Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI (referred to as "RTK" from here forward) is based upon a romanticized but highly revered period in Chinese history from about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., as written by Ming author Luo Guanzhong a thousand years later, based on texts, poems, and stories he researched from the period. It is the time of the last Han dynasty, in which China is fractured into three warring kingdoms. The cities, officers, alliances, relationships, loyalties, and implements of war in the game are all based upon this text, and have an impact on the outcome as you fight for control of ancient China. It is a very rich story that is blended very well into the game, and I can imagine that fans of Guanzhong's work will immediately be drawn into the context of RTK. That said, although it can be difficult for the uninformed to keep up with the characters and subplots in the story, required reading isn't necessary for RTK to be a compelling game, as a lot of the key historical information is revealed during the campaign.
RTK is a turn-based strategy game. There are scads of choices, options, and general information for each item that you manage in your turn. As a matter of fact, at times, the screen is so cluttered with information, it's difficult to find your cursor and select your target or destination. It can also be difficult to discern one army from the other when multiple units are fighting in close proximity. Fortunately, some of this pop-up information can be hidden with a press of a button. The designers have done an admirable job of maximizing the effectiveness of the dualshock controller in sorting through information and making choices, but ultimately, I just think that these kinds of games are built for the mouse and a keyboard. Navigating with a analog stick over large areas of the screen, and at times scrolling to places that are some distance from your current location, is just not precise or efficient, although some of the "jump to" commands do help with this problem.
The artwork in this game is gorgeous and impressive for the PS2. There are dozens of officers in this game, yet they all seem to have their own unique appearance. The background art is equally impressive, as are some of the transitions and cut scenes. Duels and debates also provide some of the more impressive looking moments in RTK. Unfortunately, where RTK is at its weakest is where you spend most of your time. The grid, geography, cities, structures, and units are pretty bland and uninspiring. Many times, it's difficult to tell what you're exactly looking at without pointing to it to get the pop-up window of information, especially with military units.
There isn't much sound in the game, other than the narration at the start of each scenario, a few grunts and groans from those in battle, duels, and debates, and the orchestral soundtrack. The music is really cinematic, seemingly adding to the tension as the drama increases and unfolds during the campaign, and pleasing to listen to while making your plans. That's about it, as all other dialogue is delivered through text boxes. I found it interesting and appropriate that there was an option for the dialogue to be in English or Chinese, though.
RTK is all about planning and resource management. You need gold, food, time, and leadership (officers) to build facilities, equip your troops, maintain order in your cities, train your military, and so forth. All of these are limited resources, so there's a fun balancing act when attempting to protect and grow your facilities while amassing an army to conquer the rest of China. You can even call for a council and get assistance with your planning and decision-making. In addition, each officer has his own strengths and special skills, and is rated on several traits The higher-rated the officer is in the appropriate trait, the more effective and efficient he will be in completing the task. For example, to build facilities, you need officers strong in politics (“POL” rating). You can also assign up to three officers for each task, but be prepared to suffer without their services in other areas for the duration. You really have to think ahead, because it takes multiple turns to accomplish these tasks. It can be easy to spread yourself too thin, much like a player who spreads out his armies in Risk, only to get annihilated in the next turn.
Only certain types of land can be used to build facilities, and you have limited land resources to begin with. In addition, the terrain affects a unit's ability to attack, and sometimes when combined with other units in the way, prevents a unit from accomplishing its orders.