Strategy used to have a comfortable home on PlayStation: ports of Westwood's Command & Conquer series, Bullfrog's Theme games and the likes of Populous and The Bitmap Brothers' excellent Z, can often evoke fond memories in many a 'Station stalwart. But the genre fell by the wayside in later generations, with a slim selection on the PlayStation 2 and only the voice command-driven Tom Clancy's EndWar and R.U.S.E. on the PlayStation 3.
Given that the presence of this kind of game is a rarity, with the only other PS4 title of note being the more action oriented Nobunaga's Ambition, diving into a RotTKXIII (quite the mouthful) game for the first time can be a daunting experience. Even with Hero mode – which is designed to ease newcomers in – it's still easy to get lost in the many systems and mechanics at play here. Nevertheless, the learning curve is forgiving and it won't be long before you're negotiating around unnecessary conflicts, calling in the debts of neighbouring provinces and schmoozing your way into the military hierarchy of imperial China.
This being a war game, it's worth noting that the meat of RotTKXIII doesn't take place on the battlefield, but rather your military victories hinge entirely on your ability to adequately prepare for combat via socio-political manoeuvres and economic balancing acts. A full campaign has the end goal of unifying all of China, which is an unsurprisingly difficult task. You will need to train up your armies in various disciplines, ensure your people's continuing fealty, and slowly build relationships with your officers and fellow leaders.
The relationship system is the backbone of diplomacy in the game; introducing and ingratiating yourself with others is integral in building up your forces and consolidating power. Developing friendships can be done in several ways. Regular missions, for example, will earn you favour with others, and existing alliances can offer introductions to open up further lines of communication. Elsewhere, banquets can be thrown to spread awareness of your potential as an ally, and simple gifts can open up further options. Relationships work towards military recruitment as well, with a neat touch being the ability to have forces defect over to your side depending on how strong their current loyalties are.
As exhausting as all of that sounds, the actual execution is far more satisfying and weirdly fun. It helps that the game livens up what might have been tedious aspects of a campaign. Debates turn a simple act of diplomatic negotiation into a goofy 1v1 battle, which culminates in the loser receiving a choice epic burn, like, ''You have no skill in eloquence." Duels are similar head-to-head battles that pit you against an opponent in mounted combat, usually triggered while patrolling the streets of a city or during a battlefield melee.
Then there's the battles themselves, tactical skirmishes in which you will have to utilise all of the skills and abilities that you have earned manoeuvring the game's city and people management sections. It's hugely rewarding to see all your resource management and political busywork pay off in conflict – it's just unfortunate that some technical issues can hamper enjoyment of these battles.
Framerate dips that become apparent when traversing the world map, are even worse when the arrows start to fly. Elsewhere, the series standard camera is as slow and janky as ever, especially during naval struggles, which might see you fighting with the controls as much as you fight the opposition. Thankfully, these feel like minor quibbles, considering the actual conflict is only one small aspect of this grand historic simulation.
There's a decent chunk of extra content outside the main campaign, making up for the lack of any form of multiplayer. The aforementioned Hero Mode is a story mode-cum-tutorial that takes place during the Yellow Turban Rebellion and has you take control of the Han Dynasty's major players. Chapters centre on the melodrama taking place in the titular kingdoms, and you play out events from all angles; one minute you're rebuilding a city you just conquered as Sun JIan, then you'll be keeping Dong Zhuo's subjects in check as the formidable Lu Bu – whom you later woo using the game's charm mechanic as Diao Chan. It's all heavily stylised, a bit silly, and highly enjoyable.
Outside of the main game, there's a robust creation mode, where you can make your own officers or edit existing ones. Creating a new legend – complete with ancestry and placement within history – is a welcome addition, and tinkering around with the configuration of existing heroes can further extend the game's lifespan and answer the burning question of just how Lu Bu could be any more of a badass.
It would be unfair to dismiss Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII as yet another niche instalment in Koei's ageing series of war sims. There is real depth to city management and a refined complexity to the relationship system, bolstered by a welcome sense of fun. Some minor technical issues mar the battle scenes, but this is such a solid package overall that it's hard to grumble. There isn't much competition, but this is still the best strategy game on the PS4.