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Friday, February 12, 2021

Review: Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV: Diplomacy and Strategy Expansion Pack (Nintendo Switch)


Review by Matt S.

It's weird to get an expansion pack for a game that we don't have in its base form on a console, but here you go: The first Romance of the Three Kingdoms to release on the Nintendo Switch in the west is the expansion (with the base game built in, of course). While you've already played the bulk of what the game has to offer if you played the base version on PlayStation 4 or PC, having RoTK on the go is the really sweet good stuff, and it's nice to have a change of pace from Civilization VI on the handheld.


Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV is excellent. As I wrote in my original review: "The most significant change from previous editions of the series and this one is immediately obvious: Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV aims to be as accessible as this series has ever been. The menu system of previous titles often felt like you needed a textbook and degree in order to properly master. Here, in XIV, the action has been streamlined right down to a few clear menu options, with plenty of simple-language information presented through the UI. You'll learn how to play XIV in about an hour, through its narrative-driven and accessible tutorials, and then you'll be good to go.

"However, mastering Romance of the Three Kingdoms takes a lot longer, and for many people, mastering it will be an immensely rewarding process, because it's challenging in just the right way. Rarely are the numbers on your side in trying to conquer China. You're always squeezed in-between powerful enemies, and the only way around that is to have better-trained units, better leaders, and a better strategy for expansion and subsequent defence of the realm. You might think that the best solution is to simply pick the side with the numbers advantage... but then you discover that they're often considered the "harder" nations to win with for a reason. Navigating the rich spreadsheets of number crunching that determine the success of your military, domestic, and diplomatic efforts is most certainly a learning curve, and it genuinely feels great to master. I've always thought that the best strategy games are the ones that allow good strategy to overcome numbers disadvantages - that's proper strategy, in my view - and no series does that better than Romance of the Three Kingdoms."



All of that remains true for this Switch version - in fact, the experience on the console is completely indistinguishable to that of the PlayStation 4. That's not a hugely impressive technical achievement, as the game has always been quite modest in scope, but it's nonetheless an aesthetically pleasing and highly accessible take on the grand strategy genre. Thanks to the expansion, there are some additional strategic considerations; for example, it's now possible to trade with other ancient powers like Rome and India, with new tactical abilities being the reward for doing so. There are also new traits and tactical considerations, as well as "outlander" cities to take into account. In practice, a lot of this stuff is fiddling around the edges and enhancing the base game rather than overhauling it or innovating on it, but it's enough to keep things interesting and varied.

What makes the Three Kingdoms quest a challenge is the fact that you're almost always battling on multiple fronts. Regardless of which force you take control of, you're going to need to look for opportunities to expand, while also dealing with other forces attacking you. Diplomacy is relatively simple by genre standards, but making an alliance with one neighbour is a useful non-combat option to protect one flank for a time. Of course, in the world of Chinese Game of Thrones, alliances are made to be broken, because everyone is aiming for nothing short of total conquest. 

This dynamic was, of course, deliberate on the part of the development team, and indeed it's the central thesis of Romance of the Three Kingdoms itself. The strategists of the era figured that there's a better balance when there are three hostile nations eyeing one another off than when it's just two nations squaring off. One is less likely to invade if they're going to be subject to an immediate incursion in response from their other neighbour. Now, historically this strategy didn't actually stop invasions or, about 2,000 pages of the book later, one force gaining ascendency. However, it did create a kind of ebb and flow to the drama that makes the era tactically and strategically interesting... and therefore the video game fascinating too.


Not everyone has all the time in the world for a full campaign to conquer China. For those people, there is a new mini-campaign mode in the expansion that are focused on single, key, conflicts within the book. Called "War Chronicles," you'll do the same thing that you do in the full campaign, but on a small section of the overall map, and with a dramatically reduced number of warlords in play. At the end of the scenario, you'll earn points, introducing a score attack feature to Romance of the Three Kingdoms which I didn't think it would work (points are usually for arcade games, not serious strategy efforts, after all), but it very much does. It's also a useful training tool ahead of the main conquest mode, because by encouraging you to go after that high score you're also going to try different strategies and come to a more nuanced understanding of the systems. It's an excellent addition, both for the time-poor and those that might find the full game to be overwhelming. 


That remains Romance of the Three Kingdoms' greatest problem; for all the work that Koei Tecmo has done to make the experience accessible and clear, the opening moments can be overwhelming (and incredibly slow). You need to carefully set your generals to their posts, focus each town on production, and start the diplomatic process. In contrast to, say, Civilization VI, where you start out with just a single unit or two, in RoTK, from the first turn, you start in an already advanced state and that first turn can be a painfully dense opening chapter of your campaign. Once you get going it all starts to smooth out and turns flow easily, but that's the opposite order to how most strategy games work. 

Still, once things are running in full it becomes impossible to put the game down, as your units run sorties all over the map and as the war escalates the fortifications and scale of the action becomes ever-more grand. RoTK XIV is an animated equivalent of being a general standing over a map, carefully pushing units around to attack, counter-attack, and feel gaps in the defences. It's a rewarding process. 


With a second season pass to come, RoTK XIV is a significant investment, but it's one of those games that becomes a hobby all by itself. The portable platform suits it, as the clean aesthetics and design look resplendent on the Switch screen, and while it's not exactly a pick-up-an-play experience, it's also the kind of strategy game where you can get a lot done when you've got an hour's spare over lunch or before bed. This is going to be on heavy rotation for a long time to come.



- Matt S.
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb


Review: Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV: Diplomacy and Strategy Expansion Pack (Nintendo Switch)
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