Saturday, January 13, 2007

Review - Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI

First, a shout out to Concord who has started his very own movie/tv/games review blog. Visit his blog at:

Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI (San Guo Zhi 11) is Koei's latest installment of its long-running and highly successful historical simulation turn-based strategy games. Combining a revamped graphics engine and all-new tactical gameplay, San Guo 11 is by far the best in the series (that I have played - I didn't actually manage to find copies of 9 or 10). Set in historical China, the game follows the epic story of the Three Kingdoms era. Players can choose to conquer China from the perspectives of various warlords, play specific scenarios and famous historical battles, or even create their own generals and officers to introduce into the dramatic saga.

If you've played any of these games before, however, you'll know that those features I just listed are pretty much staples of the San Guo series. What sets San Guo 11 apart from its predecessors is its stylized graphics engine, and the introduction of new units, tactics, and general strategy. Add that to streamlined gameplay and engaging tactical battles, and Koei has really created the best San Guo game in a decade.

Gameplay - 4.5/5

Like its predecessors, San Guo 11 has gameplay that is basically separated into two parts: managing one's cities and managing battlefields. City Management this time around is now much more similar to Age of Empires, where specific buildings need to be constructed in order to provide cities with various resources. For example, markets are needed to provide cities with income, while farms are needed to supply food and rations. Build a barracks to recruit troops, build a blacksmith to forge various weapons, and build a shipyard to allow for sea travel. This new take on city management is much more appealing than in the previous versions of the game, where you basically assigned officers to improve "invisible" aspects of each city. Amidst all the construction, you also have to take into consideration the level of unrest in your city, train your troops, and manage your officers' loyalty. All these factors really force you to plan out your strategy for defeating enemies - Are you going to spend that last reserve of gold for more troops? Or will you spend it on building more markets to increase income in the future?

San Guo's turn-based battles have been hit and miss in the past. 11 is definitely a hit. There are three main types of troops you can deploy, who share a rock-paper-scissors relationship. Spearmen defeat Cavalry, while Cavalry defeat Axemen, and Axemen defeat Spearmen. Further, there are various other units including archers, battering rams, trebuchets, all of which have their own set of unique tactics that can be used on the battlefield. Not only that, but each unit type can eventually be upgraded to have even more abilities. For example, Cavalry can be upgraded to be able to equip bows, making for a deadly combination of speed and range. Spearmen can learn to steal enemy rations when attacking, decreasing morale. Add to that the option of using subterfuge and the ability to have your generals duke it out in one-on-one duels, this game is littered with strategic options and depth. Well planned out strikes are extremely satisfying, as you watch your forces push back significantly larger armies with special tactics and carefully positioned strikes.

Graphics & Sound - 4/5

The series' greatest weakness has always been its graphics, but San Guo 11 has broken through the stereotype by having a very appealing and stylized presentation. The interface is easily accessible and bordered by chinese-style clouds and architecture. Further, the game uses a cel-shaded graphics engine that manages to suit the atmosphere very well. There really is a sense of ancient China as you watch hundreds of little cavalry and spearman units charging at each other. Duels and Debates in the game are similarly impressive-looking. Rather than the static sprites or bland art from the previous series, San Guo 11 opted to flesh out its cel-designs to have very detailed armor and animations for these specific battles. The end result is impressive and almost cinematic.

Sound is standard. The music is fitting, with sweeping orchestral melodies during times of peace that switch to pounding and tense drums during war. As the player conquers more and more of China, the overland tune becomes more and more dramatic and invigorating.

Story - 4/5

Of course, the main core of the story is taken from the actual San Guo novels, but the execution here is very well done. Each scenario is preceded by a nice cinematic, and players have the option of watching actual events in the novels unfold during gameplay. Stand back and watch as the tyrannical Dong Zhuo is betrayed by his most powerful general, the insidious Lu Bu. Watch as the blood-brothers Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei court the most revered of tacticians, Zhuge Liang. Regardless of which warlord you play as, events unfold as you begin to establish a major foothold in China. Choose to either support the last of the Han Dynasty, or to crush it and establish a new empire of your own. Form alliances with like-minded warlords, or break them to seize new territory. However you choose to conquer China - As the people's liberator or the merciless dictator - your name will be forever etched in the minds of all its citizens.

Overall Score: 4.5/5

San Guo 11 has exceeded my expectations for the series by a huge leap. Its one weakness is inherent to all San Guo games - the length. It takes a long time to conquer China, and if you don't have the patience to sit down and spend a good chunk of your life to do it, you probably shouldn't waste your time trying. This is not for the casual player. But for those of you who enjoy deep and engrossing tactical gameplay, I can not recommend this enough to you. English players, expect a port to the PS2 in early February 2007!

...Oh, and did I mention if you beat the game you can unlock special abilities for your generals? There's nothing quite like raining down lightning from the sky to smite your enemies. :)

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