The Sengoku period of Japan’s history was one marked by near constant conflict and change over the course of nearly 150 years during the 15th and 16th centuries. It was into this world that Oda Nobunaga was born and, through a combination of political intrigue, exceptional guile and military might, brought the Oda clan to the brink of uniting Japan under a single ruler. Alas, for Nobunaga this was not to be his accomplishment, but the legacy of his actions remain.
Though this is a storied game series in Japan, with the first game having been created for PC back in 1983 and thirteen more games made since, Nobunaga’s Ambition has had very little exposure in the West, with just a couple of US releases. Retitled as Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, that’s set to change next week, when the grand strategy game created to celebrate the series’ 30th anniversary is released in Europe and North America for PC, PS4 and PS3.
Within this tumultuous period of Japan’s history, you take control of a Daimyo, a feudal ruler, in one of a large number of scenarios – most are historical, such as “The Struggle for Power” or “Battle of Sekigahara” but a handful are fictional – and try to lead them to success. The most obvious to choose is the role of Nobunaga himself, and his efforts to conquer and unite Japan under his rule, and it’s these major historical scenarios which have their stories told through cutscenes, in addition to portrait-based dialogues.
You take charge of your budding empire, and try to build it through diplomacy with those around you, through improving its infrastructure and, naturally, through large-scale warfare. There’s an almost baffling amount to manage, for those not familiar with such games, and a large array of menus to work through in order to further your goals, but you can be led through the early stages at least, in order to get to grips with the game.
Central to your efforts are your cadre of officers, to whom you will delegate almost every task. If you need a road built – and you need good roads for your armies to be able to traverse the notoriously mountainous countryside – need to strengthen a castle, have a gift delivered to a nearby warlord, or an army to be led, you will entrust these tasks to someone in your command. They often have special traits, which will make them better suited to a particular task, but if you want something done right, it could be easier to simply task Nobunaga himself with getting it done.
Cultivating good relationships with nearby warlords, clans and tribes will be key, as you aim to gather support for the wars to come and avoid having a tricky thorn in your side to deal with. Sending gifts is a simple way of building the trust between you and eventually secure an alliance, but there’s also the potential to marry into an alliance. Additionally, all of your machinations are watched over by the Imperial Court who, while lacking any true power to stop the rivalries and warring Daimyo, do still have a degree of influence over how you are viewed by others. Appealing to the court, on the other hand, can have its own benefits.
There’s an intriguing blend of turn-based and real time play, which mixes the gameplay style of previous titles, whereby you hold court with your Council and make major decisions once a month as a pseudo turn, and the time in between unfolds over the course of a few minutes. It means that you can methodically go through and decide how best to engage in diplomacy and build alliances, as well as doling out building, training and other tasks to your officers, but the game retains the real time control of troop movements and battles.
Given that this is a grand strategy game in the fullest sense of the term, it feels somewhat unusual to see it being released on consoles. A complex interface and broad scope often keeps games such as Total War or Civilization bound to the keyboard and mouse, or at least heavily simplified in the transition, but there are no corners cut for the PlayStation versions of this game. The blend of turn-based and real time actions will certainly help when you’re having to deal with so many different aspects of your growing empire, but so too will the ability to slow and even pause time, especially during battles.
These can be managed in few different ways, which let you manoeuvre tetromino-like blocks that represent each army around, with a better overall view of the battlefield, or zoom in closer and control individual units for yourself. The latter option lets you make use of an officer’s traits and tactics abilities, to give you an even greater advantage on the small scale, but it’s important to pick the right view, as you cannot switch between them more than once.
With this anniversary celebration in particular, Koei have tried to bring together many of the gameplay elements that have been a part of the series’ first 30 years, resulting in this rather unique blend of turn-based and real time gameplay, and for me it means that the appeal for Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence goes beyond simply the rarity of seeing this genre on western consoles.