Destiny of an Emperor Review

Overall: 9.1 Graphics: 8.0 Sound: 8.4 Theme: 9.5 Translation: 7.8
Note all values are relative to the system

Although not many RPGs were released for the NES, this one’s a gem. Compared to the “traditionalist” games, it has several more features, including character portraits, over 100 recruitable characters, a variable party system, several dozen different ‘tactics’, most of which have different effects… the list goes on. Although translation can be a little shaky, and there are some frustrations in the game, it manages to be a rewarding – and perhaps educational – experience.

Sound is consistently good and based on the setting. The background music is usually complex, but it doesn’t “try too hard”. Battle themes are catchy, and there really isn’t much more to the sound. When a tactic succeeds, there’s a satisfying “bwoop”-like sound that is always nice to hear, and critical hits have a nice “ker-shack” to them as well. This game is one of the few NES games whose themes I actually listen to on my computer.

The setting is (of course) one of my favorite for a game. Three Kingdoms. But it isn’t Koei! Indeed, one of the better games with the setting and it wasn’t even made by Koei. Essentially, the setting is in an alternate history of the Three Kingdoms where Liu Bei (the “Good guys” from the novel) starts off with some major victories and becomes a major force early on (instead of wandering the land for 20+ years before gaining a foothold). You play as Liu Bei starting out, but pretty soon he has to manage his acquisitions and you take the part of his leading generals. It’s interesting to note that there are a lot of liberties taken with the original plot of TK, such as Liu Bei taking out Yuan Shu, Yuan Shao, Dong Zhuo and several other “big names” on his own. Although the translation gets a bit sketchy at times, it is generally pretty good. For example, one enemy general’s taunt is “Your imperial army seems obsessed with death. Do battle with me and I’ll give them a free lesson.”

Graphics are pretty darn nice for an NES game. Individual characters are depicted on the screen as sprites, and every single character in the game has a portrait. I’d imagine over 150 of them were randomized, but they still have a portrait! You get a good feeling for a main character’s personality from their portrait – Liu Bei is shown wearing a military helmet and looking upward, while Zhao Yun looks calm and collected. Although you don’t see the hundreds of soldiers fighting it out, you can get a pretty good idea of what’s going on from the ‘troop bars’ each character has.

Speaking of troops, the mechanics are a bit odd for an RPG. Although battles are done in a standard RPGish fashion, instead of monsters you are fighting generic Rebels, Bandits, Pirates… or, in some cases, a general. Each general (excepting the “Five Tigers”, Zhuge Liang, and a couple others) has a maximum amount of troops – roughly equivalent to HP. Once your troops are depleted enough, though, you will start to do less and less damage – until your general only has a dozen or so troops under him and no matter how strong he is he can only do a few troops in damage. For main characters, the maximum troop level goes up each “level” of the force. Generals have stats of their own – for example, Lu Bu, a character renowned for his great strength, has 255 Strength but only 50 or so Intelligence (making him a strong fighter but susceptible to tactics). Most of these stats are based on their deeds in the novel. The generals you can recruit on your own, however, usually have middling to low stats.

As far as generals themselves go, you can encounter most randomly in the field (just random battles). Once you have beaten their leader (and usually them at the same time), you can then attempt to recruit them if you encounter them randomly and defeat them. Sometimes they will join right away, sometimes they have a condition (gold or a good horse), and sometimes they will refuse outright. This makes it so that if you really can use a general with a high troop count for a while, you can recruit him and use him. These generals, however, are generally pretty bad in the long run since their troop count does not improve each level.

Another interesting mechanic is the Strategist system. Your army can only field a total of 7 generals (5 in a battle at a time). 1 of these generals is just backup (but can only be switched in outside of battles) and one is your strategist. The strategist should usually be a character with a high Int value, since their Int determines your Tactic points (sort of a global MP) and what tactics they can use. Strategists get better tactics at level up, and some stop growing after a while. When you want to use these tactics in battle, you can use them with any general, but a general with a high Int value should execute them (otherwise there is a good chance of failure, particularly if the target has high Int).

The actual effects of these tactics vary. Your “top 3” are your Fire, Water and Healing tactics. These are consistently placed and named, so you can usually figure out what they do easily. The fire and water tactics do a high amount of damage and the more powerful versions do even more or affect the entire enemy force. Healing tactics work a similar way, but restore your soldiers. Other tactics will have various effects, whether they give your army resistance to certain effects or give a general extra attacks. Each strategist has 6 tactics they can use at any one time – if they gain more tactics, they replace old ones.

This is where the first major gripe I have comes in. The tactic names were named in Chinese and were only transcribed to English, not translated. So every time you use one, you either have to know what it does or be able to figure it out. The main tactics are always in the same place, so they are easy to keep track of – but I can’t recall how many times I had to try Jian Ce or An Sha before I remembered how they worked.

Another gripe with the system is that old tactics are replaced – so they can’t be accessed later. Some early tactics are pretty useful and (if I remember right) Zhuge Liang, the best strategist by Int, is missing some tactics that earlier strategists have, one of which is An Sha (instant death to an enemy if it succeeds), the most useful tactic in the game.

Translation is usually quite good – I am especially happy, in retrospect, that they actually gave the English equivalents of the Chinese names and not the Japanese equivalents. This means that the game uses the same names as the Koei games with the same theme, and current editions of the books. This game introduced me to Three Kingdoms, and did a fairly good job of giving me an overview. The translation has only a few typos or misplaced characters, and is usually clear and consistent… except occasionally when telling you where to go.

A special mention should go to the villains of the game. The villains are actually the characters that you get to know the best, since there is very little dialogue from characters that you actually control. Yuan Shu is made appropriately arrogant and overbearing, Liu Zhang is shown to be a weakling when it counts, Lu Bu is appropriately unpredictable (although reasons are never discussed) and Sima Yi is cunning and dangerous.

Another special feature of this game, which I think more modern games should include, is a lot of ways to quickly play. “Walk” speed is fast enough that movement in town is actually convenient rather than frustrating, and the “All Out” mode is an auto-attack mode that plays itself out quickly, but still gives a good idea of what’s going on.

It should also be noted that Destiny of an Emperor is the first RPG I have seen to let you override a supposed infinite loop of questionsYuan Shu's funny.. You know, those things in games where you have a question, and if you answer wrong it keeps saying “Are you sure?” or “I need you to agree” or some such. Well, one villain of the game, upon being captured, tells you to let him go. If you refuse, he says the exact same thing before. Refuse again, he says the same thing. Refuse again and he is summarily executed by your men and you don’t have to deal with him again later. All in all, the game is a very satisfying experience which I highly recommend. It is far and away my favorite RPG on the NES (since Final Fantasy, in retrospect, was not especially great and the Dragon Warriors, while good, got bland quickly), and involves a bit more strategy than the average RPG. There are even some extras and side-quests to find!

There is a sequel, which was released in Japan and has several engine improvements (all generals level up, for example). It also follows the story a bit more closely. I don’t find it as entertaining to play, but it is still a good game if you can track it down. It has been translated, so it’s out there if you want to find it.

Capcom’s description of the game: “Characteristics of more than 180 warlords were simulated based on many historical documents, reproducing in detail the era of history described in the renowned text of Sanguozhi Yanyi. Travel back to that exciting period now in Capcom’s full-scale Role Playing Simulation of the ‘Destiny of an Emperor'”.

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