Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI
I'm not built for a game like Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI. I doubt many of us are. These days, your average game is basically an interactive screensaver you watch and pay forty quid for. It's all down to publishers demanding their investments to have as broad an appeal as possible, so developers have to make games so gentle and friendly it's like these patronisingly gentle creations are holding your hand and walking you into the first day of gaming nursery school.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI is not like this. If anything, it probably hates you.
Whilst releasing the game on the same day as the ultra-intuitive, friendly, massively-hyped and universally-popular strategy behemoth Spore is something that I would say constitutes as a 'bad idea' on Koei's part, there's got to be at least a little room in the world for a proper, complicated, turn-based strategy title. At least, I would hope so. Games like this have just got to take a little pride on a devout PC owners gaming mantelpiece. It's the life and soul of the platform.
If it's not been made quite lucid enough, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI is a game packed full of so many minutiae that the tutorial seems to be an entire campaign, and the extensive, exhaustive campaigns themselves could probably be a game in their own right. At a rough guesstimate, expect to spend at least ten hours on each of the eight included in the main game, or the eight bonus predetermined campaigns thrown in for good measure. It's safe to say this one could keep you company until Christmas.
This hefty wodge of gameplay is stitched together without much plot progression. Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI is - like every game in the series - based on a fourteenth century Chinese text, in itself inspired from the period in history where a splintered China underwent reunification. The game chronicles the year 184 to 251, so it pretty much spans the entire history of the book. You're provided with various text-based cut-scenes and the occasional bit of plot, but the overall impression you'll be getting is that you're not so much playing something with a story as you are quietly tip-toeing around a narrative that feels no need to explain or expand on the original book Koei are creatively borrowing from. Whilst this might be alright for a Japanese audience spoon-fed on the source material in their years of formal education, it's still a series remarkably unfriendly to us thickies in the West who have no idea what's going on.
It's probably quite indicative of the game as a whole that you need to read a good chunk of Wikipedia to really get a handle on what's going on. Nothing in this is ever given up easily.
And that's where Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI begins, really. To play the game there's ultimately no way of avoiding the sizable investment of your precious, finite time into understanding the many complexities being demanded of you. This is a strategy game that includes so much detail it wouldn't be surprising if there was a kitchen sink button hidden within all the menus. To simply get far in the campaign you've got to be completely aware of city building, morale, food, finances, social order, training, military strategy, justice, army management, officer recruitment, traps, lying, truce-building, rumour-mongering, general deceit and trade. A weak link in your management can really set the whole thing crumbling, or leave you waiting for turns to get back into the right routine. Mistakes cost, but with so much to work with it's almost always too hard to get by without forgetting something.
It doesn't help that this is my first entry into the series, and if you're a strict PC gamer it's your first chance to play since Romance of the Three Kingdoms VI got released to an American audience in 2000. For fresh players, unravelling the game feels like working with a Gordian knot. The impossibly uphill challenge is going to distance players there and then; I'd imagine there's people who will just stop at the tutorial and try to exchange the game for something simple and explosive like Command & Conquer 3. Part of me certainly wanted to, except I had to plod on for the sake of this review.
Eventually, I found that meticulous planning and managing your resources like the Chancellor of the Exchequer is the key to ultimate success. This is, obviously, easier said than done. The game is like a mental checklist of things you have to remember to carry out: a shopping list for empire management in the Han Dynasty. Does this make it a bad game? No. Deep down it's a good experience, and a great game if you really start to feel at home in its strategic confines. But the crux of the problem is that the game makes no attempt to make you feel welcome, because to do so would force it to dumb down, essentially turning itself into something completely different that would miss out on everything that made it so compelling once you hit a certain point in the first place. It puts itself into a difficult category where you're forced to invest yourself into a title that you're not entirely sure will be rewarding. Ultimately, what's to stop you from just putting the thing down and loading up something like Sim City 4, Spore, Dawn of War or Supreme Commander? Do the cel-shaded graphics ease the pain? No, but then they don't make anything worse. The game looks and sounds nice, but not spectacular. Occasionally you're plonked into some more graphically intensive watercolour-esque duel battles and diplomacy challenges, but really you're going to spend your time chugging away at the map, plodding away at desperately trying to manage everything before your heart collapses from the stress. Perhaps the best part of the presentation is how the art style makes the seasons distinctive, which is a nice touch considering you're going to be going through them many, many times. Really, the only thing that's going to keep you suckling the teats of Koei's war opus is a thirst for the moments when the game comes together and for a few minutes you experience pure bliss.
Because when you finally do get to grips with the fact you're trying to keep an entire encyclopaedia of information in your head, the game turns a new leaf. Suddenly it's captivating, almost serene. If you approach the game like it's something to study you'll likely end up floundering because I've found it's only by reaching a Zen-like status of divine experimental realisation that it becomes truly addictive.
That's all well and good, but it still doesn't help the fact that it's overly gruelling. It's pretty much impossible to wholeheartedly recommend something so distant and alien from your average game. It's like Koei's developers had their fingers stuffed in their ears whilst singing at their top of their voice for the last ten years, so nobody managed to tell them that games these days are supposed to be friendly. It's in this that Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI's triumphs, going against the grain and sticking in the mind of long-time gamers, but it's also the most difficult hurdle as even basic enjoyment of the game takes time.
Coincidentally, any fans of the PS2 version might consider picking up the PC port. Playing with a mouse and keyboard is easily superior for a game of this ilk, there have been various gameplay refinements to make the whole experience a little smoother and those previously mentioned bonus campaigns will keep you busy for a good while.
Ultimately, I return back to the concept of the novel. Forgetting the book Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI is based on, its closest literary companion is probably something written by Tolstoy: long, difficult and hard to get into. But perseverance is rewarded and the game is ultimately unique. It's blatantly not for everyone, and you need to be conditioned to even begin to enjoy it, but there's certainly something deep and rewarding underneath all the layers of trifling bureaucracy.