Koei Tecmo genuinely surprised us last year with Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence. Although a popular and well established series, it has rarely ever ventured beyond its homeland of Japan. On top of that, this latest iteration was the first to make its mark on PlayStation 4, becoming one of the only grand strategy titles available on current consoles.
Despite targeting such a niche audience, something must have clicked. Although the publisher has a knack for expanding and relaunching many of its games, they surely need to reach some kind of quality or sales milestone in order to be considered for such treatment.
Either way, we’re happy to see Nobunaga’s Ambition return for a second year running, this time with a deeper, more tactical focus. At face value, Ascension offers the same core game we experienced with the original Sphere of Influence. In becoming a daimyo or one of their adjutants, you select a campaign before looking to expand the influence of your clan through a mixture of territory control and civic development.
Depending on how familiar you are with the Sengoku or Warring States period, some additions made to the base game may fly under the radar. The increased number of scenarios, historic events, and exchanges between important figures mainly target those who have more than just a surface knowledge of the era. History buff or not, this helps to expand upon the game’s already substantial list of campaigns.
Ascension’s biggest draw, however, is how it drills down into many of the game’s already complex, intertwining mechanics. The developers have essentially taken a magnifying glass, going much deeper than the base game. To some, this will sound rather intimidating – dealing with ongoing wars, alliances, development, and trade is big enough of an undertaking without factoring in yet another strategic layer.
Thankfully, Koei has been smart in the way it integrates these new systems. Instead of juggling, with any lapse in judgement leading to failure, players are effectively spinning plates with the option to prioritise one over the other. To get the most of out these new features, you’ll need to offer yourself up as a lowly retainer instead of choosing to play as a lord or daimyo.
Being a retainer means a much smaller patch of land to govern with fewer pressures and responsibilities. Instead of destroying rival clans in a bid for dominance, your job is to satisfy the population within a small town, constructing new facilities and fulfilling objectives set by your liege lord. As your settlement grows, the amount of incoming resources steadily multiplies, allowing for a gradual expansion and the chance of a promotion.
Getting there takes time, however, and you’ll need to pay attention as you carefully plan what kind of town your building. Making sure you have a strong troop count is key, though having enough farms (supplies) to feed them is equally as important. You’ll also want to keep an eye on neighbouring retainers. Many will later go on to become friends or subordinates under your command, while others will seek to challenge you in completing certain goals.
As you ascend through the ranks, the game’s scope begins to broaden. Although you can return to your town at any point to oversee its development, you’ll soon have bigger fish to fry. Your clan leader will start expecting bigger resource loads while sending you to capture castles further and further afield. In exchange for carrying out such tasks, you’re given a sense structure or progression that also doubles up as a tutorial of sorts.
If you get fed up, or simply fancy chasing your own ambitions, the game lets you do just that. While defecting to a rival clan is fun to watch play out, others may want to branch out and create their own dominion, either fighting alongside or against their previous faction.
Battles also benefit from an added, albeit optional, layer of complexity. Although you can sit back, zoom out, and watch as red and blue wedges collide, you may prefer a more tactical perspective. Officer view lets you do just that, focusing on your general’s unit while throwing up a list of advanced menu options. These allow you to set formations and activate powers such as constructing watchtowers and applying buffs and debuffs to nearby units. It’s a nice touch though one that isn’t wholly necessary. Despite adding some flare, those who want to make quick progress will stick to the default battle view.
All in all, there’s some clever refinements and additions to the original game. The things that worked before remain unspoiled while a few blemishes also remain. The soundtrack, artwork, and localisation are all on point, though battles still look a bit basic, at least when compared to the awe-inspiring conflicts of Total War. Although aimed at a very small audience, Ascension is by far the best grand strategy title you’ll find on consoles – and quite possibly on PC – this year.