Review: Nobunaga's Ambition -- Sphere of Influence22 Sep 2015 0
In 300 kanejaku, you will reach your destination
More than any other developer, Koei has always put a face on bureaucracy. From running an airline in 1992's Aerobiz to bulking out inventory as a high seas trader in Uncharted Waters, character is the conduit. For decades, Koei's strategy games have been marrying the machinations of officialdom to a vast cavalcade of history's who's who. Koei’s ability to offset the often cold number-crunching of the strategy set is well-honed after all these years, managing to combine the creation of empires or exploration of worlds with rich, romantic presentation. The West sadly doesn’t get a lot of the Koei strategy library these days, so while sometimes buckling under its own administrative emphases, having Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence leave the home islands after a -- wink-wink -- period of isolation is very welcome indeed.
Did I leave the oven on back at the tenshu?
This new edition of Nobunaga's Ambition shows us a series that's downright sprightly for being thirty-two years old (about ninety-eight in video game years) and offers up a medieval Japanese Warring States sandbox, just as it has in over a dozen titles starting in 1983. The Oda clan take aim at a grand unification of a splintered, squabble-prone medieval Japan. Every clan is accounted for across the archipelago, minus the southern Island chains and anything north of the Oshima peninsula in Hokkaido. Peering at the map provides perspective on the compressive provincial powder keg of 16th Century Japan; the close-quarters density of bellicose noble houses looking to bolster position, curry favour and, when the hour is at hand, make a military play. The pomp of the Daimyo jostle between 1534 to 1700 time-frame is ideal for a computer game, which is probably why Koei have made so many of these.
The title suggests that Sphere of Influence might be the story of Nobunaga (Japan's eventual unifier), but that's not the whole tale. Players can choose to control even the most minor of clans, and in doing so, have a shot at changing much of what played out during the turmoil of the Sengoku period. Intimacy is what sets the game apart from Paradox grand strategy games of similar scope. There are nearly two thousand individual characters of the Sengoku era, each bearing a statistical interpretation of their historical traits and a dramatic approximation of their disposition.
The War of the Tetris Blocks
These officers are a player's interface with his or her province, the boots on the ground responsible for carrying out development, military or diplomatic action. Outside of town improvements like upping agricultural output and conscription, more specific elements require the assignment of retainers or the Daimyo himself. Overt or covert diplomatic missions require cunning, military operation governed and bolstered by leadership, crucial facility development relying on political sway. The higher these parameters are, the faster or more effective the officer is at achieving their goal. Mix in tenets -- an officer's political leanings that affects development and innovation -- and ideals -- where aspirations denote personality type and cohesion with fellow clansmen -- and you've got a layered, fastidious model of feudal governorship.
Koei's attention to detail is easy to admire but also intimidating. Sphere of Influence is demanding on bureaucratic fiddliness, especially in the early game. If the idea of micromanaging the redecoration of each castle in your domain appeals, down to the section of roads and which ward around the keep gets a new construction project, then this is certainly a game for you. However, in a relatively faithful depiction of the era's cloak-and-dagger loyalty switcheroo, the player is highly dependent on keeping the best officers in fine spirits with gifts and station appointments. Otherwise, rival clans will undermine your administration. Stealing away the enemy’s officers becomes a war of its own.
Total War has never attempted motion blur like this.
Sphere of Influence’s combat feels at its best when shunting army icons across the roads and sea lanes of the country. Deploying armies and equipping them with sword, horse or musket, assigning officers and lieutenants, blitzing and sieging; the strategic warfare is fat-free and fast-moving. Complexity is layered through supply and officer leadership traits, especially when sieging, but the combat never gets bogged down in Grigsby-esque minutiae. Military campaigns in Sphere of Influence are no different to most other behemoth strategies in being primarily a numbers game. That said, the trademark Koei officer presentation makes each army feel more than just stacks winding their way towards an opponent. Simple effects, such as receiving reports directly from the characters do wonders for personalising the abstract. The bond you build with your officers, regardless of historical notoriety, helps elevate even the most mundane of operations to a matter of import and honour.
That same level of excitement doesn't come through in Sphere of Influence’s somewhat anemic real-time tactical combat. Simplistic, player-triggered (and entirely optional) appendices to battles that would otherwise play out automatically on the world map, the tactical combat has players driving blocks of units around austere maps, unleashing officer-specific skills or abilities such as charges or confusion when the time seems right. Flanking is the predominantly successful tactic, but beyond that, the options are limited. No more so than any Total War game, but then, terrain and unit condition are considerations in Creative Assembly titles that Koei haven't burdened us with here. In Sphere of Influence, the bombast of officer barks -- especially in Japanese -- and rousing roar of troops can’t camouflage that this combat is influenced primarily by Koei’s arcade action hybrids like Kessen or Bladestorm. It’s a limited, slightly ill-fitting element to the package, playing out like a mini-game rather than a crucial part of conquest. In Shogun: Total War, real-time combat is a necessity. Here, it’s an optional sideshow.
A well-planned castle drops no daimyos.
But this is not Shogun: Total War. You come to Sphere of Influence to play Football Manager: Sengoku Edition; to develop and expand a roster of loyal retainers, ameliorating clan deficiencies while playing dastardly hands in the court of neighbouring Daimyo. It's a grand strategy of people. The aforementioned ability by Koei to make the every aspect of governance seem enthralling, be it deliberating on which ward receives the agricultural upgrade to which officers will lead the next war party. And while I yearn for greater depth in overlays (why isn't there an option to display each Lord's name or avatar next to the castle or town they oversee on the strategic map?) and less spelunking through interface, the historical ambiance is made richer through the raft of characters, fine music and tasteful map.
While Sphere of Influence is not a perfect game, it feels like a uniquely Japanese grand strategy design. If the big grand strategies of the West have left you wanting something a little more personable, Sphere of Influence could be the populous Warring States terrarium you've been looking for. If ease of use and immediate parsing of empirical information is required, then Nobunaga might have needed just a touch more ambition.