I’ve always been what some people call a “console peasant,” and lately I’ve been wearing that derogatory distinction like a badge of honor. Even I have to admit, though, there are some genres that need a little extra help when they come to consoles. For example, the recent decision to cut down the power of Torbjörn’s turrets in the console version of Overwatch helps account for the relative lack of accuracy that comes with playing first-person shooters on a controller. So when I started up Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII, the thirteenth entry in the menu- and click-heavy strategy series, you’ll forgive me for assuming the PS4 version must have some intuitive interface options for console players.
After all, they are thirteen games in, right? Well, unfortunately, this Romance seems to have been doomed from the start: with clunky controls and poor guidance through the game’s complex systems, it’s unlikely that Koei Tecmo’s going to draw in any newcomers with this iteration of the franchise — although current fans might enjoy what it has to offer.
At its heart, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is a complex, multifaceted strategy game that involves juggling multiple resources, locations and characters as you attempt to build a successful empire. The title pulls each of these things from the historical backdrop of China’s imperial dynasties, with major warlords like Lu Bu and Dong Zhuo at your playable disposal. My problems with the game really come down to just two things, although they’re big ones.
First of all, it really doesn’t feel optimized for a console experience, a fact that baffled me considering the franchise’s long history on various systems (the first game, which came out in 1985, graced the Nintendo Entertainment System!). Many of the screens are an absolute chore to sift through, with cumbersomely small, ambiguous icons and nightmarish menus that barrage you with too much information at once.
As a newcomer to the series, it was rarely clear to me exactly what order I should do things in or what certain in-game terms meant — since there are almost no tooltips or descriptions in sight, I spent a lot of my time using the “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” method for decision-making. For a series that’s been on consoles for over three decades, it’s sad that the developers weren’t able to sort out an intuitive or visually-appealing UI here.
The other big problem, sadly, is that even the “tutorial” mode the developers put together is not an adequate guide for franchise newbies. Called Hero Mode, this is a sort of “My First Romance of the Three Kingdoms” that takes you through a mini-story while also attempting to teach you the ropes on the game’s multitude of complicated systems. The problem is, well… I think I may have come away more confused than when I started.
First off, while the game does go through a number of important mechanics — for example, how to win the favor of other warlords, or how to successfully crush an opponent in a debate — I never really felt like it spent enough time on any of these individual elements to give me a real feel for them. Oftentimes, you just read through some long instructions, take a crack at the gameplay yourself, then proceed unceremoniously to the next thing (and in my case, forget what it was you learned in the first place). Second, I don’t think Hero Mode does a good job of showing you how all these different actions fit into the larger context of a campaign. So I learned how to train my army — so what? What’s the concrete, tangible, quantitative benefit to doing that? I found myself asking questions like this over and over again, eventually becoming too bored and frustrated to bother.
It’s a shame, because I know there are some folks out there who might really enjoy the hyper-detail-oriented, cerebral gameplay that Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII offers. Watching Hero Mode take me through all the little nooks and crannies gave me a real appreciation for how dedicated some people can be to such technical, often mathematical strategy, and how committed some developers are to crafting such intricate systems. At the same time, though, I couldn’t help but feel disappointment as I was effectively locked out from being able to learn and enjoy the offerings myself. That includes the story: the historical fiction here does come off a little dry (which I’ve considered just might be a side-effect of the genre), but it does imbue its tale of ancient Chinese warlords with a lot more humor and drama than I expected, which made me extra-disappointed that my patience ran thin long before I got to appreciate it in greater detail.
I’ve already talked about the interface aspect of the presentation — it’s not good, to say the least — but how does the rest of the game fare? Well, as you might expect for a game that deals with a lot of menus and fiddly bits, it’s kept pretty visually simple. Static art makes up most of the storytelling, although it’s accompanied by a passionate Japanese voice cast who are clearly giving it their all. A similar amount of passion seems to have gone into the soundtrack, which lends a cinematic quality to the historical tales — a bit ironic given the lack of real action actually taking place onscreen, but effective nonetheless.
I went into Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII hopeful that it might be the game to help me break through my difficulty with the strategy genre. Unfortunately, I was only met with an interface poorly optimized for consoles and a “tutorial” that made me more confused than informed. I’m guessing that players who already understand and love this sort of deeply complex gameplay will enjoy what it has to offer, but I can only report on what I know: that Koei Tecmo’s attempt to draw in newcomers has fallen short of the mark.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms seems to want to welcome newcomers with its Hero Mode, but will easily turn them away with its convoluted interface and lackluster set of tutorials.