Total War: Three Kingdoms is finally out this week, and there's a ton of changes and complications (especially to the campaign map) from the previous Total War games. But I don't want to talk about any of that here—I want to talk about the ink.
Every Total War game has their own theme, typically taken from the fantasy or time period that it's focusing on. Shogun 2: Total War's UI featured a lot of dark colours, a lot of paper backgrounds for unit cards and almost fabric-like textures for icons. Total War: Warhammer featured a lot more gold, bronze, more metallic textures and colours. ROME 2 used more silhouettes, thin fonts all in upper-case, and lot of stone-washed backgrounds.
Three Kingdoms is more romantic, built around the period when China's Han dynasty fell. The game is actually based largely on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms semi-historical, semi-dramatisation of the period, which came out in the 14th century.
Naturally, it's a little more grandiose than, say, shuffling Skaven around in Total Warhammer 2. And so is the artstyle.
The biggest change visually is the seasonal cycle of the campaign map. You can set this at the start of the game, dictating how frequent it ticks over or if you want the season to remain fixed throughout. But the bigger motif underpinning all the characters, the fog of war, and just the look of every menu and tooltip, is this beautiful, watercolour ink.
It's animated and hovers underneath just about every UI element, with a difference in depth depending on how prominent the item on-screen needs to be. The diplomacy screen, for instance, has a thick weaving cloud of ink that gently breathes, in and out, as you negotiate trade deals, potential marriages and alliances.
It's a permanent fixture on the campaign map: ink, as it turns out, is an effective replacement for fog of war.
The thematic changes have carried over to the battle screen as well. It's a more minimalist—at least if you're coming over from the Warhammer Total War games—but does a good job of highlighting the heroes on the battlefield. It's fitting! Especially since the retinue system makes battles smaller from the outset, so you're focusing on fewer squads, and more of the battlefield itself, which is nice and vibrant especially in the spring and autumn.
There's a ton more of Three Kingdoms that needs to be broken down. The diplomacy system has gotten a huge rework, and the management of settlements is a lot more complicated—something that might put off some Total War fans, depending on what your favourite Total War was. This isn't a piece to dive into that, although we'll have a review in the coming week, and more coverage from myself. There's a lot to unpack, although it's worth noting that the performance has been solid: no major crashes, save-breaking bugs, janky performance or other annoyances that might give people pause.
But I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate the gorgeous, inky aesthetic. There's a group of people on the Creative Assembly art team who spent ages pouring over each of those imprecise blobs and brushes, determining just how far they should extend, what the animations should look like, and how much they should blend in with the background.
Good job team: you nailed it. I know not everyone will be keen on just how much real estate it takes up, but I'm totally on board.