The top ten games about China (that aren’t from China)
British-made games like Total War: Three Kingdoms and Tomb Raider II show how the best games about China don't always come from the country
From Chun-Li’s stage in Street Fighter II to Lijiang Towers in Overwatch, China has long been a popular background for games.
But neither of those games are actually from China. The country has hundreds of millions of players and some of the world’s biggest gaming companies, but still some of the best games about China come from developers in the rest of the world.
“Every time I see foreigners take our Three Kingdoms history and turn it into something so marvelous, I feel so envious,” one Chinese gamer complained.
Sorry, random Chinese gamer: We’re going to make you even more envious, because here are ten great games set in China that weren’t made in China.
TOTAL WAR: THREE KINGDOMS 🇬🇧
Let’s start with the whole reason this list exists. Total War: Three Kingdoms is a huge hit, even in China. But gamers there are asking: Why can’t our developers make a game like this?
In hindsight, the Total War series -- with previous entries involving the Roman Empire, Napoleon and feudal Japan -- is a perfect fit for the many conflicts of China’s Three Kingdoms period, which spawned an epic story that has drawn comparisons with Game of Thrones. But it seems that’s not enough, according to one industry figure.
“I have pitched games set in China many times to Chinese colleagues, and they almost unanimously voice disinterest,” said Charlie Moseley, founder of Chengdu Gaming Federation.
SHENMUE II 🇯🇵
One caveat: I’m not counting games set in Hong Kong on this list. The city has its own distinct cultural identity that could fill an entirely separate list. And while Shenmue II starts in Hong Kong, it ends in mainland China.
Specifically, it ends in a small village in Guilin, where Japanese teen Ryo Hazuki meets the apparently magical Shenhua and learns more about the mystical mirrors that drove villain Lan Di to kill Ryo’s father. We even discover the titular Shenmue of this martial arts revenge story.
Spoiler alert: It’s… a tree.
(Uh, sorry about the spoilers for an 18 year old game? Then again, you’ve had long enough to play the game that your backlog can legally vote in most countries, so whatever.)
DYNASTY WARRIORS SERIES 🇯🇵
Another Three Kingdoms game, and arguably the most famous of them all; Koei Tecmo’s series of hack/slash/mass murder simulators is likely the reason gamers have a bizarrely detailed knowledge of historical figures like Cao Cao.
The series often puts you in the shoes of one of those legendary figures… and then tasks you with fighting through hundreds (if not thousands) of enemies, mowing them down like blades of grass on your way to completing objectives. (Let’s just say historical accuracy is not a strong point of the series.) To say the formula is a success is an understatement; beyond the nine Dynasty Warriors games, there are plenty of “Warriors” spin-offs featuring franchises as diverse as The Legend of Zelda or Gundam.
Weirdly, the first Dynasty Warriors game from 1997 didn’t actually follow the template the series is so famous for; it’s a fighting game, like Street Fighter.
ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS SERIES 🇯🇵
Before Dynasty Warriors, Koei had the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a series of hardcore turn-based strategy games based on the famous novels.
And I’m not kidding when I mean hardcore. It’s what made Dynasty Warriors so surprising; Koei had long built a reputation as a company that made deep turn-based simulations, covering everything from the age of discovery (Uncharted Waters) to World War II (P.T.O.) to running an airline (Aerobiz, my personal favorite). All are deep and engaging… but visually? They’re about as gripping as a spreadsheet. The action here takes place in text-based menus, not the grand arenas of Dynasty Warriors.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms has always been one of the pillars of Koei’s strategy lineup, with the latest entry releasing just a couple of years ago on current-gen platforms.
SPLINTER CELL: DOUBLE AGENT 🇮🇹/🇨🇳
As the first Splinter Cell game on HD consoles, Double Agent had a lot to live up to. And it delivered with one show-stopping sequence midway through the game.
Super-spy Sam Fisher is tasked with breaking into a hotel room and stealing documents. Sounds simple enough… but it’s the Jin Mao Hotel in Shanghai, one of the tallest buildings in the world. After landing on the roof (the building’s distinctive spire is missing from the game), Fisher climbs around the outside of the skyscraper, with the spectacular Shanghai skyline all around him -- an early showcase for the power of (then) next-gen consoles like the Xbox 360.
I have to confess that I’m cheating slightly with this one: This game was partially developed by Ubisoft Shanghai. But as that studio is an arm of a Western company -- and as it shared development duties with a studio in Italy -- I’m going to let it slide.
DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION 🇨🇦
The Deus Ex prequel presents a stark vision for the future of Shanghai: A literal two-tiered city, with shiny corporate headquarters sitting on an enormous platform built above the sunless slums underneath.
To be fair, this is hardly a new idea in science fiction. But what makes this one stand out is how terrifyingly plausible it is. Shanghai’s two-tiered city is on nearby Hengsha Island, and is positioned as a solution to overcrowding in a city that’s become the Silicon Valley of cybernetics; building on the duality of a city like Shenzhen, where gleaming supertall skyscrapers sit near crowded, grubby factories.
Random note: Since the upper deck serves as both the floor of the upper city and the roof of the lower city, people in-game refer to it as a “floof.” No, I am not making this up.
JADE EMPIRE 🇨🇦
OK, so technically, this game doesn’t take place in China at all, but in the (surprise!) Jade Empire. Let’s be real though: It’s heavily based on Chinese mythology, characters have Chinese names, combat is based around martial arts like a wuxia epic… yeah, it’s China.
And frankly, it also belongs on this list because it’s a great game. It took action game mechanics and married it to a deep and compelling story, full of interesting characters and locations worth exploring.
Beyond that, it’s also interesting as a historical curio, marking one of BioWare’s early attempts to move beyond tactical turn-based combat into the real-time action. Arguably the game’s biggest problem is one of timing. It came out at the very tail end of the Xbox’s life cycle, and was overshadowed by the BioWare games on either side of it: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect.
TOMB RAIDER II 🇬🇧
After finding Atlantis in the first Tomb Raider game, which ancient and exotic location would Lara discover in the sequel? How about, uh, China?
In fairness, the plot revolves less around a place and more around an item: The mystical Dagger of Xian, wielded by an ancient Emperor of China, which can turn a person into a dragon.
Unfortunately, this game came out in 1997, so the dragon looked an awful lot like a weird version of the famous T-Rex from the first Tomb Raider game. It was so underwhelming that the developers decided it couldn’t serve as the game’s climax -- despite, y’know, being what the whole story built towards -- so they added another action sequence afterwards in Croft Manor.
This also allowed them to end the game with Lara taking her clothes off and stepping into the shower because it was the 90s and people were super into that sort of thing back then.
BATTLEFIELD 4 🇸🇪
Plenty of games are banned in China. But when your game features an evil Chinese general trying to provoke war and you play as the Americans trying to defeat him… well, getting banned in China probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But Battlefield 4 isn’t on this list because it pissed off China. It’s not even on this list for being a damned fine multiplayer game (which it is). It’s here because the game’s maps take place across a wider swathe of China than virtually any other game I’ve seen.
Whether the peaks of Guilin, a resort hotel in Hainan, disputed islands in the South China Sea, atop a falling skyscraper in Shanghai or even high in the Tibetan permafrost, Battlefield 4 does a better job than any game I’ve ever played of showing the sheer variety of China’s landscapes.
Too bad about the whole ban thing though.
SUPER MARIO LAND 🇯🇵
An odd one, sure. And like Jade Empire, a game that doesn’t technically take place in China. But go with me on this. Super Mario Land’s four worlds are clearly inspired by real world settings: Egypt, Bermuda, Easter Island and China.
The “Chai Kingdom” -- subtle name, I know -- is full of bamboo stalks and Guilin-like mountains. The world also introduces the Pionpi enemies, hopping zombies that are very clearly inspired by jiangshi -- Chinese zombies, known for hopping around.
And if that wasn’t convincing enough for you… the music is a dead giveaway, with the oh-so-distinctive sound of “Chinese music as imagined by someone outside China.”