Reviewed on: PlayStation 3 (Grant Patterson), PlayStation 4 (Kevin Tucker)
Also available on: PC
Developer: Koei Tecmo
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Kevin Tucker: It’s a little coincidental that Koei Tecmo’s history-based strategy series Nobunaga’s Ambition has a history in and of itself. With titles dating back to 1983 and spanning nearly every noteworthy American console, the series has established a considerable reputation among strategy gamers and history buffs alike. The latest addition to the family is called Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, and like many dense strategy games, it walks a fine line between approachability and depth of gameplay. With that in mind, the G4@Syfygames team askes two different types of gamers to review this title — one with a background in strategy titles, and the other without — in order to provide a balanced perspective of this massive game.
Grant Patterson: I’ve been playing strategy games for a long, long time. In fact, some of my first strategy experiences were Koei games like the NES version of Nobunaga’s Ambition, Liberty or Death or Uncharted Waters on the SNES, and even PS2 strategy games like Kessen. As such, the new Nobunaga’s Ambition wasn’t as daunting to me, but I can still remember what it was like to be shoved headfirst into the deep end of political wheeling and military dealings. Simply put: this game is not for everyone. However, it is a game like none other, and is endlessly rewarding to those players who put the time and effort into learning its juggling act of policy, civic management and national conquest. In essence, it is a pool with no shallow end and a ton of treasures at the bottom, but only for those willing to fully take the plunge.
KT: I’m less familiar with strategy titles, only having dabbled in a few turn-based affairs, so I’m fairly unfamiliar with the genre. I’m a gamer and a bit of a history buff, though, so this latest Nobunaga’s Ambition title had its appeal. Sphere of Influence, like the other titles in the Nobunaga’s Ambition series, closely follows Japanese history around the 16th century, in particular the exploits of Nobunaga Oda and his goal of unifying the country. At the start, players assume the role of Nobunaga’s father, and begin building a dynasty from the heart of feudal Japan chiefly through diplomacy, alliances, and war. It’s a great premise.
Of course, I didn’t know what I was doing my first time starting the game, so I went straight for the tutorial. Ultimately, I think I would have been okay without it — it was really lengthy, described the game’s processes in a manner that never felt entirely clear, and spent time interjecting light storytelling with dense gameplay explanations. Besides, in-game alerts on how functions worked popped up the first time said functions were used in the main campaign missions, which basically renders the tutorial redundant. Everything is laid out for players in a very simple manner, and by the time I’d grown accustomed to the basic functions, I was already curious about the deeper nuances. There’s a help file, too, which clarified a few things I couldn’t organically figure out.
GP: There’s a very distinct, three-pronged balancing act that goes on in Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence. Players must constantly and consistently manage not only the military might of each province, but they must keep an eye on civic planning and policy as well as that province’s financial earnings and resources. This attention to each individual town will contribute to the overall capability of your empire-to-be, so when any one (or more) of those aspects are left unattended, the others will cease to function well and your entire operation will suffer as a result. You cannot expect to maintain an army without food and structures for your population, you cannot expect to keep a population growing without developing your cities and managing your policies, and you cannot expect to build new and better facilities without your towns making money. You have multiple ways to accomplish this feat.
Then, you get into the area of how well you get along with others. In that regard, the two strongest options are to flex diplomatic muscle in an effort to forge friendly coalitions, or you could just amass as much military might as possible and start kicking down doors, one unfortunate clan at a time. As much as I enjoy the art of diplomacy, it takes a lot of time to yield results and carries very little in the avenue of direct control. Peaceful resolution leaves your newly-ordained vassal clans outside of your direct — wait for it — sphere of influence, as they are allowed to maintain autonomy in return for periodic tribute and wartime assistance. Mobilizing massive amounts of forces ensures that you break down gates in a spectacular fashion, and it allows you to forcibly take over a clan and its people for your own direct control and purposes. However, it is a very costly option in terms of manpower.
Then, there’s the fact that your manpower per city dictates not only your military might, but your local workforce as well. A province has a standing population of 7000, you decide send 6500 to war, so then you only have 500 people left to work on projects. Where do you really need the extra muscle? Do you need that clan out of your way, or do you need better facilities for the good of your current population? Sure, a new castle is great, but not taking care of citizens could cause a revolt that you’ll need to quell. There’s a tradeoff to consider in just about every aspect of this game.
Combat is very easy to grasp, but has intricacies that may take some getting used to. Fortunately, that quick and easy-to-use help system is at your beck and call, and I found myself a master of close-range warfare within a few skirmishes. A word of advice: never, ever roll on any enemy solo. Bring backup, because a pincer maneuver is always the best option. Against castles, roll in threes, and bring lots of men. Then, when it’s said and done, tell them to go home. Your provinces need the extra manpower to finish local projects. Also, there’s merit in taking out a clan and not executing captured officers. Some of them will talk big about how they’ll “get you next time,” but they just flee back to their dwindling number of friendly bases. Once you take those out, they’ll accept your offer to join because they have nowhere else to go. There’s plenty of great leaders you can put to good use, as long as you keep them alive long enough to serve you.
KT: The game’s graphics are quite pleasing overall. A lot of the smaller details of the landscape and armies are nice, but they get lost once campaigns begin to take on a larger scope. Players can zoom in on their castles and armies, but there isn’t much need to; almost all of the game can be played at a level where castles are represented by clan icons and armies are represented with colored blocks. The menus are fairly basic, probably out of necessity — they’re filled with simple icons representing various options and abilities. A little text box icon pops up whenever the game wants to gain the player’s attention, which I found to be a nice touch. These simple visual alerts helped me focus my attention on the proper priorities and opportunities, from treasures arriving in the market to the option to hire ronin roaming the land.
GP: The graphics take a big backseat in this game because it doesn’t really need them. It is a game of numbers, statistics and management, and thus does not require a slick and pretty presentation. It just needs to be functional, and in that, it succeeds. I think it would help for it to look a little better, but that’s the epitome of a “want” instead of a “need,” especially in a game entirely focused on its core ideas and mechanincs in the way that Nobunaga’s Ambition is. That said, it was cool to zoom out to get a national view of who was in charge of what territories — including the diplomatic status of other clans, as well as their own coalitions and alliances — then being able to zoom right back into my battle in progress, all in real-time.
What this game does right with its graphics is a strong focus on uncluttered UI (user interface). Yes, it’s comprehensive and therefore somewhat overwhelming, but it never feels overly complicated. That’s a feat in and of itself, especially for a strategy title that goes into such immense levels of depth — on a console, no less. Koei Tecmo should be applauded for getting that 100% right, because something like this is very easy to do poorly. They dodged being cumbersome, which is amazing considering the sheer micromanagerial scope this game has.
KT: Sound was one of the areas where Sphere of Influence seems to fall flat for me. The music is good — catchy, even, in a dry sort of way — but the rest of the audio gets fairly repetitive. I heard the same battle cries from deployed armies and acquiescent mutters from assimilated tribesmen dozens, if not hundreds of times.
To make matters worse, a lot of the bells and chimes for officers getting promotions, having children, and/or dying come rapid-fire toward the end of the campaign. I found myself tapping X wading through the menus popping up, approving new officers blindly, listening to endless chimes and dings and chirps in an attempt to get back into the action as quickly as possible.
GP: I find myself agreeing somewhat, as the recycled speeches and canned statements did get old after a while. The music, on the other hand, was delightful. It was never intrusive, and always engaging. I didn’t get tired of hearing it. The voices do repeat often, as the stock phrases are all that’s used. However, there is an option to turn the voices to their native Japanese, which sells the authenticity just that little extra bit more. It’s a nice touch.
KT: For a gamer on the fence about strategy games, Sphere of Influence might be a hard sell. It’s a very deep game, giving the biggest rewards to players who are capable of putting in time and effort. That being said, it isn’t exactly difficult; a newbie to the genre would likely be able to pick up and start playing quite easily. It isn’t really daunting, either. That’s partially because it’s so much fun, but also because there are a wealth of different options for controlling the difficulty. And though the historical anecdotes might get a little tedious, they do lend a unique kind of charm to the title.
GP: For those players looking for a more cerebral experience, I can say that Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence delivers in every conceivable way. However, players who don’t want to read through stuff or require faster-paced action to feel engaged will find themselves bored to tears. This game is not for people who cannot take time to examine the finer details of a situation, plain and simple. If the idea of managing individual town resource production, castle enhancement, city planning and management, military troop strength, individual battle strategy for five separate and simultaneous conflicts, fostering foreign diplomacy between twenty-something clans and watching out for the best selling price of rice in the late winter doesn’t sound like fun, this game is not for you. Not at all.
However, if that sounds like something interesting, you’re in for a real treat. There’s nothing else quite like this.
This review copy was a digital code provided by the publisher.
Incredibly deep and satisfying, but requires patience.
KT: Offering deep gameplay with an approachable style, Sphere of Influence is rewarding for strategy fans while remaining forgiving for genre newcomers.
GP: Strategy vets will find all they want and then some, but newcomers will need to exercise patience in order to begin digging into the game’s bountiful rewards.