What was that quote? “A game is a series of interesting choices”. That was something Sid Meier said. He’s the guy that originally made the Civilisation series. It’s pretty simple, and it definitely applies to most, if not every good video game. You see a strange glow in the distance in Breath of the Wild, hear a cry for help in Red Dead Redemption 2, or bide your time before unleashing your ultimate ability in Overwatch. All of these moments require decisions, and because one choice or the other has a meaningful result, these choices are interesting.
I choose this quote because Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV seems to demand an unfair comparison to Civilisation, one because of its new hexagonal map design, but mainly because every decision in this game feels so deeply uninteresting. While there are many interesting ideas littered atop this game and its handful of modes, the core gameplay is surprisingly dull. To complain about micro-managing in a strategy game is a bit like complaining that water is wet, but let me tell you, this water is way too wet.
Story — Create Nothing from Something
Firstly, however, let’s focus on what you may be able to enjoy in RTK14: the story elements. Whether you play the main game or various scenarios (called “War Chronicles”) on offer here, you can experience recreations of the end of the Han dynasty in China and beyond. Romance of the Three Kingdoms takes its name from the hugely important historical novel of the same name, and may offer any history buffs a good time
Starting with the Yellow Turban Rebellion and ending around the Battle of Yiling (depending on what various DLC you’ve downloaded), there is a lot of meaty and exciting parts of history that RTK14 should be able to chew on. The reality, however, is that the story feels so detached from the gameplay that it is pretty difficult to get into. It feels like a very light visual novel just dumped on top of a shallow strategy game.
Even if you focus and take your time with these little vignettes that occur throughout the game, the writing and characterisation is equally shallow. It doesn’t help that the localisation is pretty rough, with numerous spelling mistakes and strange formatting. Simple mistakes aside, however, the writing itself is incredibly 2D, making what could be charming caricatures turn into kids’ TV heroes and villains.
The reason you may be able to enjoy these aspects, at least more than I did, is that you may be more knowledgeable about Chinese history than me. If you’re interested in this stuff the game will inevitably be more interesting, but I’m certain that this has its limitations. At the end of the day, no matter what scenario you choose, you still have the main aim of unifying China, and to do this you have to actually play the game. This is where things get dicey.
Gameplay — A Losing Battle
The way this game works looks like a halfway house between the Total War series of tactical battling and the Civilisation style of multifaceted diplomacy. In reality, though, RTK14 boils down to micro-managing people, endlessly fiddling with units, and trying your best to actually care about it all.
The map is built up of hexagons, just like Civilisation VI, and various regions with “cores” and main cities for you to conquer. Any part of the map changes colour to your colour when one of your armies travels over it, indicating that you now control that hexagon and get the financial benefit from it. In order to conquer these big cities, however, you need to set up an army for a siege.
The issue is that conquering the map isn’t really tactical at all. Make a unit, choose a formation based on what you want to do — wider formations allow you to cover more than one hexagon at a time, other formations allow you to enact tactical manoeuvres more easily — and then set out to conquer the map. If there are no enemies nearby, just sit and wait for the map to be painted your glorious colour.
If there are enemies about, well, then maybe sit up a bit, but you don’t need to do much else. Make sure your army is stronger than theirs and then you should be fine. With this new expansion pack you can set up various traps to lead them down, but, in practice, it was more hassle than just getting a few more soldiers to your army. You ought to build arrow towers and various other morale-boosting buildings around important tactical locations, but that is really the extent of it.
The problem is that battles are completely out of your hands beyond creating an army and doing something with it. From there, the two armies will battle it out, utilising their special manoeuvres to make a big dent in the enemy army. There are also occasional duels, which are full, 3D face-offs between the two leaders. The loser is wounded, again further depleting the army.
While these things seem interesting, all you do is watch them happen. The game decides when a manoeuvre or duel occurs, so while having a stronger officer to lead the army is obviously good, you can’t do much beyond the initial setup. You just move the army to where you want it to be. And, believe it or not, it isn’t interesting.
Diplomacy & Strategy
There are, of course, a bunch of other features. You have “suggestions”, which are little bits of advice from your officers that can increase your money, reinforce an army, demoralise the enemy, or offer various other improvements to your cities. Pay a bit of gold and then they happen. As far as I can tell, you can’t do these of your own accord, you can only do these when an advisor offers the option.
These suggestions aren’t a massive aspect of the game, but the way they work highlights my core problem with RTK14. Most of the time, because you can’t go out and actively choose what to do (instead your officers suggest for you) you just feel like you’re being railroaded by the AI. These computer manifestations of people say you should do this, and you have enough gold in the treasury to do so, so just do it. This isn’t really a decision.
This then applies to many other aspects. When you control a region’s main city, you can assign officers to the different settlements in this region to improve agriculture, income, or your army. You can also assign a recruitment overseer and training overseer in the main city in order to increase the size and quality of your army in this region. It is the press of a handful of buttons, a decision between different statistics, and then you’re done.
You should also appoint officers to administrative duties, which then gives you different advantages in activities such as schemes and battles. Once appointed, again, there isn’t much else to do other than tweak for a different advantage that can have a negligible benefit. Little tweaks can help, but it is hard to care about changing it.
These officers come in many different forms, with thousands to choose from, all with lovely art but little else by way of personality. The sheer number is staggering, but they can’t be as interesting as they need to be because their whole gameplay value is determined by only five different stats. You’re favourite should be the one with higher numbers.
This expansion does include a few new things like foreign trade (give gold to some toga-wearing Roman and get an item in return), geographical advantage (simple big benefits you gain from controlling a large area), and new nomadic tribes (super powerful groups on the outskirts of the map that can’t really be fought so must be reasoned with). These are all big names for tiny little tweaks to the main game.
I would go into more detail as to all the other features but I would just be repeating myself. Officers and the diplomacy system are the centre of pretty much everything outside of battle, and both have little to offer. The officers are just numbers in a list with a pretty picture, and the diplomacy system rarely goes beyond giving something like gold or supplies and hoping for an alliance.
Visuals & Audio — Beauty Trap
The soundtrack is great, with a lovely mix of traditional Chinese motifs and more modern, dramatic orchestrations. But, just like the rest of the game, it doesn’t do much beyond the initial impression. The handful of themes available are all heard by the end of the tutorials, so by the time you get into the game they are just well-orchestrated background noise.
Visually this game is fine, but not pretty. On PC, RTK14 actually looks pretty good, but here it is fuzzy and unreal, with big blocky mountains and barely visible armies. It doesn’t matter in a game like this, at least in my opinion, but it sadly is under par, looking quite a bit worse than its cartoony strategy counterpart Civilisation VI. Down below is a handful of screenshots, with Switch on the left and PC on the right, so you can see what I mean.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV: Diplomacy & Strategy Expansion Pack Bundle was reviewed on Nintendo Switch, with a review key provided by Koei Tecmo.