Will your clan conquer all of Japan or perish, to the history books, trying?

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence PS4 Review

Months of meticulous planning. Developing the five bases my clan started with. Pumping money into developing the bases conscripts would increase the size of my army which would be essential in the upcoming battles. Alas I can’t have an army if I can’t feed them, so I also had to develop my bases agricultural sectors, more food and work also meant my population would increase which would provide more people for the army. However, you’re at nothing if you don’t have gold, gold is essential for developing your bases conscript and agricultural sectors so without it your clan will crumble. This means you also have to put gold into developing your bases craft sectors which will in turn increase your gold income. Early on in the game finding a balance between developing your conscript, agricultural and craft sectors is necessary to fuelling the armies you need to unify Japan and the gold will certainly come in handy for diplomacy.

That brings me on to the next part of my story, diplomacy. As I said I spent my first few in-game months meticulously planning for the conquest ahead. I was eyeing up two of the clans closest to me to see which one would make the best ally and which one I could crush with the army I was building. I decided the Kimotsuki clan was the weakest link and my target, so the Sasshu Shimadu clan was the one I would ally myself with. First came the development phase and now the diplomatic one. While my trade, conscript and agricultural sectors were developing I spent the time sweet talking the Sasshu Shimadu clan into being my allies. I sent my most intelligent officer to talk to them and then waited while he built up their trust to forty so I could call on them for reinforcements if the battles ahead went south.

Hmm to protect them or crush them? That is the question.

Hmm to protect them or crush them? That is the question.

The planning came to an end, I had my gold and soldiers, and I had my allies, it was time to take on the Kimotsuki clan. I deployed my units, the biggest of which came from my capital of Uchi, and marched them to the first Kimotsuki base. They attacked my army and we fought on the road but they couldn’t match my forces so we beat them back and we surrounded their castle. Within a month it was mine. During the next few months I advanced through their lands making their castles mine, one by one. It was when they only had one castle left and their defeat was imminent that they sent me a message. They wanted to become my vassal. The irony was too much, they wanted their enemy to turn around and protect them. I did the right thing, I crushed them making all their lands mine. The Shimazu clan was victorious!

Say goodbye to the Kimotsuki clan!

Crush them! Say goodbye to the Kimotsuki clan.

That right there is the moment Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence sinks its hooks into you and becomes so addictive you find yourself trying to go to bed in the small hours of the morning but staying up just to make one more decision, plan one more attack, develop one more base. Then suddenly, as if you’ve time travelled, you realise you’re up an hour longer than you intended to be and still don’t want to turn it off. There’s so much in this game that I couldn’t even start to tell you about half of it or you’d be reading for the rest of the day. Hence why I opened the review with the story of how my first conquest began, it demonstrates what you’ll be doing moment to moment as you play. Each turn is split into two phases. The “council phase” is where you make all of your decisions such as base developments and troop routes. Nothing happens in this phase bar issuing commands, then in the “active phase” all the commands you issued are executed. Battles are fought in this stage and you can pause it to issue new orders, such as changing troop routes, or fast forward so it goes by quicker. When the active phase ends the month is over and you repeat the two phases for the next month and so on. It pretty much follows the same pattern of using the council phase to develop you bases, use diplomacy then go to war, then using the active phase to control troop movements and battles. You repeat this until you’ve unified Japan or failed to do so resulting in the elimination of your clan.

What keeps it so interesting for hours on end as you repeat the same pattern of develop, diplomacy, war? Well it’s the game’s astounding levels of depth. There’s just so many intricate systems that tie together in unique ways to add layer upon layer of complex depth to the game. I can’t go into detail here but I’ll give you a rundown of a few possibilities. Perhaps you don’t have any allies in the region and you want to take on a clan that’s a little too powerful for you, what can you do? Well you can use diplomacy to make allies in the region, you could marry one of you daughters to another clan to create a long term bond with them, if there’s any weak clans in the area you could negotiate to make them your vassal or perhaps you could appease some local tribes with gold so they’ll march with you to war. What if you do have allies and want to take on a gigantic clan? Well you could form a three years coalition against the big clan which will band all of your allies together in an effort to eliminate the bigger clan. You could use covert tactics to turn your enemy’s officers against them, seriously weakening their army. You could always kiss and make up by gifting your enemies some priceless treasure to turn them friendly. That’s not even touching on a quarter of the game’s systems but the point is if you can think up a plan then there’s probably some system in the game to help you execute it.

A not so large scale battle.

A not so large scale battle.

During the active phase you can let your officers fight your battles or you can jump in and take direct control yourself. Most of the time your officers are enough but in particularly important battles or in one where you have a disadvantage in numbers you probably should take control and try to turn the tide. The battle system is simple enough, you click a unit and where you want to move it to. When an enemy unit comes within range of yours they’ll begin to fire arrows at each other, you can select to continue that or switch to melee. You can also select “release,” if your unit has muskets, which will confuse the enemy. Then if your unit has horses you can select “charge” which will do high levels of damage and confuse your enemies. Little things add depth here such as using charge on your enemy’s flank almost always guarantees victory, but if you charge straight at them they can use release to set your charge into confusion and render your unit helpless for a period of time. Lastly if your officers have any skills they can be used in battles, these can achieve a variety of things from strengthening your ranged attack to lowering your enemies defence. As you can see, once again, the developers manage to add depth to a simple system to keep you on your toes and from getting bored.

Even the best players are limited by time. When you control half of Japan it would take forever to go along and develop every base you own, upgrade you’re castles and add facilities to all of them. Then you also want to be scouting enemy castles, surveying the land, using the diplomatic and covert options while monitoring your population’s happiness. Then on top of that by the time you own half of Japan you’re probably fighting more than one battle along your borders at a time. If you were to take full control yourself you could be looking at goes taking over an hour and making very slow progress through Japan. However, there’s even systems in place to help you here. With a push of the square button you can select to have your castle’s overseers take control of developing them. That’s ok for a little while but sometimes you’ll need even more help, so with another push of the square button you can also delegate your council to take care of all development and diplomatic decisions so you can concentrate on your armies and war in the active phase. As you expand even further that might be enough, so you can split your lands into provinces each headed by a main base that you select. This means you can set an AI controlled officer to control your armies, wars, development and more in a province so you can put it out of your mind and concentrate on other areas. You can even set a province to defend a different province or ally all while they attack a different clan and expand your lands for you. This all means that you can be selective in what you directly control, which saves time, and while fighting a war you’ll have your AI controlled provinces at your back. Of course you can retake direct control of an area if you wish and the province will disband.

Look at all those castles, and that's just a small section of Japan!

Look at all those castles, and that’s just a small section of Japan!

If you’re new to the strategy genre and this all sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. I haven’t played a strategy game since the first Medieval: Total War and while it took me awhile to wrap my head around Nobunaga’s Ambition, but there are things in place to help you. Firstly the tutorial which is quite long and throws a lot of information at you. Just play it slowly, take in as much as you can and when it’s over use the basics you’ve learned there and dive right into a scenario. It can feel like the game throws you straight into the deep end but you’ll start to figure things out for yourself in no time and it will become second nature. When you start your first scenario tutorial messages will pop up as you click on different things to help explain them. Then there’s the help menu which will give you information on nearly every aspect of the game, it’s possibly your most useful tool.

As for how difficult the game actually is depends on the player. If you’re tactical you should be fine but if you’re too aggressive and try to fight a war before you develop and use diplomacy you’ll have a harder time. There are five difficulty settings: easy, normal, hard, extreme and custom. The more you up the difficulty the more aggressive the AI gets, the more money they make, the more they’ll attack you, their armies will be bigger and the more diplomacy they’ll use. Custom is a great feature because it allows you to tweak the difficulty to whatever suits you best, for example maybe you want you’re clan to have a bigger army but you’re enemies to be more aggressive and have more gold.

All the options for setting the difficulty.

All the options for setting the difficulty.

I think I’ve demonstrated enough of what the game is actually like so let’s take a look at some technical things. Firstly the graphics are fine, there’s really nothing special in this department. There’s no highly detailed character models or anything like that because there doesn’t need to be in a game like this, so the graphics do what they need to but nothing more. It is full of beautiful artwork that pops up at key points in the story when two characters are talking, as for the talking there’s very little voice acting with most of the story and dialogue being told via boxes of text. Then there’s the music which if you take the time to listen to you’ll see it’s very well done. In fact the music really strikes a good balance of being genuinely good if you attempt to listen to it but remaining in the background, not grabbing your attention, if you choose to ignore it. It’s important not to be distracted by the music in a game that requires concentrating and planning, but it’s also nice to know that the music is good should you choose to tune in.

I mentioned the story in the last paragraph, well there’s no original story here instead its recounting Japanese history. This is great if you know about the time period, but if you’re interested in learning new things you’d be better off with a book because the game only highlights certain events. The time period moves from 1534 to 1615 and it’s spread across twelve scenarios, the game’s levels, three of which are fictional while the rest are historical. You can play the scenarios in any order. The nice thing is if you don’t care about the story, or history, that the game is telling then you can strike out in the gameplay and carve out your own story. For example if I was to continue the story I opened the review with I’d go on to tell of how I unified Japan with the Shimazu clan. Those of you who know their history will know that clan never singlehandedly unified Japan, but that’s the beauty of the game, it allows you to tell your own personal story that might be slightly different to the hundreds of other players who used, for example, the Shimazu clan. If you want to follow the history of the clan you choose quests pop up every now and again to guide you. These quests are optional but bear in mind rejecting or failing them will alter history which means later quests for that clan may not pop up.

The artwork throughout story scenes is really something else.

The artwork throughout story scenes is really something else.

The reviews already on the long end of the scale and I haven’t even mentioned anything that’s bad about the game, which says a lot about it, but I’ll go through my issues here before I conclude. First up the maps too big for all of the time, it would be nice if the full map of Japan was available in some scenarios but if there was smaller portions of Japan, with less clans and castles in them, for when you only want a shorter game.  The tutorial I mentioned earlier is very dense and overwhelming at first which may put off some players. The help menu which I previously said was one of the game’s best features does leave somethings out which can be annoying at times. I played on PS4 and the controls were a little frustrating for a while but I got use to them, I’d imagine it would be a lot easier on PC. There’s no multiplayer whatsoever which could affect the game’s longevity and it would be nice to rule Japan with a friend. You also need to be careful with the autosave function, it can be turned off but if it isn’t and you try to load a new scenario with the aim of eventually going back to an older one it will save over the old one, so be sure to turn it off if you want multiple save files. My last complaint is about the UI, there’s no way to change its borders which resulted in stats and writing going over the edge of my screen, however I was playing on an old 19” TV so I’d imagine this won’t be a problem for most players.

To wrap up it’s a simple pattern of development, diplomacy and war spread across two phases, council and active, that gets you addicted to Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, but it’s the game’s systems and layers of complexity that keep you coming back for more. The game allows you to push it in many different directions and before you know it you’ve used its systems of diplomacy and so on to unify Japan in ways you didn’t think the game would let you. There are a few issues, such as controls and map size, holding it back and there are other things that could be stronger, such as the graphics or story which both are fine but leave room for improvement. Overall this is an amazing game that leaves some things to be desired but overcomes its issues with strong gameplay and ever increasing levels of depth. The game will please fans of the genre who have being waiting for a game like this to come to PS4, but I honestly can’t see it winning over many new fans to the genre due to how overwhelming its initial few hours can be.

8 out of 10