There is a saying in China that goes: "The young shouldn't read Water Margin while the old shouldn't read The Three Kingdoms."* The general idea is that the Water Margin is likely to get the blood boiling, full as it is with violence, not to mention pesky resistance to authority. The Three Kingdoms (or, as it is incongruously known, Romance of the Three Kingdoms), on the other hand, is so filled with treachery, backstabbing and Machiavellian goings-on that it could turn even the kindest and wisest old man into Benjamin Linus.
Of course, in the wonderful world of gaming, extreme violence and cunning strategy are considered qualities (and, ironically, generally appeal to young and old respectively). While there is no Water Margin game yet (developers? Get on it!), the insanely violent console slaughterfest series Dynasty Warriors fills that spot adequately. Its cunning and treacherous big brother is, naturally, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
This is a game with a long heritage. Based on the 14th-century historical novel of the same name, this is the eleventh game in the series. Eleventh! There are very few games with that kind of pedigree. And these aren’t sequels, or spin-offs, or even really ‘re-imaginings’ – they are more-or-less the same game, constantly revised for new platforms and technologies. The plot is as complex or as straightforward as you want it to be:- There are many different scenarios outlining snapshots in the constant ebb-and-flow of third-century Chinese politics, but basically everyone just wants to kill each other with huge spears.
That’s the kernel of what you’re getting here – a wargame. You control a cluster of cities which function as troop factories so you can launch attacks on neighbouring cities… straightforward stuff.
But that’s where the straightforwardness ends. I hope you like drop-down menus, because there’s a lot of them. In fact, this is pretty much a game about drop-down menus as much as it is a game about warfare in ancient China. You’ll be faced with a series of the little beggars, covering everything from launching a naval assault to giving your favourite general a new horse. In fact, the only time you’ll deviate from digging through drop-downs is in one of the two subgames – one for duelling and one for debating – which are disappointingly infrequent.
Also, it’s really Chinese. This is the first ROTTK game to be translated into English since #6, and everything from the stirring music to the slightly unusual turns of phrase are very clearly from the Orient. In this case, the slightly squiffy translation just lends verisimilitude to the whole experience. You can imagine your generals moving their lips independently of the badly-dubbed dialogue.
Be warned though. There’s a steep learning curve as it is, and a basic knowledge of the background seems to be expected. It’s challenging enough to have to pick up the intricacies of city and troop management, and some of the menus won’t show you a map so you’re going to have to know in advance if you’re sending Sun Shang Xiang to Xu Chang or Pu Yang. Yes, it really is like that – if you don’t already know your Liu Beis from your Guan Yus, you’re young to find yourself at a distinct disadvantage as you try to untangle the whole thing. In some cases it’s tricky to even work out if one of your generals is talking to you about a person or a place.
Warfare takes place on the same tile-based map that your day-to-day city management does, and within the same turn-based framework. There’s a surprising level of intricacy behind the simplistic-looking combat, although perhaps given the complexity of the game you’d expect some clever strategising to emerge. Graphically the game looks like something you’d expect from about 1998, and I’m really not sure massive armies clashing on the blood-soaked battlefield should really look so cute. There’s not a lot of activity to break up the monotony of the menus even in combat, really – a little red number floating up from the top of each unit is usually all you get to simulate the loss of thousands of lives on both sides - Hero it ain’t. Sometimes it feels a bit like you’re playing a spreadsheet.
The trouble with playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms is actually very similar to the trouble with reading it. At its heart is buried treasure – something to stir the imagination with a unique flavour. However, in order to get down to the really rewarding stuff takes a significant investment of time and attention to detail that certainly won’t appeal to everyone. To the right group of people – those willing to use their imaginations to fill in the graphical blanks and to whom micromanagement of the most dry and dusty sort is a joy rather than a labour, not to mention long-time aficionados of the setting – this will devour your time like nothing else. However, be prepared for an initial learning curve so steep you’ll need crampons.
* Thanks, Wikipedia.