Rating: ESRB – Teen
It’s not always you get to see something about China’s history translated into a game like the one I am reviewing today. If you can remember watching the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that starred Chow Yuen Fatt and Michelle Yeoh back in 2000, then… yes, Dragon Throne should evoke that kind of nostalgic feeling when you get fully involved in playing it. I must profess though, the movie and the game are based around two different time periods; the movie is centered around 1779, but the game brings you back even further to the tumultuous period of 184 to 280 AD.
I can read your thoughts – History, you say? Boring… yawn. China? Double yawn.
Well, don’t judge a game by its cover too early. Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs is quite a fun and challenging little real time strategy (RTS) game from Object Software and Strategy First. You also get to learn some interesting things about China’s past which should be a good thing nowadays in a world that has gone global. Who knows, you may even one day wind up working for a company in China? At least you can boast that you know about the three most prominent heroes from that period – Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Sun Quan.
|Ready to learn about China’s history?|
Dragon Throne may have been released in 2002, but it still runs fine on my Windows 7 PC. I did have one minor problem with it – moving the map with the keyboard required that I tap the cursor keys very lightly, otherwise it would scroll all the way to end of the map. In the end, I had to resort to moving around the map with the mouse by clicking on the mini-map instead. If you don’t like this little problem, you might just want to consider passing the game by. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
The game is based off the Chinese epic novel known as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Coming from a Chinese background myself, I must confess, it’s one convoluted mess of a story with a cast of thousands. Object Software’s vision attempts to bring to life some of what might have happened in the novels. This is not their first release, in fact the game had a predecessor known as Three Kingdoms: Fate of the Dragon. This time round though the game, sporting almost the same RTS engine, revolves around The Battle of the Red Cliffs.
|The three warriors central to the game|
The game greets you with either single player or multiplayer modes. Single player allows you to access the three campaigns, each with 7 map levels. There’s also a tutorial and skirmish mode waiting for you. Multiplayer allows you to play on LAN, Internet, Direct Modem, and Serial connection. The single player skirmish mode and multiplayer mode use the same maps and settings. The only difference being AI opponents vs human opponents respectively. By the way, you get 15 skirmish / multiplayer maps for up to a maximum of 8 players.
The tutorial is a simple lesson that teaches you movement, city building and management, the training of laborers to sergeants, and the overland map. The rest is up to you when it comes to conquering your opponent’s city. There’s actually some lessons missed out here, so I was a bit disappointed by it. You will either have to read the manual, or approach your problem via trial and error. By the way, the PDF manual on the disc had some kerning (text spacing) problems, nothing too serious as you will still be able to read it.
|Attempting to make sense of the tutorial|
I am going to take a different tack with the rest of the review tonight. Here’s what makes Dragon Throne so different from other vanilla RTS games:
All narration is in Mandarin. You will notice this immediately when you are brought to the campaign selection screen to choose which of the three heroes you want to play. Even the in-game narration and tutorial instructions are all done in Mandarin. You may feel lost by all the Chinese speaking characters, but rest assured that you have English subtitles to help you out here.
By the way, I will say it with authority (I’m Chinese) that the voice acting here has been done with much authenticity and conviction. There’s so much vim and vigor that it really sounds like I am hearing something out of a Chinese kung-fu period drama. Furthermore, the translation in Mandarin is pretty close to the text that you see, so you are definitely not being shanghaied (pardon the pun) here.
It all boils down to managing your laborers in farming resources. You start off the game with a couple of laborers. You can build more at your Ceremonial Arch building, but they will cost you two types of resources – wood and corn. It’s actually a small price to pay, considering that the game has six types of resources: corn, raw meat, wood, iron ore, food, and wine.
Corn and Raw meat are obtained from a farm, but you must first assign jobs to the laborers who enter the farm building. If you turn a laborer into a farmer, he will start plowing his field and bring you corn. If you choose to turn him into a swineherd, he will build a pig sty, and you get raw meat. You can mix and match if you want, but a farm can only accommodate a maximum of five laborers. Wood is obtained through chopping down trees, while iron ore comes from mining. Food and wine are produced at workshops. Workshops use the same principle employed by farms – employ a winemaker for wine and a cook for food.
|Setting up the base economy|
To get an army, laborers must be sent to military buildings. Just when you thought you have enough laborers, you will find out in the tutorial you need laborers to be sent to barracks to turn them into Sargeants. There are three types of Sergeant you can train depending on the type of Barracks you field – Swordsmen, Pikemen, and Archers. One thing unique about Dragon Throne is that Sergeants can be converted back into a laborer if you need them. Interesting feature, would I use it? If I can afford it, I probably won’t bother with this feature.
Siege Weapons. If you thought you only get three types of troops, then you’re wrong. You also get to build scaling ladders, support wagons, stone launching wagons, three arrow bows, and more. All this can be built at a Machine Workshop.
Stop horsing around. You can also build stables and get yourself some horses. You then send these horses out to your army so that they can mount them. Any of your troops, from sergeants to warriors to heroes, can ride the horses. Use your horses wisely as they provide better agility and movement; best for outflanking your enemies.
|The three types of barracks in Dragon Throne|
Multiple map system – one for overland and one for cities. Dragon Throne has a multi-map system. You start off your game in your home city as depicted by the mini-map on the bottom left. Cities usually have ramparts and city gates protecting it. Later on, you can send your troops out beyond your city gates and into the overland map. You move your troops around on the overland map which is the mini-map you see at the bottom right. The overland map also contain county towns that when conquered, provide you gold through taxation – the seventh resource in the game.
Research at your National Academy. The ancient Chinese were pretty bright people, they invented quite a lot of stuff as attested to by Wikipedia. You can do likewise in Dragon Throne with the construction of this building; you can enhance your production, army, armament, and advanced armament. Upgrade your National Academy building for even more stuff to research. If you persevere, you could even build sampans and junks for those rare sea adventures.
|Lots of research you can conduct|
Warriors and Heroes. You actually get to control warriors and heroes who each have their own skills. There are 75 types of skills that has been assigned for each of these men (and women). If you stick through the game, you will meet more new warriors with interesting skill combos. Anyway, the manual did hint that you would be getting to play with up to 350 historical figures.
Battles and miscellaneous. Battles involve troops that march in a haphazard pattern. There are no marching formations in the game. Other things you should be aware are events that may suddenly appear asking you for an opinion. It’s normally a question of ethics, and if you choose wrongly, the morale of your people will drop. There’s also temples that help to protect you somewhat from disasters.
|Finally… let’s destroy their HQ to win|
The terrain really looks drab and dull. I blame it on the grungy palette being used. The units look serviceable with some of the bigger siege engines looking rather cool. The things that steal the show for Dragon Throne would be the magnificently drawn buildings – there’s even a lovely temple building and lots of statues of Buddha littering the landscape, some whole and others in shambles. You can repair broken Buddha statues for bonuses. No, you won’t find any lost treasures from Afghanistan, but at least this game really does its part of promoting the Chinese culture.
|A truly grand temple|
The music in Dragon Throne sounds Chinese enough, but I thought the fusion part was a tad too much. The sound effects do give the impression that there’s some serious work going on whenever a building is selected. All voice over work is done in Mandarin, and as I mentioned earlier, this is excellent stuff.
Dragon Throne really treats you to an excellent Chinese theme based on one of the most popular novels – Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The game also introduces some interesting twists to the conventional RTS formula (like the multi-map and troop creation systems). However, it is not without its significant flaws. One of the most atrocious problems would be the poor path finding which I will elaborate below.
- Great Chinese background based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
- Excellent voice overs done entirely in Mandarin.
- Cool looking buildings.
- Interesting features like the ability to convert a soldier back into a farmer, multi-maps that take you from city to overland to another city.
|This is supposed to be the good guy|
- Pathfinding is atrocious in Dragon Throne. There are some levels that take you through narrow pathways with archers waiting at the side. Good luck leading your troops through them, they are sure to bump into each other and the terrain. The worst of it all is when a unit stops dead in his tracks and get peppered by the enemy’s arrows.
- The tutorial covers movement but lacks information about diplomacy, heroes, and appointing officers.
- There’s quite some micromanagement required – even to the extent that you must supply troops outside cities with goods carried in a supply wagon, otherwise they will be fatigued (as represented by a second bar).
- Switching from overland map to cities can get quite tricky with huge armies.
- Your troops will not be forming up into nice military formations.
- There’s probably a sense of detachment if you are not Chinese and don’t like too heavy a dose of history.
|Let’s see how you make it through this ambush-athon|
Sure, Dragon Throne: Battle of Red Cliffs does have it’s flaws, but it’s such a niche area that you should be able to forgive it if you are a Chinese history and real time strategy gaming fan. Do know that this game is going to be quite an eye opener, and conversely it is also going to be rather challenging, primarily because of the path finding problems and some micromanagement expected of you.
PS – Here’s a primer on how to fake it in pronouncing the names of the heroes featured in Dragon Throne – Liu sounds like “in lieu of”, Bei sounds like “pay” but more with the strength of a “b” than a “p”. Cao sounds like you are pronouncing “chow down on your food”, but you will need to drop the “h” aspirant from “chow” (don’t pronounce it as cow please, it’s not a hard “c”). Sun is pronounced like a shortened version of “soon“, and Quan sounds like Chand in the name Chandler, but you must insert in a “u” sound, so that the first syllable sounds more like Chu-Anne joined together.