Developer Creative Assembly has created a solid game with Total War: Pharaoh. It explores the challenge of taking on the role of a leader during the Bronze Age collapse. Would-be rulers can choose their leader from three factions: Egyptian, Canaanite, and Hittite. While the aesthetics and gameplay are fun in several ways, the overall package could be better. I have played multiple leaders now and have spent most of my time with Ramesses (Egyptian), Bay (Canaanite), and Irsu (Canaanite).
The overall aesthetic is excellent. During my preview of Total War: Pharaoh, I was concerned about the unit models needing to be more complex on the earlier build of the game. But the release build does look better. Combined with the skybox, color palette, sound effects, and background music, it all comes together for a great initial experience. It reminded me of various movies set in Egypt with long shots of characters traversing vast desert dunes.
But as I progressed through the early game, I noticed cracks in the veneer. Some combat animations didn’t move quite right when my leader used a sword during the scenes to auto-resolve combat, but the spear animations looked great. The looped background music that initially sounded so good started to grate on me by around turn 20. I eventually had a minor headache and had to lower the volume or turn it off completely.
The initial cutscene was also fun to watch, though the bit of humor injected into the scene was an odd choice. But the other cutscenes throughout the campaign were short and disappointing. While I realize this is a Total War game, I don't expect an expansive campaign story filled with cut scenes. But what I have seen so far has been underwhelming, even with my already low expectations. In some cases, a splash screen or UI popup could have done the job, if not better.
I found the combat in Total War: Pharoah fun as my playthroughs progressed. The dynamic weather system adds a new aspect to manual fights that I enjoyed. Planning out an army’s route to avoid units being exhausted when they entered combat also added another fun system to manage. But it also didn’t mean the end of the world if I forgot about taking exhaustion into account on occasion.
I still haven’t fully gotten the hang of using unit stances effectively. But the extra micromanagement is nice to have while in the middle of combat and has saved a few of my units already. Some new battle maps look great, especially for specific cities and weather effects. But city maps can take a long time to play through manually. I quickly swapped over to autocomplete for most battles during the mid to late game unless they seemed particularly interesting.
As I conquered provinces, outposts became my greatest ally. If there was an invading army that I needed to reach, outposts could help me get to them quickly by restoring 50 percent of my movement if I planned my route well. Combine that with Ramesses’ ability to attack while marching when it's not on cooldown, and I was able to wipe out many armies before they could ever do much damage to a region. I also started using forts since any units stationed within had reduced upkeep and participated in nearby battles. The one downside was if I lost a settlement, it could be tedious to rebuild multiple outposts and drain resources quickly.
The Royal Court system from my preview article is still my favorite in Total War: Pharaoh. It took me a while to get into a rhythm of what to do during the six turns between each Shemsu Hor event. But once I had it, launching plots against other court members was fun. The option to support, downgrade, reveal, or halt plots made me feel like I had an impact on the court each turn. It was also a great way to gain extra Legitimacy points toward claiming the throne outside of winning battles, building monuments, and completing certain events.
Two systems familiar to Total War veterans are the Tech Tree (Royal Decrees) and Diplomacy. The Royal Decrees unlock all the typical passives, from increased building resource generations to improved faction relations. It also can unlock additional god slots, a maximum of three. Any god discovered through conquest, vassals, or annexation can then be slotted. Each god provides passive bonuses depending on how many temples have been built and cult centers captured. The diplomacy system allows for trade, pacts, and alliances. Eventually, members of the same faction can also become a vassal.
I was hoping that the character progression for my leader and generals would improve during the mid to late game, but it unfortunately didn’t. While leveling, spending points in the three attributes allows customization and unlocks various titles. When slotted, these titles also provide passive and/or active abilities on top of what the character gains from traits. But it’s a straightforward advancement system that lacks much depth.
By the mid to late game, I seized power and became Pharaoh with Ramesses. It unlocked the regalia and the Royal Powers. The regalia is a choice out of five headpieces. Each one provides different passive buffs and an ability. But it was the Royal Powers that made a huge difference. My two favorite powers out of the five options allowed me to place my generals into Royal Court positions until I controlled the entire court and the other to annex other leaders within my faction when not on cooldown. I like the Royal Powers, but they eliminate most of the challenges in Total War: Pharaoh on easier difficulties.
A minor disappointment for me was the lack of difference between the factions. As per the norm in Total War, the start location is different for each leader, which determines the initial resources that are readily available nearby, starting unit types, and how challenging it is to deal with your neighbors out of the gate. But the courts are very similar for the Pharoah and the Hittite Great King. The only real difference is the position names. I also noticed that Bay only had two options when it came time to pick an Ancient Legacy that would further customize my play style versus the four options when playing an Egyptian.
I only have a few things to note concerning the technical performance of Total War: Pharaoh. The various events I encountered throughout the campaign didn’t feel that challenging. It could have been due to the default difficulty. But there were several times when the AI didn’t react to my armies. It made the Sea People invasion easy to overcome during the late game. Each time I initiated a plot on the court screen, the wrong tab would show afterward. On the overland map, my camera would occasionally zoom into a close-up view.
Finally, after an extended amount of playtime, Total War: Pharaoh would suddenly chunk and lag badly. The first time was at turn 38 on my first campaign run, then again at turn 82. In between the lag, I had to exit to Windows. After restarting, the client worked fine again for an extended period. I never had a single crash, and I didn’t encounter other noticeable bugs outside of the known list provided by the developer. The rest of the time, everything ran perfectly fine.
Creatively Assembly has made a good, solid game. Total War: Pharaoh offers a fun experience for anyone interested in the time period surrounding the Bronze Age Collapse. The technical issues I experienced were few. Out of the various gameplay systems, I particularly enjoyed the Royal/Hittite Court intrigue. But while the initial experience was great, some players may find the mid to late game lacks depth.