nobunaga's Ambition" (remember that one?) and "Pacific Theater of Operations II" for the Sega Saturn), so I've got to come clean about being a little behind the curve when it comes to Chinese war simulators. That's both the blessing and the curse of an in-depth and narrowcasted product like "ROTK VII". It's appealing to a very loyal (and small) fan base, but intimidating as heck for laymen like yours truly that haven't received a Masters degree in Chinese history. If it weren't because Brian Gray asked me to play the game so we could have a PSXNATION review up and ready I would have never played "ROTK VII". This is the type of game that sells itself to those already familiar (and in love) with its depth, leaving those of us with a passing interest thanking God for videogame rental stores. For what its worth though, "ROTK VII" delivers the gameplay goods provided you know what the hell you're in for.

score 6
(out of ten)
image gallery

Image 1

This Section Passes
It'd be great if a Mouse peripheral came out for the PS2 (besides the USB peripherals) so the hundreds of icon-based commands and management screens I had to deal with using a Dual Shock 2 controller became a little easier to deal with. Taken for the strategic war sim that it is, the many simple commands needed to perform well during a game are easy as pie to activate; remembering them without having to read the manual, however, is another matter entirely. Koei doesn't screw-up much with the interface it helped to polish and perfect over seven sequels and a few offspring products (ala "Nobunaga's Ambition"), and the control of "ROTK VII" reflects this. Shame that the darn strategy screen (touted heavily by Koei in its ads for the game) is so full of cluttered and tiny commands to keep track of, a far cry from the simplicity of "Kessen" & "Kessen II."

Image 2
This Section Fails
Hardcore "ROTK" players complained that Koei's "Kessen" series was too cinematic, and that its graphics sacrificed depth for the characters, stats and battles that were the hallmark of previous "ROTK" games (and yes, I've wasted hours of my life reading posts in online forum groups). Fair enough, but did Koei really have to go back to a polygon-free interface so antiquated and outdated-looking that it makes the PS2 look like a cartridge-based Nintendo system? From its colored dots and hand-drawn little portraits to its hundreds of maps and statistical categories, "ROTK VII" is among the least-interesting and visually-unimpressive titles released on PS2 to date. Only the resolution and clarity of the fonts and hand-drawn pictures, which are now much sharper and cleaner-looking than before, separates this "ROTK" chapter from those on PSOne and SNES/Super Famicom cartridges.

An utter disregard for current visual standards is required to get past the first couple of minutes with "ROTK VII" (let alone the 15th or 20th hour of playing), since movement of troops or anything on the screen can't possibly top a speed of two-frames-per-second tops!

Image 3
This Section Fails
Nice and ambient Chinese BGM tunes that don't grow as repetitive as the annoying music in other videogames (the tunes in "Hot Shots Golf 3" immediately come to mind), plus some decent and inconsequential sound effects, are the only aural highlight I can summon for this game. "ROTK VII" is meant to be played and enjoyed in the sense of the mind rather than the typical audio/visual/tactile senses we're used to employing when interacting with a PS2 CD-ROM disc. The aural senses most of us want to use when listening to a PS2 game will have to fall quietly asleep for this strategic sim. Oh well, at least the annoying guitar music from the "Dynasty Warriors" games didn't find its way into "ROTK VII".

Image 4
score 6
(out of ten)
Only the hardest of the hardcore strategists will experience enough satisfaction with Koei's latest Chinese war simulator to feel they got their fifty bucks' worth. I tried to warm-up to "ROTK VII" but, as soon as I finish this review, I'll do my darnest to forget it ever existed. The Koei I like is the one wacky-enough to create "Guitaroo Man," the one clever-enough to create "Winback," or the one smart-enough to keep the realism of Chinese war scenarios at bay for interactive masterpieces like "Kessen II" and "Dynasty Warriors 3."

(09152002)- by - J.M. Vargas


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