Video Gamer is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Prices subject to change. Learn more
Total War Pharaoh is a stylish, fun experience. Yet it’s also a game without ambition, drive, or identity, failing to capitalise on its potential to expand the series. As a long-time strategy lover but a newcomer to the franchise, I found it a poor introduction. So what went wrong? In this review, let’s examine the duality of Creative Assembly’s newest entry into the Total War series, and why despite its successes, it’ll probably be arriving in the Duat sooner rather than later.
Despite its shortcomings, Total War Pharaoh clearly has some trace of passion and expertise driving it. The Bronze Age Collapse is one of the most fascinating time periods in human history. Atmospherically, the game reflects this well. There’s a simultaneous sense that the world is so much smaller than we would know it to be, yet so much larger beyond what is explored. An excellent level of visual fidelity drives this theme forward, especially when the game is set to its best graphics settings. Though the climates and geology of the eastern Mediterranean aren’t enormously diverse, the game’s good use of colour, architecture, and terrain build a grounded foundation of life and warfare. In turn, this makes the soft narrative of the Total War Pharaoh campaign – effectively a series of different big world events – work more cohesively to invest the player into the game.
Past atmosphere, there’s some gameplay equally due praise. Battles are the bedrock of this franchise, and they feel complex and multifaceted in Total War Pharaoh – weather, terrain, morale, positioning, experience, unit type, formation, and elevation. Even this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the aspects that can and will impact an engagement. On a granular level, the effects or combinations of factors provide challenge. While consistency is sometimes lacking due to balance issues, at the best of times, these fights are legitimately enthralling, and trying to win battles feels like a fair challenge overall. Beyond battles, the campaign has a huge breadth of gameplay features, seemingly giving an impression of plenty to do.
Here, however, is where the problems with Total War Pharaoh start to surface. There’s amazing breadth, but very little depth. Royal Decrees act as your tech tree, but the system is laughably organised into a practically randomised shamble of different button clicks that provide different small bonuses on completion. There are no units, buildings, features, or real discoveries to unlock, and no sense of direction. For such a pivotal time in our history, a sense of true progression in the tech tree is a huge missed opportunity.
I can’t speak for other titles, but Total War Pharaoh’s approach to diplomacy is as embarrassing as its tech tree. It amounts to a glorified trading screen, with barebones options and incompetent AI. The game warns about trespassing, for example. You can pass through other people’s lands, but doing so without permission will harm relations with them. Yet the AI will trespass into your borders constantly, and rather than being able to make something of it, your only recourse is to ignore them or declare war.
For politics, Total War Pharaoh uses a royal court system. Again, the fruits of promise are evident here. There’s a hierarchical structure you can climb, with the higher echelons providing more legitimacy for your claims to the crown. You can perform intrigue to gain favour with others in the court, and plot against them in various ways. But these plots all amount to a handful of oversimplified mechanics, and your gains from political manoeuvres fail to scale with your growing power outside the court. There’s also a severe dissonance between the court and the outside world. You can be locked in bloody warfare with other leaders, yet still interact with them at court as though you’re both old friends. All this amounts to a rather boring system that quickly becomes a drag to even bother engaging with, and would probably be worth ignoring in Total War Pharaoh multiplayer games.
While city building and the province system serve the Total War series well, there was a chance to build upon it here, and the developers decided not to take it. Most cities run out of room fairly fast, and as soon as they do, their interest within the wider game drops to none. This isn’t helped by an idle workforce driving down the happiness of your provinces – something you can’t solve once a province is fully developed.
Even the most promising system of the game, the Pillars of Civilisation, doesn’t fulfil its potential. As your game progresses, the state of the world will start to tumble from prosperity to crisis to collapse depending on how the Cult Centres – the most important cities of the ancient world – are faring. This affects things like the invasion strength of the endgame threat, the Sea Peoples, and frequency of disasters. The game fails to ever really clarify what specifically about the Cult Centers actually affects the state of the Pillars of Civilisation metre, teasing the prospect of player agency over this feature, but never fully delivering.
While the Sea Peoples are another great historical nod and a fun threat at first, they’re ultimately one-dimensional. You’ll be periodically assaulted by waves of hostile armies that attack with different targets in mind, but that’s it. There are no events, diplomacy, or nuances. On top of that, their arrival and build-up come far too early in the campaign. While it does establish them as a credible threat early on, it feeds into the wider rushed pacing of the typical campaign.
Even the shortfalls of its ambition aren’t the end of Pharaoh’s problems. This game uses Denuvo, and it shows. Crashes, low frame rates, and freezes aren’t so common as to be game-breaking, but they’re still present enough to be frustrating. The soundtrack is also a let-down, with underwhelming music during the turn-based moments of the campaign driving home how utterly uninteresting this game can be at its worst. Art direction doesn’t always seem consistent. While battlefield architecture is gorgeous and the three main cultures are distinct, every major and minor settlement looks identical, harming the sense of progression as you conquer the world.
Total War Pharaoh amounts to a fun experience overshadowed by the sheer weight of missed opportunities. If you want intriguing politics and thoughtful diplomacy, just play Crusader Kings 3. If you want expansive city-building in your turn-based campaign, try Civilisation 6. If you want purposeful pacing leading up to an intense, threat-based endgame crisis, go to Stellaris. If you want pure, powerful battles, Age of Empires is the series for you. Total War Pharaoh has enough there to provide a bit of entertainment. But in the end, it lets down the series as a whole by failing to build upon its predecessors, failing to pursue any of its ideas to a meaningful extent, and failing to mark its own identity. In the ultimate irony, this game will likely see its success mirror the Bronze Age Collapse, before being buried by the sands of time.