Sam Brooks reviews Total War: Three Kingdoms and finally finds the definitive Romance of the Three Kingdoms game.
My road to Total War: Three Kingdoms was an unusual one. While for most it’s the latest in the critically-acclaimed, much-beloved Total War series, for me it’s the latest in a long line of Romance of the Three Kingdoms games.
But what is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you, a normal human being with no interest in Chinese literature, ask? Let me, an intellectual, tell you.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a 14th century Chinese novel by Luo Guangzhong that covers the Three Kingdoms period in China (around 187 CE through to 280 CE), an especially turbulent and fraught war that came about at the end of the Han Empire and lasted through to the start of the Jin Empire. It’s one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, along with three other novels you probably haven’t heard of.
To be very clear: I am a Romance of the Three Kingdoms nerd. I’ve played almost every game based on this period in history including, but not limited to: Destiny of an Emperor, all the Dynasty Warriors, Dynasty Tactics, Kessen II and all the strategy games named Romance of the Three Kingdoms (I through XIII). For about five years of my life, I played a forum-based role-playing game set during this period. To be short: I know what I’m talking about.
I’ve written before about how the Three Kingdoms period seems tailor-made for adaptation, due to its many characters and twisty narrative, and it’s been transformed into almost every artform you can name: opera, television, film, anime, and many, many video games. So I come into Total War: Three Kingdoms not as a Total War fan, but as someone who is more familiar with the history of the Three Kingdoms period than I am with the history of my own family.
Which is not the road most people will be going down on their journey to Total War: Three Kingdoms. For many people, especially PC players who don’t have a particular interest in Chinese history or games based on Chinese history, this will be their first encounter with that hundred year period in Ancient China.
And honestly, this is probably the best introduction for a Three Kingdoms newbie.
The Total War games are the artistic and commercial peak of modern RTS (real-time strategy) games. The graphics are the best, the gameplay strikes the right balance – complex enough that there’s a genuine, satisfying learning curve but not so complex that you feel like you’re actually running a government – and there’s an interactive, rewarding interface that makes even the most scant achievement feel satisfying.
Unlike many games of this nature, the balance between the governance half of the game and the military half of the game is perfect. The battles feel just fun and reactive enough that you’ll figure out how to play the game without ever quite gaming it. Total War has created a multi-million dollar franchise from spinning a lot of plates, and all of this carries over to the Three Kingdoms setting unsurprisingly well.
More than any other setting Total War has tackled (Ancient Rome, Sengoku Era Japan, high fantasy realm Warhammer), Three Kingdoms has a multitude of strong, vivid characters to play with and an established narrative structure that people really enjoy.
In order to play into this, Total War: Three Kingdoms introduces a ‘Romance’ mode that allows the player to follow along the story of the novel/history, while superpowering some of the key players in the story accordingly – which means that yes, you probably should not pursue Lu Bu in this game. However, you can also turn it off and just play without ‘Romance’, if you hate fun and playing along to a 14th century Chinese novel.
Having played the game for about ten hours, largely as ‘easy mode’ Cao Cao, I was struck by how similar the game felt to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series. That is, the long-running gaming series based on the novel that, confusingly for this piece, shares the same name as that novel. Like the Total War series, these are strategy games with in-depth governance systems and reactive-ish battle systems. Very much unlike the Total War systems, they tend to be quite barebones and about five people have played them.
At some level, it’s inevitable that the two playable iterations of this story would share similarities. There’s obviously going to be some overlap in the map – because, you know, China is a real place – and in the characters, because they’re from the same source material. But, as a longtime player of that series, since way back when you could count the pixels on two hands, there’s a little tinge of hurt, as a fan, seeing a series with more resources, more time, and more history come in and stomp all over the softly-padded ground. Total War: Three Kingdoms already exists, you guys! It’s just… a little bit worse.
And it’s goddamned hard to fault this game. The learning curve is a little bit steep, and more often than not I ended up overextending myself or going into bankruptcy, even as easy mode Cao Cao, because I hadn’t quite worked my way around the intricacies of the world. So, maybe, if you’re a newbie to the series, set aside a few hours to getting things wrong. But once I’d done my practice runs, I was sailing through the mid-game, and while I’m yet to conquer China, the game shakes things up enough that it never feels like your victory is a done deal.
The biggest factor in the game’s complexity is its approach to diplomacy. It’s here that the game feels most special, and best at incorporating the Three Kingdoms era in a way that’s faithful to the novel. While other games stop short at basic things like alliances, declaring war, maybe even coalitions, the diplomacy in Total War: Three Kingdoms is as intricate as you might find in a Paradox Interactive game. Not only can you create alliances between factions through marriage or simple trade agreements, you can also use your credibility as a ruler to influence people to start proxy wars for your own benefit, or even manipulate someone into liking you less so they’ll break an alliance with you and take the trustworthiness hit. It’s like Pretty Little Liars, really.
Even better, diplomacy actually involves the personalities of everybody involved. Someone like Liu Bei is outwardly virtuous but inwardly calculating, so while he’ll happily ally with you, he might do the dirty behind your back and plot your downfall. Conversely, someone like Yuan Shu is obviously evil, and acts that way, so you’d be silly to trust him, but he might be good to manipulate into a proxy war of some kind. The game is full of these kinds of personalities and characters, and there’s just as much to be gained from learning how to game the personalities as there is to gaming the intricacies of the system itself.
It’s this kind of depth that makes Total War: Three Kingdoms special, and frankly, makes it the definitive Three Kingdoms game – unless if you prefer hack-and-slashing your way through China, in which case, go to Dynasty Warriors 8. Total War has the war, it has the diplomacy, and it has all your (my) favourite characters. And, finally, we’ve got a game with production values deserving of the legendary novel from which it hails. It’s the perfect entry point for a Three Kingdoms newbie, and if you’re a veteran it’s the best excuse to roll around in your favourite era of Chinese history once more. Go pursue Lu Bu!