When we think of Koei, straight away our minds project a rich tapestry bearing the image of its acclaimed Warriors franchise. Amid the constant barrage of sequels and spinoffs, however, there has been the occasional glimmer of innovation. In recent years we’ve seen numerous partnerships between Koei and other publishers as well a cluster of new IP, including Bladestorm, Toukiden, and the lesser known Fatal Inertia.
Still, it’s not very often we’re reminded of a time when Koei wasn’t so heavily focussed on the Warriors series. Prior to its landmark hack and slash franchise, much of the publisher’s success stemmed from two long-running strategy titles: Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition.
Although popular in Japan, these series have rarely made the voyage overseas, and it’s easy to see why Koei has had its reservations in bringing Nobunaga’s Ambition to a new audience. Much like its predecessors, Sphere of Influence gets hung up on just about every historical detail, featuring hundreds of feudal warlords across several gigantic campaigns.
Then there’s the genre itself to consider as well. Although PC gamers have grown accustomed to the likes of Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, the grand strategy format has never worked particularly well on consoles. That hasn’t stopped Koei from trying, mind you. Over the years Nobunaga’s Ambition has appeared on several gaming systems and now, many years later, it has finally arrived on PlayStation 4.
Like previous titles in the series, Sphere of Influence is set in 16th century Japan, an era commonly referred to as the Sengoku period. Put simply, it’s an age of unending war as daimyos look to expand their territory while keeping a watchful eye on the imperial court. If not clashing in the field of battle, these warlords look to conspire and scheme against one another, a peace offering in one hand and a dagger in the other. Naturally, players are thrown right into this lion’s den and left to fend for themselves. Choosing from one of several campaigns to undertake, you’ll select a clan to play as before settling down and growing your kingdom.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds, however. Nobunaga’s Ambition is an incredibly complex game with the tutorial alone clocking in at just over an hour. There’s just so much to take on board, from building and developing your bases, to diplomatic treaties and military conquest. It’s overwhelming, but if you have the stomach for it, it can also be rather compelling.
Bit by bit, the game feeds you a wealth of information in a way that’s mostly effective. When trying to perform certain actions or scrolling over options on the menu, a window will appear to give you a brief lowdown. Trying to remember each individual strand in this vast web of knowledge is a futile task, however, and one that will often have players poring over the in-game encyclopedia.
As briefly touched on before, Sphere of Influence can be divided into three interdependent parts. First we have the building and development of your clan’s territory, carried out through a variety of work orders. Whether improving a base’s crop yield, expanding its militia, or fortifying defences, each upgrade requires time and resources.
Diplomacy can be just as important and comes in a number of flavours. While players can seek to forge alliances and military coalitions, they can also turn enemy officers and even manipulate native tribes who inhabit their lands. Again, such actions demand coin as well as skilled personnel to carry them out.
Finally, we have clan warfare. Although players can opt for pacifism, this won’t save them from enemy invasions, nor will it help them to expand their influence. Deploying officers will allow you to direct their armies around the map, invading enemy lands, defending outposts, and assisting allied units. When two or more factions are locked in battle, you can simply sit back and let the stats do the talking or get stuck in.
Ranging from small skirmishes to epic showdowns, seizing direct control will have you gazing down upon your units while issuing orders. It’s a fairly basic yet effective system, expanded by an array of tactical options, such as the ability to launch pincer attacks. Each officer will also have their own traits and powers to use, giving them some versatility on the battlefield. While some prefer ranged attacks and speedy getaways, others enforce more aggressive tactics that often leave the enemy confused and weakened.
This same top-down view is used when managing your kingdom too. Aside from fiddling with the camera controls, you’ll also be able to scroll through menus in order to enact policies and command your subjects. This is done month-by-month, giving the game a sensible amount of pace. At the beginning of each month, you’ll devise a plan before executing it. Upon doing so, you’ll trigger a time lapse, enabling you to carry out any military action. Luckily, with the option to slow or even stop time, you’re given enough room to watch as everything unfolds around you.
The deeper you fall into this rabbit hole, the more addictive it gets. Not only that, you’ll come across new mechanics and systems that all have their part to play. Within several hours, I had developed a handful of settlements into central Japan’s largest military force, capable of obliterating neighbouring clans with my fearsome cavalry.
With more land to govern and officers to manage, progress can also become a burden. Instead of pushing ahead and doing the things I enjoyed most in Nobunaga’s Ambition, I often found myself hampered by bureaucracy and the need constantly shuffle my retainers from base to base. Luckily, there are some advanced options at hand, allowing players to hand provincial control to AI generals.
Still, it can all get a bit too much, and this is where many will take issue with the game. Having spent many an hour browsing menus and issuing commands on the battlefield, I would often zoom out on the campaign map only to realise how small and insignificant my clan truly was. To hazard a guess, conquering Japan would take the best part of an entire day playing non-stop, if not longer – and that’s only one of a dozen or so campaigns to get through!
Sphere of Influence has a huge amount of content, yet the way it’s presented makes it slightly easier to digest. Although the 3D visuals are somewhat uninspired, Nobunaga’s Ambition boasts a humongous gallery of officer portraits and one of the best video game soundtracks you’ll hear all year. Whether knee deep in your latest military campaign or idly watching over your kingdom, the game’s music adapts and never fails to immerse you in the action.
Vast in scope and often times overwhelming, Nobunaga’s Ambition isn’t a game for everyone, especially those who’d rather get their next Samurai Warriors fix. Although set in the same time period, the two Koei franchises couldn’t be further apart. Where one has you constantly hammering out combos and destroying enemies by the dozen, the other is mostly comprised of sifting through an endless maze of menus while trying to stay one step ahead of your rivals. If you approach Sphere of Influence with an open mind, however, you’ll quickly find that it’s more than competent.
Over the years, Koei has clearly continued to refine it’s original strategy template, layering an interlocking mesh of game systems and mechanics. When the cogs start turning, Nobunaga’s Ambition becomes this intriguing spectacle as clans employ a variety of strategies in order to adapt, survive, and expand. Although far from perfect, this is likely the best grand strategy title you’ll find on a home console.
Version tested: PlayStation 4