Total War: Pharaoh Review – Fight Like an Egyptian

Total War: Pharaoh Review

The venerable Total War series was never one to rest on its laurels. At first, this meant bigger- bigger maps, more troops on the battlefield, more factions to play. Then the games tried to go smaller like with Thrones of Britannia and Troy. Total War even ventured into fantasy with a humongous Warhammer game. Against all those games, Total War: Pharaoh still might be a high mark for the series.

Behold, the Desert

As the Total War games grew, they also became less accessible. Pharaoh focuses on user experience. Information is not only available, it’s doled out in easy-to-read windows. It’s also art directed out the ears, even more so than other Egyptian strategy titles. All of that info is framed on crumbly stone tablets, sometimes even in hieroglyphics.

Part of me couldn’t help but feel that going so far back in time would limit the usual options in a Total War game. We’re talking about an era when bronze was the pinnacle of human invention. Iron, let alone steel, is centuries away from being used. And yes, Pharaoh has a much shorter list of units than Warhammer 3. But again, this tight focus makes the choices you make that much more significant.

The map stretches from modern-day Syria and Turkey in the north, following the Nile River down to modern Sudan. As Total War maps go, that feels teeny tiny, but there is so much variety in that space. The Nile is of course significant to many factions, and navigating it is crazy fun. It lets you access some pretty distant factions, but you’d best hope you move fast because big conditions are constantly changing the rules.

Gods and Heroes

Modern Total War games have really gotten into following the story of a single hero, and Pharaoh is no exception. There are three larger kingdoms to choose between, the Egyptians, the Canaanites, and the Hittites. Then you will choose one of a handful of hero characters and what follows is essentially the life and career of that hero. There are quests pointing your way, but they are unobtrusive. In truth, you are probably doing dozens of quests at any time, and the interface makes your progress clear.

Taking place in the bronze age, there isn’t a ton of unit variety. But maybe that’s for the best. While there are some cool regional variants, this is a lean, mean, back-to-basics Total War tactical combat game. Without flexibility, you are forced to look to the tools you are given. I found myself planning ambushes way more than I had in previous Total War games, and playing around with formations. Removing the vast ocean of options did wonders for my choice paralysis.

Even when you are replaying characters, there is so much you can do to radically change your game. Perhaps the most significant are the historical paths you can take, walking in the footsteps of pharaohs and heroes from antiquity. One option focused on restoring one ancient city and its wonders. Another is all about merchant caravans. My favorite was the straight combat one, which lets you covertly sabotage your enemies, and raise partisan fighters to show up and assist you in the final battle for the territory.

Your Day in Court

I was less thrilled about the court system. Pharaohs and kings have royal courts and though I found a lot of success scheming and backstabbing, the consequences were too self-contained to stay exciting. Most options in the court are all about… getting in the court. And staying in the court. Sometimes, forcing rivals out of the court. But most of the time I wasn’t feeling the choices when I was building or fighting.

Of course, the wider diplomacy system sets a new gold standard for Total War games. Now there are a handful of search filters that let you list other factions along all sorts of criteria. Specifically, it lets you know who is most keen to trade what for what. But most miraculously is the computer characters. They offer deals now, but the deals consistently feel enticing. I have never ever EVER felt this way in a PC strategy game. It seems that the AI is aware of your resource production numbers so when they offer something, it is always fulfilling a specific need. Trading feels like more of a devil’s bargain- you certainly need what is being offered, but can you afford to help a potential rival building themselves up?

Rays of Ra’s Sunlight

Total War: Pharaoh is a gorgeous game; have I mentioned how pretty it is? I loaded up Warhammer Total War to compare and it’s not even close. Pharaoh uses every trendy graphical breakthrough, especially with lighting, particles, and character animations. Units in armies are startlingly diverse when you zoom right down to them. Most importantly, the lack of constant clutter makes the game so much more legible.

Total War games spent so much time trying to do more. There are countless clever strategy games out there, but this series always prided itself on having a massive scale. Pharaoh totally changes that formula as it scales down and rethinks the gameplay flow of the series. Everyone has their favorite Total War game (mine for the record is the original Rome Total War). I’m sure that someone out there will be quite unhappy with some of the Total War changes. But from where I sit as a long-time player, Pharaoh is a total blast, and has me more excited for the future of the series than ever before.

***PC code provided by the publisher for review***

The Good

  • Gorgeous graphics
  • Focused gameplay
  • Legible interface

The Bad

  • Sprawling strategy
  • Steep difficulty curve