by Jason Parker (Ragachak)
This is the game I’ve been waiting on in this franchise since I first heard about it. I’ve waited years and years for this, and to be honest, I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve been playing the Three Kingdoms games since I was in Middle School, so my expectations were pretty damn high. The Three Kingdoms Era is practically built for this franchise, and the game takes place at the very beginning of the Three Kingdoms Era. We’re right at the end of the Yellow Turban Rebellion, and the land is fractured, perhaps beyond repair. All of the governors, bandits, nobles, and lords are all vying for hegemony (dominance overall, in particular, one country or social group). Total War: Three Kingdoms really runs the gammut of the possible playable factions, too. We have everyone from Governors (Kong Rong), members of the Anti-Dong Zhuo Coalition (Cao Cao), and Potentially Fictional Bandits (Zheng Jiang). For the people that acquire the DLC, you can also play as the Yellow Turbans (with three options for leaders), which I can only imagine will be soul-crushingly difficult.
In Total War: Three Kingdoms, you will always start in the same time period, and there is an overarching story of uniting China under your banner, but each faction also has their own story, and completing the missions that are a part of it are always worth it. The question winds up being “Is it worth it to do it now? Or should I wait”? If you wait too long to deal with a mission that has a faction-kill in it, for example, they could get out of control strong by the time you get around to them. As a fun fact, even though the game will say you need to defeat them (EG: Tao Qian), as long as someone defeats them, that’s all that matters. I still received credit. These personal missions often have very difficult choices to make in them, that will alter the course of events for you. Cao Cao is a prime example of this. Early in the timeline, Tao Qian’s men kill Cao Song, Cao Cao’s father. Regardless of whether Tao Qian actually gave the order, Cao Cao holds him responsible. There’s a choice to bide your time (giving you more of a relationship with Tao Qian) or to go to war with him.
Depending on what you are doing at this time, you could wind up with multiple fronts to do battle on. In one of my playthroughs, I agreed to help Yuan Shao do battle against another faction, putting me in a war on two fronts that I was ill-prepared to deal with. Other characters have similar situations to be put in, such as Ma Teng deciding to declare war on Dong Zhuo or not. There are rewards for succeeding in these tasks and will push forward with your personal story. This creates an additional level of strategy, so you have to consider every single turn and move you make. Each faction also plays differently, which is not new to the Total War franchise. Each faction has their own special units, buildings, and playstyle, so definitely go through each one of them in the starting menu to find what works for you. I personally spent the most time as Cao Cao (my personal favorite of the warlords), though I tried several of them just to get a feel for how they play. It’s good to know that each playthrough will be separated on the load/save screen, each with their own list of save files, so you won’t get them confused.
One of the biggest things about Total War Three Kingdoms, in terms of game mechanics, is that there are two very different ways to play the game. You have the standard historic mode, where the generals are just your army leaders. They’re just normal people, and the battles are slower, and there’s a greater emphasis put on the fatigue and stamina of your units. Romance, however, is the mode I prefer to play. The generals and lords are larger than life characters, with special abilities, passive abilities, and have way more hit points than any of the other units. They can also participate in awesome duels on the battlefield, so they are certainly different experiences and approaches to the same game. I like having the awesome, incredibly powerful generals though. Timing is key for duels. If a battle isn’t going your way, and you can successfully coax an enemy into a duel and defeat them? That general is out of the battle, and his troops will descend into chaos. Take advantage of the tools you have!
The actual turn-based decision making and battles feel similar to the other games in the Total War franchise, so you’ll probably be right at home there. Leveling up your towns will give better bonuses, more buildings to unlock and improve, and as turns pass, you’ll also have Reforms to pass. These come up every Spring (five turns), and they are formed as a huge cherry blossom tree. They are divided into sections: military government, infrastructure, and economy, then philosophy, trade, and agriculture. I tend to build what I’m looking for at the moment, but you really can’t go wrong with higher commerce. Building and maintaining an army is quite expensive, so being able to field an army at a moment’s notice is very beneficial. But there is something that Three Kingdoms fans might not be used to, that needs to be mentioned: Limited numbers of armies. Depending on how high your rank is, you can only field a certain number of armies at a time. You can have a different number of actual armies, but only a certain amount can be in the field. An army consists of a General, and up to two other generals, and each general has an archetype, which is designated by color.
You can tell what they’re good at by the color-coded stats and their color-coded gear. The actual units match these colors too. This is where some of the best strategies come in for me since I want to mix and match the armies to find the best combinations of leader skills+units. When a faction has specific/special units, these are a bit more expensive so I will put maybe one or two out at once, typically for important battles. Characters are not only defined by their skills though. One of the new features is character relationships. One of the common occurrences in the Three Kingdoms era is the bonds the generals share. As characters (friends and family) fight together, their bonds will grow, giving bonuses in defense. However, rivals that fight together will fight with greater zeal, but can also create jealousy and bad feelings. It’s not always going to be a good thing! But these relationships are powerful, and so it’s important to foster these relationships.
Speaking of new features, I absolutely love that you can send a spy into enemy factions (or even friendly factions), and have them report to you. Once you’ve reached a certain rank, you’ll unlock the power to send a character of yours into a specific faction’s territory. If you’re lucky, they’ll get recruited, and they will try to worm their way into the good graces of their lord. The best part about this? If everything goes well, they can become the heir apparent, and if that lord dies, you can steal their territory with little to no effort. They can help you trigger civil wars, rifts between other generals, and more. This is such an amazing feature. The right spy in the right location can make some of your battles much better. Speaking of battles, I love them in this game. Your generals have abilities they can trigger on the field, and since I tend to prefer romance, these lords can really spice things up. Even if a battle is going to be a “decisive failure”, you can work hard, outplay the enemy, and defeat their generals. Once you’ve battered their generals, the morale goes to pot and provided you have the manpower, you can sweep what was going to be a crushing defeat into a brilliant success. If you love the Total War combat engine, this one will really do it for you. It’s beautiful, there are plenty of cities and landscapes to battle across, and should you be ambushed, it’s not the end of the world! There’s an escape point system now, where instead of just trying to win, you can back out and retreat.
Another truly special thing in this Total War game is the Diplomacy system. It’s had such a huge, amazing overhaul. Cao Cao for example, his great skills are in the Diplomacy menu. One of his powers is to incite wars between factions, at the cost of his “credibility”. This is a gauge that will refill over time. Need to secure an alliance? Offer marriage between your daughter and his son! You can create huge, powerful coalitions and deny weaker factions to be a part of them. There are, of course, diplomatic, trade, and military treaties. Once your rank is high enough (Duke), you can bully weaker factions into being your vassal. As a vassal, they mostly have their autonomy, but part of their wealth and income is now yours, and you can order them to fight and die for you. But remember, the actions you take with one faction can (and usually will) have repercussions with the others. These lords aren’t stupid.
There Can Be Only Three: 4.5/5:
Three Kingdoms, that is! Look, they can’t all be winners. But Total War: Three Kingdoms is. There are plenty of factions that all play differently, so there is plenty of replayability. The goal will always be the same (uniting China), but it’s how you get there that matters. The difficulties range from Easy (just Cao Cao), to Very Hard (the Bandits, Yellow Turbans). There are 12 factions, not counting the DLC, and the unlockable Dong Zhuo (reach Emperor rank or defeat him in a game to unlock him). It’s a beautiful game, the challenge is more than the present, the events are interesting, and it really feels to me like they did their homework on the era, the characters, and the environment. It’s chaotic, and even 100/200 turns in, I’m still as vested as I was at the very beginning of a playthrough. Seeing some kind of in-game lore on the characters would also be pretty fantastic, but that doesn’t affect gameplay either. There’s a lot of information to take in, but the game is pretty good about telling you what you need to know. Hovering over most things in the game will give you further details/descriptions if you need it. For fans of the Three Kingdoms era, and fans of the Total War franchise, I doubt you’ll find yourself disappointed here. The Three Kingdoms era is perfect for this engine and franchise, and I’m sincerely satisfied with it.
A code was provided for the purposes of this review.