I’ve been playing the Romance series since its inception and somehow they just keep making them better with improved gameplay twists and new things to do in each new release.  I was a little skeptical about Romance of the Three Kingdoms IX because ROTTK VIII was released not six months ago.  I popped in the game with the assumption that IX would just be more of the same with a tweak or two.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Romance of the Three Kingdoms IX is a complete rework of the series and incorporates plenty of great new things with only a barely noticeable loss in the old gameplay that diehards like me love. The graphics for the ROTTK series have never been impressive as the focus has always been on the gameplay.  Although ROTTK IX sees some big changes in gameplay, the graphical flair is about the same as it has always been.  The map of China has been drastically improved upon, as the new game puts the player in an almost constant isometric view.  Cities all look very similar, but may differ in color or have a different look depending on status and level of development.  Fighting armies all look exactly the same except for the identifying flag, differentiated only by its home nation’ color.  No one has ever played a Romance game for its graphical splendor.

I’ve always loved the music in the ROTTK series.  Most of the soundtrack is made up of old style Chinese music with classic Chinese instruments.  ROTTK has the same type of musical content and each of the compositions is pleasing to listen to.  I definitely noticed that I enjoyed the music in IX more than in previous iterations.

Sound effects are basic and standard fare.  In battles, duels or tactic attacks, the sounds are all very similar.  You’ll hear the shouting of men, clanking of weapons, and a whoosh for special effects.  Nothing too impressive.  It’s all mostly standard stuff and about what I expected.  The effects aren’t bad or annoying and they do the job effectively.

Effects in all other parts of the game consist mostly of menu navigation sounds.  Again, nothing annoying and the effects work.

Can’t get anymore basic that this.  Menu driven interface: Triangle cancels, X selects, Circle Confirms and Square is used for miscellaneous things like page up and down.  I really liked the added functionality of the Circle confirm button as it helps speed things along.  If you’ve selected something, instead of navigating down to the “OK” button on your screen you can hit Circle instead.  Nice.  Nothing much else to say here.  The controls work well!

For those unfamiliar with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series the overall goal of the game is to unify China under one flag.  You begin the game by choosing what year you would like to begin playing, and choosing which force to command.  If you’d like you can even create your own officers and make your own force to see how you’d fare in the history of China.  You build up your cities and regions, hire troops, and siege enemy cities to expand your own empire on your way to total domination.

In the past, the series’ gameplay was a little more focused on the individual officer, giving the game an RPG flavor.  You could rise in the ranks, defect to a different force or even become a ronin.  This has been dropped in ROTTK IX and I was sorely disappointed.  All is not lost however as KOEI has also made huge changes to the game flow and battle system.

The style of play falls under the turn-based strategy.  Each turn represents a certain amount of time, in ROTTK IX’s case: 10 days.  Each turn is broken into two phases: Strategy phase and Action phase.  Strategy phase is where you make all your plans and give all your orders.  You have a multitude of options available to you but for the most part, each option requires ‘elbow grease’ so you must command your officers to do most of the work.  As in previous games, there are four main improvable city characteristics, Defense, Trade, Farms, and Trust.  The defense plays a huge part in siege warfare and I’ll talk about that later.  The trade statistic is directly proportional to the amount of gold the city generates at the end of each of the seasons (each being 3 months in length).  The farms stat translates into how much food is produced at harvest time, which happens once per year.  Food is important to keep your troops happy and make sure they don’t desert.  A city’s trust affects how many troops you can draft each season and also affects your overall reputation across China.  Other city options include hiring other officers, searching for talented officers or special items, dealing with prisoners, diplomacy with other forces, marching or moving troops, rewarding and training your officers and other minor tasks.

Reputation is very important as it greatly affects your diplomatic options with other forces, your ability to recruit officers and most importantly your rank according to the Emperor.  The higher your rank the more troops your officers can take into battle.  Your rank also allows you to promote your officers to enhance their abilities or increase the amount of troops they can command.  Speaking of command, as your force increases and you gain more cities and territory, managing 6 or more cities can be a time consuming drag.  Good thing there’s an option for setting districts under AI officer control.  You can put cities under a district control with a certain focus, like Fortify or Seige (a neighboring city).  Very helpful when you control a large amount of territory.

Waging war and combat has been completely redone in ROTTK IX.  Instead of selecting a city to attack and switching to the battle screen, ROTTK IX integrates battle right into the standard game flow.  Everything happens during the action phase, including battle.  If, on your strategy phase, you order your officers to attack a city, the following action phase you will see a group of troops led by those officers appear at the gates of the city they were in.  They will move out of the city and head for their target (depending on what orders you give them).  You are only able to give them orders every strategy phase (every 10 days) so it’s not like a real-time strategy.  Each officer is able to learn tactics to help them decimate the enemy in battle.  When you do send out a unit of troops with officers you have a bunch of options to choose from including unit formation, officer tactics and orders.  By carrying out orders, officers gain experience points they can use later to increase stats and gain new tactics.  In addition, officer stats can also be increased by awarding them treasures and items found by searching the regions of China.  Another neat addition to the series is the ability to build defensive structures like camps, barricades and forts.  These can be extremely helpful in defending a city under siege or when planning an assault on another force.

In the last few iterations of the series there were more RPG elements present.  You would pick an officer to play as and see the world through his eyes.  If you were a subordinate officer you would receive orders and suggest tactics to the ruler as you worked your way up the ranks.  This RPG element does not exist in ROTTK IX.  You always have autonomous control of all your officers including the ruling officer of your force.  I really enjoyed the RPG element but I can understand the difficulty of integrating this element with the new style of gameplay ROTTK IX incorporates.  I’m hoping to see the RPG element come back into play in future iterations of the series.

All of this put together makes for an extremely fun strategy game.  I had a very, VERY hard time putting it down.  The only reason this isn’t a perfect score is due to the loss of the neat RPG element from previous ROTTK games.

The value of the game really comes down to how much you like the genre.  For me, I can’t afford not to buy the game.  If you don’t generally like slow paced strategy games then Romance of the Three Kingdoms IX will probably not be worth the $50 for you to try it.  However, I would definitely recommend a rental to check it out.  I truly feel that this game will bring more people into the series.  If you are a veteran of the series or like this type of game then it doesn’t get any better than this – you should already own the game.

There are endless ways to play the game in many different times of Chinese history.  There are over 25 unlockable secret officers.  Great scenario modes.  Each game lasts hours and hours.  Replay value is at an extreme high.  If you want you can even play with your friends in hot seat mode, each controlling different forces.