A bad romance.
A few years back, I was having a chat with my brother about the state of new rock in the 2000s. There was this band, No Age, from Los Angeles that I had really taken to with their album Nouns (2008). Made up of merely two dudes, the band and their immense wall of sound and distortion could be at once deafening and also somehow transcendent; like being submerged by a wave on a thunder-struck shore. No Age harkened back to the era of Sonic Youth circa ‘93. My brother told me, after giving them a listen (in his most cheerfully condescending way), that it was “adorable” that someone out there was still making music like this. I hated him at the moment, but he was right: No Age could seem like merely a rehash of an bygone era and not really at all in fashion in the EDM age.
So now in 2016, I suppose it’s my turn to be the condescending.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is by no means some obscure title like No Age (this being the thirteenth iteration tells you as much), but it feels as irrelevant and ‘why bother?’ as that indie band did to my snobby sibling. At its heart is the umpteenth telling of the legendary Chinese Han Dynasty tale, and the gameplay is, in every way, backwards by today’s standards. This game has no concern in bringing new players in. It is what it is. Period.
But hey, if tedious menu screens, a serious lack of urgency, crippled with interactivity that never tries to be anything more than a board game is your thing, well then… yaaay?
On the plus side, there's something undeniably ambitious (adorable?) about just how much RoTK wants to do. It’s first and foremost a real-time strategy (RTS) game with players mostly looking down on a board at their army while considering the plethora of functions to battle whatever bad guys are approaching. And it’s also a historical epic with a bevy of characters who are represented by static 2D drawings and Japanese-spoken voice-acting. The characters are strictly one-note, but there's definitely a charm to them.
The opening has a mission whereby collecting a good bottle of liquor from a nearby town is required to gain the allegiance of two warlords. Each dialogue exchange is done in that archaic, maddening hit-X-now-to-see-the-next-line-of-text way. The feeling of doing that over and over becomes tiring fast. I wish these would just be a cutscene, honestly.
Also, even though it would be highly inaccurate to suggest that The Han Dynasty was a battle won quickly and cleanly, the abundance of options and the constant need to amass resources to feed and build your clan is unrewarding. To be fair, this can be a common problem with RTSs in general, but it’s the lack of refinement or any kind of attempt at improving the gameplay here that is disappointing. Total Warhammer is also an RTS, but miles more engaging on nearly every level.
Nine years after the last U.S. release, Koei Tecmo’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII can feel like no time as passed at all, which is, in a nutshell, its biggest problem. (It is worth noting that Steam users could have downloaded a non-localized version before this release.) Look, there’s old school charm, like the upcoming JRPG I Am Setsuna, and then there’s just lazy. XIII was nearly a decade coming and there is nothing remarkable about it. Fans of the Three Kingdom tales will fondly recall more engaging takes like Suikoden III from the PS2 era. Ah, yes, fun times…
Hero Mode was where I spent the majority of my time. Each mission is centered on a specific character, er, “hero.” Gradually, like any game, your tasks become more complex. Eventually, you’ll be patrolling the town to keep them in line, upping your alliances, and do rather boring resource management. All of this is, of course, about raising a strong army and using those skills to play out scenarios.
Hero Mode has players in the POV of a specific character. Strung together, these sequences fill in the overarching story from multiple points of views. There are over 700 playable historical people. (There’s also character creation if 700 isn’t enough.) Like the aforementioned liquor run, one of the best things about XIII are the bonding between characters. The positive game attributes to this are bonuses before and during skirmishes.
I played on the PS4, which most definitely added to my frustration. The beginning is especially overwhelming as the menu options are so dull and dense. There's just too much text to read on my HDTV. (On a PC, I assume with the screen up close, it's not a big deal.) RTSs are often not suited for consoles, and this is sadly one such example.
The bottom line: Do you only have a PS4 instead of a PC? Do you still miss old-timey mechanics in RTSs? And hey, who doesn't love the tale of the Three Kingdoms, right? Sometimes things should be left in the nostalgia of our minds than in our hands, but what do I know, I love No Age.
Code provided by publisher. Review based on PS4 version. Also available on PC and Xbox One.