Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV (PC) Review

By Chris Leebody 10.04.2020

Review for Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV on PC

Fans of this long-running series only know too well the many ups and downs it has had over the years. A blend of role-playing and turn-based tactical combat, with empire management thrown into the mix, the series began life back on PC in 1985, and has graced almost every console since. Based on Luo Guanzhong's historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, this allows the choice of selecting dozens of rulers across various different historical scenarios throughout the Han Dynasty period of Chinese history. Mentioning before the ups and downs, it is fair to say with such a series and dynamic changes in gameplay across the years, fans undoubtedly have their favourites. Mechanics have also changed over the years - some more popular than others. Most importantly however, the overall direction of the series has been heading in a certain way: streamlined, and this has naturally set up something of a divide between the veteran players, and those newer who are being introduced. ROTK XIV is available now on Steam, localised in English; which seems like an absurd point to make, except that some previous Koei titles have not been.

China, it seems, has never been more popular. From the increasing trend of movie releases focused on that market, to the ever more important political presence the country takes up. This is true in gaming as well, with The Creative Assembly's hit strategy title Total War: Three Kingdoms launching last year to critical acclaim, and breaking all records for the series. While that new kid on the block has seen exceptional success, Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been batting away for almost three decades, and formerly had the tight grip when it came to Han Dynasty strategy games.

Sadly however, this is maybe a case that familiarity breeds contempt, and also laziness; as in the light of this shiny new challenger in Total War, ROTK XIV ends up having a multitude of flaws exposed, and indeed feels lacking in many key aspects. In the intro above it was referred to that the fans of the series have their favourite entries, and also that mechanics have changed. Essentially this franchise tends to have two types of overall visions for the series: some have a focus on "Officer" gameplay, which was essentially more of a role-playing focus - playing as a single officer, developing stats and rising through the ranks, either in an existing army, or forging your own path.

Screenshot for Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV on PC

The other basis for some of the titles lay in 'Ruler' mode, which was more of a traditionally overall grand strategy focus on developing cities, building armies, and commanding others. This is the approach this takes, with gameplay being entirely focused on city management and ruling, rather than role-playing. It is a personal preference of course ultimately, and fans do have their opinions on what works best. However, what the Ruler style of gameplay tends to lack, is the sense of dynamism and excitement that being an individual officer in this large conflict can create. ROTK VIII for example, is regarded as one of the most beloved titles in the franchise. Combining both Officer and Ruler gameplay, the PS2 era classic can be a 200-hour time sink. ROTK XIV not so much.

Indeed, once the kingdom is functioning, with all parts of management being delegated to the various officers in charge, things essentially just become an occasion of clicking with very little thought or strategy required. This is where ROTK XIV unfortunately falls down heavily. As usual, there is a good selection of scenarios to choose from, with eight including a fictional 'What-If' out of the box. Each changes the rulers present, their starting positions and also the particular events that can take place. For example, choose to play the earliest start in the year 184 and witness the rise of the Yellow Turban rebels. Alternatively jump to the end and become embedded in the late era Three Kingdoms struggle. It gives those interested a clear glimpse into the drama behind this historic period, and introductory cut-scenes present a rundown of the context and motivations of those present.

Screenshot for Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV on PC

While it is positive to have so much variety in the conflicts, regrettably the core gameplay loop doesn't do enough to develop that variety. As mentioned, the ruler (in this case the player) controls the cities and develops their commerce, agriculture and military strength. This is done through the menu system and the hexes which make up the various provinces across the map of China. Controlling all the hexes and what are called 'Cores' in a province, results in additional resources such as troops and gold. Battles also take place in the main overworld, unlike in some previous titles, in which the action would switch to a bespoke tactical battle map. While it is helpful to streamline things, unfortunately this aspect is the one that lets ROTK XIV down the most. Battling just isn't that fun. In previous entries battles used to be epic tactical affairs, with victory on a knife-edge as a result of the execution of a great strategic play. or lucky officer strike. Here as a result of combat in the overworld, battles just seem to happen without much input at the start of a new turn.

Yes, formations can be selected and troop types equipped. However, at the start of a new turn there is just a mad dash on the map with officers using their abilities without any player direction, and a series of numbers start appearing on the screen. It is all very confusing really, particularly to anyone fresh into the series. While you can build arrow towers or pits on the field to assist, nine times out of ten it is simply a numbers game over who has more troops and better stats. Keeping track of what is actually going on is difficult. This confusion extends further. Menus are vast and plentiful, and one of the difficulties getting engaged in this title is just how unintuitive said menus are, alongside the fact the English localisation is not the best. It means playing the tutorial just to have a sense of what is going on is required (and even then some may struggle). Silly design decisions don't help either, for example being able to select someone on a menu for a command position, when they have already been sent out on assignment.

Screenshot for Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV on PC

Like battling, most of the general city development is out of any strict control - with it simply being the case of putting the best officers in the best positions of governance, and letting them develop things on their own without much guiding hand. There is little incentive to switch things up, and very few trade-offs for not doing so. Enemy AI also seems particularly aggressive in this edition, with a lack of diplomacy options leading to the whole of China ganging up against the player. Graphically there isn't much to get excited about here. However, that's not necessarily a criticism or a surprise. ROTK has always been more focused on stats and menus. That said, in past games the map had an artistic and painted style that was more aesthetically pleasing than XIV's rather bland and uniform one.

The character portraits are well designed, and there are a lot of them which does a good job in making each officer feel unique and like a living, breathing person in this vast conflict. Some of the key officers in the saga are particularly well designed, and it is clear that Koei Tecmo's experience over the years in using these assets and models has paid off. It is just a shame there was no actual battle map in order to show them off to their fullest. It would be remiss also not to mention that at present there is over £35 worth of DLC on sale for the title, even less than two months after release. Those familiar with the series will not be surprised but it is a shame that Koei Tecmo do seem to place a lot of emphasis on paid DLC in building up the game. Indeed, past titles have later received expensive upgrades known as 'Power Up Kits,' adding in 'Officer' mode and a variety of other features and gameplay improvements. It shouldn't be the case that a key feature is hidden behind a paywall.

Screenshot for Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV on PC

Cubed3 Rating

4/10
Rated 4 out of 10

Subpar

In a relatively niche historical setting like this, comparisons between interpretations can be unfavourable. This is most certainly the case with Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV. The veteran series has sadly been outgunned by newer rivals such as Total War, which breathes greater personality and more engaging gameplay into this time period. This one suffers badly from poor game design choices, and a visually dull style, which will put many potential buyers off. While the scenarios are detailed and historically accurate, sadly there is little in the way of control in the overall gameplay loop. Battles are disappointing and confusing affairs, while the turn-based chore of filling up hexes to conquer areas gets old very quickly. With a raft of DLC already available, when there are some basic features missing on release, it is a hard title to recommend to fans of the genre or time period. The best word to describe this? Lacking.

Developer

Koei Tecmo

Publisher

Koei Tecmo

Genre

Strategy

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  4/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date None   North America release date None   Japan release date None   Australian release date None   

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