I’ve been playing Koei Tecmo’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms (RTK) offerings since the SNES days. While it’s true that the company relies on an age-old formula, the franchise remains popular due to its depiction of Chinese history. Unfortunately, this tired formula, combined with nonsensical mechanics and notable omissions, has become a detriment to Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV, the latest installment of the series. It just might be one of the most disappointing RTK titles I’ve played. Let’s delve into detail in our official review.
Note: For more information about the game’s mechanics, head over to our Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV guides and features hub.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV: The story so far
Koei Tecmo’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms is based on one of Luo Guanzhong’s works, Sanguo Yanyi. This sweeping epic combines fantastical elements and history and is likewise considered as one of the pillars of Chinese literature. Set during the waning years of the Han Dynasty, it tells the tale of rival warlords, heroic feats, amazing duels, dastardly plots, mysticism, and larger-than-life characters.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV still has numerous scenarios for you to pick starting from the battles between the Han Dynasty and the Yellow Turbans to the rise of Sima Yi and the foundations of the Jin Dynasty. Historical scenarios are accompanied by a short cinematic giving you a backdrop of the current situation. Sadly, these cinematics seem to be missing when it comes to fictional scenarios (such as one that pits the descendants of Cao Cao against each other).
As for events, there are quite a number of these throughout Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV’s campaigns. While seeing their respective requirements/event triggers and dialogue can be a welcome sight, many of these events are for the main faction leaders.
For instance, I played the 194 CE scenario (“Warlords”) as Lu Bu, known as the mightiest warrior in China at the time. Historically, Lu Bu was part of a three-way battle for Yan Province; his rivals were Cao Cao and Liu Bei. The novel details many of his exploits such as attempting to arrange a marriage between his faction’s and Yuan Shu’s, allying with Liu Bei only to betray him in the end, being cruel to his subordinates, the flooding of Xiapi, his pleas for mercy as he was about to be executed, and Cao Cao’s recruitment of the brave Zhang Liao.
To my surprise, all the events in the “Warlords” scenario focused on the exploits of the leaders of the Three Kingdoms (Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Sun Ce/Sun Quan). Not a single one was tailor-fit for Lu Bu be it historical or ahistorical events. Even other notable rulers such as Ma Teng, Gongsun Zan, Yuan Shao, Yuan Shu, and Liu Biao got shafted. The remaining “general” and “attainment” events were purely generic “develop a city” or “defeat your rival” affairs.
Empire management versus role-playing
There are two kinds of Romance of the Three Kingdoms players. Some prefer the RPG-esque concepts that focus on character development and building relationships. Others, meanwhile, like the macro, empire-building mechanics. I belong to the latter group. As such, I mostly gravitated towards the older installments as well as the sixth, ninth, and eleventh games in the series; RTK 11 happens to be my favorite as well.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV is somewhat similar to those aforementioned titles. You play as the ruler of a faction, not as a vagabond or a retainer looking to make a name for yourself. Those who loved the RPG concepts may be disappointed by this iteration. However, if you’re someone who does like the empire management aspect, you’ll feel the same sense of despondency. That’s because Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV‘s mechanics just don’t mesh well together.
Pause-and-play that makes you want to pass instead
Firstly, there’s the “pause-and-play” concept. This is poorly implemented in Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV‘s grand strategy presentation where all the action takes place on a massive campaign map. It’s somewhat akin to Romance of the Three Kingdoms IX‘s system, except worse.
Imagine a paused tactical phase where you move half a dozen armies one by one and have to anticipate where they’d end up, how they’d reposition, or if they’d somehow get stuck. The most you can do during the tactical phase is assign waypoints and targets. Once you hit “play,” all your orders, including battlefield skills and duels, are then automated and fire seemingly at random. After each phase ends, you’re then taken to a screen that gives you a summary of the previous turn. This also has a significant effect of taking you away from the action.
Fans of Koei Tecmo’s games may even remember pausable real-time strategy features in other RTK titles or those in Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence. Still, those examples let you input new commands whenever the game is paused. In Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV, very little control is provided to the player which means offensives lack tactical cohesion and strategic depth.
Moving around Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV’s campaign
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV‘s ruler actions such as recruitment or promotions are set on a global or faction-wide scale similar to previous games. These have your entire pool of officers visible. Now, for some inexplicable reason, the resources aren’t pulled globally. Instead, they’ll come from wherever your leader is residing.
For instance, if you play as Liu Bei and give a gift to Sun Quan, then the gold will originally come from your capital Chengdu. But if you march with Liu Bei’s army to capture a city, the gold value being used will come from that newly captured city instead. Thus, you’ll need to keep moving resources around depending on your ruler’s location. It makes no sense.
Likewise, officer management can be a little confusing. In previous titles, officers in transit (or those who’ve got a pending action) will no longer appear on assignment lists unless they’re idle. That’s not the case in Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV. It’s possible to summon several officers to a new settlement and they’d somehow still appear as options for their previous settlement, nullifying your command or leading to perplexing situations.
City management and map-painting simulator
Strategy players will also be aware of criticisms such as how the campaigns in various franchises turn into glorified “map-painting” slogs. Well, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV takes that idea one step further in a bad way.
The game adds special hexes known as “cores” near cities, and capturing these will provide extra income. The problem is that you also need to control every hex in every zone to gain the maximum benefit. Combine this with the aforementioned “pause-and-play automation” and you’ll realize that your units tend to roam around randomly when automated, wasting several turns just to fully control an area. This tedious process becomes apparent as early as the tutorial.
It’s also possible to capture the cores of enemy provinces with your units, and then assign an officer to manage it. This will passively occupy more hexes each turn, albeit costing gold in the process. Funnily enough, capturing the enemy city that those cores belong to automatically dismisses your assigned officers from their positions, and you’d need to reassign them again. Relying on viceroys or districts is also moot due to how inept the AI can be when managing your lands.
Is this the real Total War: Three Kingdoms?
While your actions each turn in Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV are limited, the very options you could undertake are also sorely lacking. Domestic options simply include the assignment of officers to various posts to increase resources, and there are only a handful of plots or schemes to destabilize a rival faction.
Even worse, diplomacy options are woefully barebones. You can only give resources to increase diplomatic relationships and form/dissolve an alliance. It’s going to take a long while (Grand General rank) until you could ask allies to attack a location or demand a faction’s submission. You can’t even ask for cores or exchange territories. It’s funny when you realize that Total War: Three Kingdoms — a game which has “total war” in the title — has more diplomacy and espionage options than this one.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV review: The final verdict
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms series’ vaunted create-an-officer feature is still here, which is a good thing. Likewise, a free-LC lets you use historical officers from other time periods and even those from anime tie-ins. Then again, the overall feature is still lacking in terms of presenting you with helpful information. Information such as traits and skills remain opaque, and floating tooltips would’ve been more helpful rather than having to check out other panels.
Of course, it’d be more exciting if Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV had additional scenarios and events to freshen things up. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, these, including the unlockable “Gathering of Heroes” scenario, will leave you disappointed. Oh, and the debating mini-game has been removed and the game is also locked at 30 FPS.
What you have here is a map-painting simulator with simplified (and wasteful) pause-and-play automation. If for nothing else, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV shows that the series is behind the times, and Koei Tecmo can’t simply rely on the same old schtick while introducing questionable mechanics. Just like Lu Bu, this game should not be pursued.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV is available via Steam. You can purchase the game for $53.99. Please note that while the game has been available since January 2020, English localization has only been added recently. This is also considered as its western release.