Faced before me is the daunting task of trying to quantify Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII (RTK13) in a manageable amount of words. In many ways, this game as well as this franchise could be considered the Magnum opus of KOEI Tecmo. We are talking about a game that celebrates the 30th anniversary of the franchise, originating in 1985 long before KOEI and Tecmo merged in 2009. This is a game so massive and so encompassing that it could literally be the last game you ever needed to buy if you were truly dedicated to experiencing all it has to offer and that’s not even taking into account the customization options also available to players. While this is not my favorite KOEI Tecmo title or franchise, it is certainly some of their most impressive work to date.
RTK13 is filled with a number of different visual aspects and styles. It’s hard to judge because there are so many different pieces that look nothing alike in terms of art techniques used. The opening cinematic is a beautiful sequence that expresses the care and history that has gone into this installment of the franchise. But it is a bit misleading because it in no way expresses the gameplay of this particular title except for maybe the duels which are a very small fraction of what the gameplay has to offer. It actually reminds me of a number of other games I’ve played by KOEI Tecmo such as Dynasty Warriors and Kessen. The actual gameplay is composed of a combination of comic style sequences, still image cutscenes, a detailed map view, a mildly detailed city view, a battle mode, a negotiation mode, a duel mode, and a debate mode. I have to mention all these modes by name because they each really do look noticeably different. Even the menus come in multiple styles. It is this wealth of graphic styles that makes the game both impressive and hard to judge on a visual level.
Overall the game looks very nice but some modes/sequences look way better than others while at least one of them looks rather disappointing by comparison. The duel mode looks like something out of Dynasty Warriors but with only two warriors on the field. It’s a beautiful display of color and grace that truly expresses the cultural heritage this franchise has always tried to convey. The still art cutscenes though not 3D rendered are comprised of beautiful hand drawn images filled with a vibrant array of colors down to the smallest detail. The map mode is not nearly as pretty, but it is no less impressive in the amount of detail and data presented in a 3D rendered third person view that can smoothly be traversed, zoomed, and navigated with no lag. The battle mode is simple in general design and won’t impress you like other games from the studio going all the way back to Kessen (2000) in the PS2 era. But it is a very smooth running, easy to interpret, and highly detailed depiction of the battlefield from chessboard view. In this game you are moving entire regiments and armies around yet they still built in little visual details like showing archer volleys flying from one force into another. They may have opted to use simpler styles in many places throughout the game but they did not softball those aspects in on a quality level.
The only mode that I was personally unimpressed by on a visual level was the negotiation mode. I don’t know why or how this happened, but the negotiations, which take place in throne rooms and grand halls, just weren’t rendered well. The quality of them pales in comparison to the rest of the game. They are highly detailed in what’s presented, but the quality of the visuals is noticeably lacking. They seem slightly pixelated and a bit dimmer compared to other well-lit set pieces. They are no less impressive in the amount of objects including NPCs and decorations included in the scenes, but they just don’t look as clean as the rest of the game does. This may only be the case on the PS4 though since I haven’t tried the PC or XB1 versions of the game. All in all this game is not about graphics the way many of the other games from the studio are. The visuals are quite good, but they aren’t meant to impress you the way they are in many of the other titles produced by KOEI Tecmo.
The gameplay is impossibly vast in all aspects. There is so much to do in this game that I could spend the length of most of my reviews just talking about that. I will do my best to summarize it in a manageable number of words here, but I make no promises. RTK13 is a war simulation game. But not in the way that Civilization, Age of Empires, or Starcraft are. This is a top to bottom full simulation of all aspects of waging conquest. Not just war, as in the battles, but the full process of conquest. You can and must do so many different things in this game that just trying to fully understand what you are capable of doing will take you several hours if not days to fully grasp. There are two modes of play available. Hero mode, which is essentially an expansive tutorial in the form of a story based campaign. And Main mode, which is an all-out free play mode that allows you to do whatever you want whenever you want with the ultimate goal of unifying China. Yes this sounds like a daunting task and yes it is a daunting task. In this game you can go about your quest for unification by using a combination of diplomacy, war, intimidation, bribery, and even seduction. To do all this you will have to do things such as build and invade cities, form bonds with other clans and cities by forming bonds with specific people of various ranks, train armies, setup farming plans, build morale by developing culture and influence to name a short list of examples. Every detail of the gameplay has been painstakingly crafted to give you the most expansive experience possible. Even just to meet new characters you have to obtain letters of introduction from characters you are already acquainted with. There are a whopping 700 officers that can be met as well as the ability to create your own custom officers that can be inserted into the game in whatever location you want them to.
The game starts by having you pick an officer to play as and forming a council around him/her. Yes there are both female and male playable officers based on real people from the historically accurate time period. You must delegate cabinet positions and duties, build relationships with officers, and choose which officers to promote, hire, and release from service. Time is a factor in the Main mode gameplay. There are multiple scenarios to choose from with different starting conditions and formed alliances, but your goal of unifying China remains the same. Each scenario starts at a different year but you ultimately have until 350 AD to unify China or it’s game over. The first scenario starts in 184 AD. Time passes slowly enough but it can easily get away from you. It’s counted in days and seasons are a factor as well as years passing. You must travel between cities which takes a certain number of days depending on the distance. The map mode will actually show your character riding a horse to the next location and count the days in the process. At the end of each season, weather conditions change and officers are awarded based on their accomplishments. Time can be paused at any time, allowing you to think about decisions, but it will have to progress for those decisions to take place. Waiting is a part of the gameplay as well, which will get irritating for some players. Officers can also die both in battle and of old age. An heir for your main officer must be selected before death or you will also be handed a game over. You can start each game in whatever position as whichever officer you want and can choose to play however you prefer. I believe it is actually possible to complete the entire unification without waging a single battle depending on how you set the starting conditions which you can choose to customize if you want to.
Admittedly the gameplay is very time consuming and hard to figure out at first. It’s very open ended which allows you a lot of control, but in many ways so much freedom is a hindrance because you just don’t know what to do. The game does help with this problem in a number of ways. Your council will make suggestions about what your immediate goals should be. Competing forces will also force actions upon you by challenging you to debates, duels, and even full scale battles. The idea of the game truly is to simulate what the real experience of running a clan in a disjointed China would be like. It’s the intimidation felt by all the freedom in this game that makes me prefer the Hero mode. This is the historically accurate presentation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms story from Chinese history/mythology. It follows the stories of a number of different real life figures and the roles they played to ultimately lead to the unification of China. It’s broken up into sequences that each give you different goals and teach you different aspects of the gameplay in order to prepare you for the Main mode. The game even starts by recommending you to play through the entire Hero mode before starting the Main mode and rightly so. It has many limits placed upon it to focus your attention on just a few aspects of the gameplay with each level in order to ease you in to the various gameplay mechanics required to play the Main mode.
There are also a few mini-games that are important to the gameplay such as dueling and debating. These mini-games are not an extra aspect of the game. They are a key means of gaining influence within the game. You can challenge officers to duels and debates and you can be challenged to them. You can choose to decline challenges but that will negatively affect your influence. Your performance in these mini-games is affected by the stats of the officer you’re using. Characters have a number of different stats such as oration, intellect, strength, and fighting style. The mini-games work like a slightly more complicated version of rock, paper, scissors but with a few more options and possible outcomes. What I really like about the way these mini-games are setup is that it tells you which moves you can beat, tie, or lose to before you make the move you ultimately choose. Your goal is to predict what the computer will choose and to make the right decision but certain moves are more and less effective than others and require different amounts of energy which must be rebuilt when used. These 1-v-1 battles of either whit or physical prowess come with life bars and your goal is obviously to make sure their life bar drops to 0 before yours does. Duels and debates cannot be replayed. The outcomes of them will have an effect on your immediate and possibly distant future and you must live with them. You can however save and load whenever you want which will return you to the exact time and circumstances you were in when you saved the game. Ultimately the gameplay is excellent and full of variation to make sure you never get bored as long as you’re willing to take the risk of varying your style of play. I will say that it’s not as exciting as other war simulation franchises by KOEI Tecmo in many ways, but that’s an intentional design decision.
The sound in RTK13 is excellent. The music is an expansive list of tracks which already includes several additional songs available via free DLC. You can customize the game’s background music playlist at any time from the start menu or main menu. The songs are composed with traditional Chinese instruments such as the Guzhen and several others you’ve probably seen in movies. The sound effects, though not nearly as noticeable in tabletop war simulation games as they are in battle simulators, are still quite expansive and of the highest quality. Because this is mostly you giving orders the effects are mostly tones for making choices and the occasional gong or chime. But there are also things like war cries, various tones for both victory and failure, and a number of other things such as your horse running. The battles and duels do include fighting sound effects such as weapons clashing and troops rallying. The true audio experience comes from the voice acting though. Now admittedly the experience is lost on people like me who don’t fluently speak Chinese of Japanese, because the vocals are only available in those two languages, but as a person who speaks Chinese mildly and can read the audio quality of a game regardless of the language, I can say that it’s excellent. You can hear/feel the emotions and personalities of the characters when they speak even if you can’t really understand them without reading the subtitles. The sound is overall top notch. There is a bit of lag in the dialog to subtitles timing when you are pushing it forward manually, but that’s to be expected considering how detailed the subtitles are. There’s even subtitles just for grunts in certain places.
The writing is excellent in this game. It’s historically accurate and educational, while also being realistic and human. There are 700 different historically relevant characters and the game makes sure to give you the options to play the game historically as well as customized depending on your interests. There is a ton of dialog as well as background bios and extra reading for every officer in the game and the general history of the era. It’s important to note that if this isn’t the first time you’ve played a KOEI Tecmo war game there is a good chance you’ve seen a lot of this writing/plot before. This is the 13th installment of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms franchise and it’s always based on the same general story. There are also other games from the studio based on the same story such as Kessen 2 (2001). The Main mode has some story aspects to it as well as cutscenes, some of which also appear in the Hero mode, but it’s really more about dialog. The plot is what you get from playing the Hero mode and it’s done in a very personal way addressing both historical moments such as political events as well as very down to Earth human interactions such as three of the characters having a drink at a tavern.
There is also a ton of manual reading that’s extremely helpful if you want to fully understand the gameplay. The game has many help messages and pop-up notes about different aspects of the various gameplay options and multiple HUDs. You can turn these off, but I don’t think I ever would even after reaching a high level of experience just because there’s so much to remember. The manuals are written with bullet points to try and make them easier to understand and glean while playing, but there is a lot to read regardless so it can be a bit overwhelming. But you can access all the manual instructions from the pause menu or online at any time. Ultimately I was very pleased with the general state of the writing, but I will admit that it’s easy to get lost and forget where to find certain types of in game information you want such as current objectives.
RTK13 has so much replay value that it’s impossible to quantify in any realistic way. Between the various gameplay options and styles, the six starting scenarios, the customization of both characters and power distribution, the 700 different officers to choose from and interact with, the additional DLC, much of which is free, and the ability to make your own custom officers make this game indeterminately long. There are 43 trophies, including a platinum, asking you to do a number of different things as well as some more time consuming stuff such as win a specific number of duels. The Hero mode, which should be considered the story based campaign aspect of the game for those looking for one, will alone take you somewhere in the realm of 10 to at most 20 hours. But even this has some replay value in it as well as currently four additional DLC stages, one of which is free at the moment. There are also some at cost DLC scenarios for the Main mode. Even without the DLC, this game is going to take you well over 60 hours if you let it and is totally worth the AAA price tag. When it comes to dollars to hours of gameplay, KOEI Tecmo rarely disappoints. And their games are high quality experiences as well.
I really like Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII, but it is admittedly not for everyone. It’s a much slower paced gameplay than many people prefer and requires chess style thought on a much grander scale. If you’re looking for something that’s a bit more mild as far as mechanics, but not necessarily as battle focused as Dynasty Warriors from the same studio, I would actually recommend Samurai Warriors 4: Empires which takes aspects from both franchises. But if you do want a fully thought focused war simulation game that will make you question every move and have noticeable future consequences set in a historically accurate Asian period, RTK13 is the only valid choice currently available. Overall I highly recommend this game provided you truly understand the commitment that it asks from you as a player.
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