Total War: Pharaoh offers satisfying battles and challenging empire management, but undermines itself by pushing the player towards half-baked diplomacy, trade, and intrigue systems that feel authentic but aren’t consistently fun.
Immersive retelling of the Bronze Age Collapse
Deeply customizable factions
Sophisticated battles with lots of variety
Court intrigue system lacks finesse
Clunky, unavoidable trade mechanics
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Platform reviewed: PC
Available on: PC
Release date: October 11, 2023
Total War: Pharaoh waxes and wanes like the Nile itself, offering a competent, yet inconsistent strategy experience. This latest offering from genre veterans Creative Assembly offers up a realistic and satisfying treatment of the end of the Bronze Age, let down by awkward intrigue, trade, and diplomacy systems.
As with previous Total War titles, the game exists on two layers. There’s a turn-based empire management sim where you’ll manage cities, raise armies, and attempt to weather the machinations of neighboring factions. Nestled underneath comes a sophisticated real-time battle system. Though you can opt to play the battle-only skirmish mode, the campaign is where the meat of the game experience lies. Total War: Pharaoh has you act as both general and administrator.
For the most part, the historical strategy game competently executes this task, allowing you to auto-resolve battles that would be a dull walkover while playing out engagements that might benefit from a more hands-on approach. The battles themselves are engrossing, offering plenty of chances for micromanagement and clever tactics.
The faction management layer, however, is more hit-and-miss. Constructing cities and directing your dynasty is often rewarding, but diplomatic interactions with neighboring factions drag. Total War: Pharaoh attempts to capture the diciness of the Bronze Age Collapse with the “Pillars of Civilization” mechanic, which offers rewards when factions build and maintain large, stable cities. Whether you’re playing as an Egyptian, Canaanite, or Hittite, maintaining these pillars is in your best interest, since the game brutally penalizes you should these lynchpin settlements fall to ruin.
However, as the name suggests, Total War: Pharaoh is a game about war, rewarding you for crushing your enemies and conquering their settlements. The game pulls you in two separate directions, simultaneously incentivizing diplomatic play and all-out war in a way that never quite lands.
Blood on the sand
The battles themselves are sophisticated affairs, boasting intuitive mechanics that gracefully unfold into complex tactical challenges. At their most basic, these engagements boil down to classic rock-paper-scissors mechanics - the sort you’d find in many of the best PC strategy games. Spears beat chariots, chariots outmaneuver shield infantry, and shield infantry outperforms spears. On top of that, you have faster, more hard-hitting squads designed to outflank enemies as well as the occasional hybrid unit that can excel in multiple roles.
To help you navigate this maze of strengths and weaknesses, when you click on an allied unit, a handy color-coded triangle will appear above potential enemy targets, alerting you as to how effective your soldiers might be against them in battle. However, flanking and maneuvering are just as important as unit type. If you’re outnumbered, you can attempt to hold the enemy at choke points, mitigating their advantage - a strategy that saved my poorly defended frontier settlements on more than one occasion.
Gaining a court position for the first time proved to be very entertaining. As Treasurer, I could embezzle money from other members of the court, which I then used to negotiate favorable deals with other factions. It made me feel like a sneaky political puppet master, worthy of the cutthroat courts of ancient Egypt.
Total War: Pharaoh adds a few new features to the Total War melting pot, too. Shifting weather conditions affect battlefields, changing the terrain and affecting how quickly your soldiers tire, as well as the performance of certain units. You may have the shiniest chariots, but, if rain has turned the desert into sludge, then you’ll be doomed to scowl at your foes from afar as your mount inches forward at a snail’s pace. Armor degradation also helps give engagements a sense of permanency, while ensuring that elite units aren’t quite as unassailable as they were in previous Total War titles.
Unfortunately, the battle layer is held back by a lack of diversity among the units on offer. While Total War: Pharaoh offers regional unit variants, you’ll almost always be stuck with some combination of melee infantry, archers, and chariots. The monotony made me pine for the fantastical and varied units on offer in Total War: Warhammer 3. Getting to the top of the tech tree was a bit of a letdown when all it got me was infantry with slightly prettier swords.
The faction management layer is less coherent and consistently joyful than Total War: Pharaoh’s frantic real-time battles. In an effort to accurately reflect the complex systems of politics that underpinned the government of ancient Egypt, Total War: Pharaoh introduces a court system, where factions can scheme against one another, trading favors and vying for advantage.
On paper, it looks satisfying. Every turn you get the chance to do something at court. You could gossip with one of the holders of a court position to gain favor, or you could start a secret plot to oust one of your rivals. You can conspire with allies, trading favor with them to boost the success rate of one of your schemes. You can even flat-out assassinate your enemies if you put in the legwork.
However, the court system struggles due to its lack of personality. Contrary to more immersive titles like Stellaris or Crusader Kings 3, your rivals at court have little to distinguish themselves from one another, feeling more like cardboard cutouts than actual people. The gregarious Ramesses won’t visibly act differently in court to gruff and ornery Seti. What’s more, court rivals will plot with or against you with little regard for your diplomatic standing. It was weird to form a tight-knit military alliance with Ramesses, only for him to blackmail me in court several turns later.
Total War: Pharaoh also leans heavily on trade systems, having units and buildings cost a variety of resources. Food, iron, gold, stone, and wood production all need to be managed in tandem, often requiring you to barter with neighbors in the world’s bloodiest game of Settlers of Catan. You’ll quickly find yourself entering into rapid-fire deals just to keep your economy afloat, a process made more tedious by clumsy menus and the sheer frequency of trades required to keep your faction’s head above water. I easily struck twice as many trade deals as I fought battles during my time with Pharaoh. Once again the game led me away from its stronger elements at its own expense.
Open are the double doors of the horizon
As a testament to Egyptian history, Total War: Pharaoh excels, skillfully immersing you in the period. History buffs will find themselves well served here. Much like historical Egypt, the game world is affected by seasonal events and raids from external powers. Droughts and floods have considerable effects on your faction’s production beyond simply modifying the terrain in battle. Your empire will rise and fall alongside the Nile itself. The endgame event, the invasion of the Sea Peoples, makes the game less about winning outright and more about weathering the catastrophic events of the Bronze Age Collapse - the perfect storm of drought, famine, and invasion that brought civilization to its knees 3,400 years ago.
Total War: Pharaoh asks you to contest with the very same factors that tore the ancient world apart - a challenge it conveys effectively through the use of its crisis system and increasingly brutal world events. As you play through the campaign, the world around you changes and you must either adapt or perish. Traditional Total War strategies might not serve you too well here, as aggressive expansion leaves you open for invasion by marauders or sudden economic collapse due to environmental factors.
That said, by asking you to lean away from warfare and towards diplomacy, Total War: Pharaoh pushes you towards its weaker mechanics and systems, undermining the game experience in pursuit of realism. This is not a move that will sit well with everyone. However, for those looking to really immerse themselves in the trials and tribulations of the ancient world, Total War: Pharaoh will deliver an experience that, though hit-and-miss in many respects, provides a refreshingly earnest take on the historical strategy genre.
Total War: Pharaoh offers a range of accessibility features, including colorblind modes for people with Deuteranopia, Protanopia, and Tritanopia, as well as the ability to customize colors for neutral, enemy, allied, and player factions. The game also offers UI scaling, for those looking for larger print. Beyond this, players are free to heavily customize their key bindings and camera settings.
How we reviewed Total War: Pharaoh
I spent 20 hours with Total War: Pharaoh, playing out one long-form campaign through the Sea Peoples' endgame crisis and a shorter campaign that went through to the mid-game. Both playthroughs were markedly different, with one focused on diplomacy and the other directed towards a more traditional, military-centric approach.
I have played over a thousand hours of Total War titles over the last ten years, including the Total War: Warhammer series, the Medieval: Total War series, Napoleon: Total War, and Total War: Three Kingdoms. I also have a great deal of experience with the wider strategy genre, including Stellaris and Crusader Kings 3 - all of which proved crucial when approaching the game.
Cat Bussell is a Staff Writer at TechRadar Gaming. Hailing from the crooked spires of London, Cat is an experienced writer and journalist. As seen on Wargamer.com, TheGamer.com, and Superjumpmagazine.com, Cat is here to bring you coverage from all corners of the video game world. An inveterate RPG maven and strategy game enjoyer, Cat is known for her love of rich narratives; both story-driven and emergent.
Before migrating to the green pastures of games journalism, Cat worked as a political advisor and academic. She has three degrees and has studied and worked at Cambridge University, University College London, and Queen Mary University of London. She's also been an art gallery curator, an ice cream maker, and a cocktail mixologist. This crash course in NPC lifestyles uniquely qualifies her to pick apart only the juiciest video games for your reading pleasure.
Cat cut her teeth on MMOs in the heyday of World of Warcraft before giving in to her love of JRPGs and becoming embedded in Final Fantasy XIV. When she's not doing that, you might find her running a tabletop RPG or two, perhaps even voluntarily.