I played a variety of video games growing up, but if I were to pinpoint a few influential ones, on that list would be the Dynasty Warriors games from Koei and Omega Force. Over the top, ridiculous action combined with a loose interpretation of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. I was hooked. Now, don’t get me wrong, those games are not what you’d call critically acclaimed, nor are they particularly good action titles but they are popular enough to have spawned their own sub-genre so there’s something to be said for their wider appeal.
Guan Yu, Xiahou Dun, Lu Bu and more were as famous to me as any household name now or then. To the point where I even stole Guan Yu’s character for a creative writing piece in Year 9 English.
So anything adapting their stories is always something that turns my head whether it be video games or any other medium (except for you Dynasty Warriors 9). So a turn-based card battler/rougelike telling those old tales should be a slam dunk for me, right? Well yes and no.
Let’s start with the setting. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms covers a period of Chinese history starting with the fall of the Han dynasty in 184 AD and going all the way up to the reunification of China in 280 AD by the Jin dynasty. If that’s all gobbledegook to you, no worries, basically imagine 100 years of war, intrigue, and strife and you won’t be far off.
Now through this era, the land is in constant chaos, eventually culminating in the titular Three Kingdoms being established named Shu, Wu, and Wei. These kingdoms skirmish for decades only falling apart when those who began the war are succeeded by those who no longer have the same zeal for battle as their predecessors. This is what allows Jin to emerge from within Wei and unite the land. That’s an oversimplified version that I’m sure many historians would take umbrage with, but it suits our purposes here.
It’s an era of history that has inspired a number of adaptations. From the aforementioned Dynasty Warriors games to movies (specifically Red Cliff, check it out if you don’t mind foreign language films), and novels, not even counting Luo Guanzhong’s prestigious text.
Three Kingdom The Journey is merely the latest to be added to an already impressive list.
Does it do justice to the story whilst setting itself apart from those who came before?
The art style is very colourful and stylised but does remind me a little too much of a mobile game. Maybe that’s what they were going for, but the cartoony visuals don’t do much to convey the savage butchery that took place during The Yellow Turban Rebellion (named the Yellow Scarf Rebellion here, I’m not enough of an expert to tell you which is right). In fact, the whole aesthetic, whilst visually pleasing is a little childish, especially when the characters are spouting big ideas about life, liberty, and all that good stuff.
The gameplay loop seems fairly simple. Each level has a boss battle that you must reach by completing a series of smaller skirmishes. Each stage has three choices of location, allowing you to build up your resources and stack your deck in a way that suits your playstyle. This part is well implemented, I felt as though I had a decent amount of agency in my deck build, something essential in any card game.
Combat is also fairly simple for anyone who has played a card battler before. Each turn you have a select amount of command points to use up, different cards cost different amounts so you must be careful with how you use them. Make your attacks, stack your defences, and end your turn, allowing your opponent to make their next move. During my time with the game I never really had any issue with any bosses but there are several difficulty levels you can unlock after playing the game for a while.
The only issue I have with this is that it becomes incredibly repetitive, hence my comparison to a mobile game. I was a little shocked that there wasn’t an energy system, only allowing me a certain number of battles before I’d need to wait or purchase more with actual cash.
And that encapsulates what I feel about this game. The aesthetic is nice but doesn’t suit its source material. The combat is clean and simple but doesn’t have a lot of depth. The story is one of my favourites, but they spend next to no time on it. All in all, it just feels like they created a half-decent mobile game but couldn’t successfully monetise it so decided to make it a PC release instead.
If all you’re after is a fairly mindless little tactical card battler/rougelike then this does the job, but there are other games in this genre that do it better, and if you come here looking for classic Three Kingdoms stories, there are others that do that better too. Also I’ve no idea why it doesn’t pluralise Kingdom in the game’s title. Drove me insane.