Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI is the latest title in the series from KOEI, based on the classic novel which relates the near collapse of China at the end of the Han Dynasty and the events that follow during the 2nd and 3rd Centuries AD. It's also the fifth (and probably final) version of the title to show up on the Playstation 2. This year, the game features full 3D maps along with scenes inspired by classical Chinese ink paintings. The game has also included a new technique system to train your officers and a slew of other options including English and Chinese voice options and a full tutorial.
While ROTK has traditionally been a niche title, for the most hardcore of strategy fans, the question becomes will this iteration of the title break out of that niche, or will it remain there, and will it give strategy fans something new to look forward to?
One of the first things that you'll pick up on with ROTK XI is that the graphics have been quite heavily polished, making this a very pretty game to look at. While it's nothing compared to Final Fantasy XII or even Dynasty Warriors 5, it's still quite nice graphically.
The 3D game map changes with the seasons, and you can generally tell the difference between different types of units. The various duels and debates that you go into look almost like a fighting game from mid-way through the PS2's lifetime, and the character pictures are rather solid.
One of the major drawbacks graphically is how the unit information is handled. When you're on the main game map, and a unit is in the field, their information is always shown generally above the unit. This means that it's hard to look and see what might be around that unit without shifting the camera, as the unit information blocks surrounding map squares at times.
Also, this game is full of charts and menu screens. This, honestly, detracts from the game's beauty. After all, there's nothing pretty about staring at rows of charts and statistics for any length of time.
First off, the music in ROTK XI is very beautiful, showcasing an original score by Yoshihiro Ike. KOEI deserves strong praise for this. The music is very evocative of traditional Chinese music, much like that one might hear in Chinese cinema. While the music loops and repeats every few minutes, it isn't so bad that you'll want to turn it off.
The sound effects are rather decent, and you have an idea what's going on based on how your units are reacting, which is always nice. The voice acting, while featuring Chinese voices for the first time in the series, is hit or miss at best. While it's nice to have the Chinese voices for authenticity's sake, they really tend to blend together, and don't add much to the game itself. The English voices, as is typical with most of KOEI's titles, range the gamut from passable to downright hilarious to listen to.
The base controls for ROTK XI are pretty simple. Your directional pad or analog stick controls both the menus and the units, while X confirms and triangle de-selects options. Circle is used in the main game to end your turn, but also has other features in other menu screens. Luckily, when the controls change, the menu helpfully points this out, and tells you what buttons do which. L1 and R1, on the main map, change between cities that you control, and also helpfully only switches to cities with officers remaining to act.
The start button opens the main menu, which allows you to save and load, while select opens up a glossary and an in-game hints menu. L2 allows you to select your base, and square allows you free movement of the map in conjunction with the analog stick.
The only major issue with the controls is that the camera tends to drift from time to time. There were times that it would slide down from overhead to almost parallel to the ground, and even slipping behind mountains. This made it really hard to see what was going on, and was distracting to say the least.
As with all of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games before it, ROTK XI is based on the novel of the same name which covers a solid amount of Chinese history in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
ROTK XI is a turn-based strategy game aimed squarely at people who have copies of Sun Tzu and The Ancient Art of War sitting around and are happy with scores and scores of menus with stats on everything under the sun. The game features ten historical scenarios which allow you to take over history at a certain point, and then change history in an attempt to unify China under your leadership. There's also eight pre-set scenarios and eight challenge scenarios, which have pre-set victory conditions and a limited amount of time to reach them.
Generally, you'll have a set number of officers underneath your leadership, all with a variety of strengths and weaknesses. You'll also have your city (or cities), where you can build farms and markets to keep your food and money high, build barracks for recruiting armies and various buildings to craft the weapons for those armies. Of course, you only have a certain number of action points per turn to do all of this, and each action requires up to three officers to implement it.
Luckily, you can also search for new officers to hire, hire other officers away from the other leaders in China, and set up alliances and even marriages. If that isn't enough, you'll also put units in the field, which can then build traps and buildings to both boost your nearby armies' stats as well as ones that attack your nearby enemies. Traps are useful, especially in conjunction with the game's tactics systems, allowing you to push an opposing force into a trap which then damages them even further.
Everything you do in the game gives you technique points, which are then used to learn skills which basically upgrade the ability you have to create better, stronger troops. You can also have your officers duel opposing unit leaders to avoid having to kill off every troop under their command.
If that isn't enough, the game also features a debate system that is almost like a card-based minigame.
For those who are new to the entire genre, the game also features a step-by-step tutorial system which takes you through the basics of the game culmulating in an attempt to take over a nearby city within a year's time, with each turn taking ten days of time.
So, your basic gameplan is: set up your city with farms and markets to earn food and money, then add barracks to recruit armies. Add in smiths and workshops and the like to equip your armies, then send them out to take over new towns to repeat the process. And as you have time, recruit more officers, perform diplomatic tasks, and keep your own officers happy.
The problem with ROTK XI, honestly, is that there's almost too much depth. For someone new to the series, even with the tutorial, you're swimming in so much data, so fast, that it's hard to figure out exactly what you're supposed to be doing. This, unfortunately, keeps the game more of a niche title for those hardcore strategy fans that think that Civilization IV is too simplistic of a strategy game.
ROTK XI is a very in-depth game, almost too much so. Each scenario would easily run someone 10-12 hours, if not longer. Add in the fact that you've got 10 scenarios, 8 challenges and 8 preset scenarios, you're looking at a possible 260 hours right there. And that's if you don't lose any of them.
The game is awash in menus, data and the minutae of running a kingdom in Ancient China. Unfortunately, as with all the other games in the series, it really doesn't appeal to the average gamer, and is very much a niche title. That doesn't mean that it's bad, however.
Fans of the series should probably pick it up, and strategy fans owe it to themselves to rent it at least once, to see if it hooks them or not. If you're expecting more fighting, you should stay with Dynasty Warriors instead.
It was hard writing this review, as I really wanted to be fair to the game in the review, but had issues getting into the game itself, for the simple reason that it really didn't do anything for me. Even after going through the tutorial and starting the first scenario....I just found myself yawning at the screen. The game simply isn't aimed at me, which doesn't make it a bad game...just one aimed at a very small slice of the gaming populace, even smaller than strategy fans in general.
The sheer level of micromanagement involved in this game is its biggest weakness, which is a shame.