Until now, the PlayStation 4 has not had a true strategy title that is as complex and deeply satisfying for history and RTS buffs alike as developer Koei’s Western port of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence (SoI).
The latest entry in a series that began way back in 1983 takes us once again through a meaty history lesson on real life samurai daimyo warlord Oda Nobunaga. In the late 16th century Nobunaga was responsible for initiating the unification of Japan near the end of the rather brutal warring states period. Nobunaga was the first of three unifiers during the period and is remembered in the annals of history as one of the toughest sons of bitches you could ever want to mess with (along with being a somewhat masterful diplomat). This is exactly what you get with this game, a heady mixture of strategic war and diplomacy. Nobunaga himself was known to not flinch in the face of violence, however the game is presented with a bit more of a family friendly vibe, so don’t expect decapitated heads or severed limbs flying across the screen.
Sphere of Influence is a technical strategy game through and through, it has been developed for the hardcore historical RTS fan and spares no expense delivering the goods on what makes the niche genre so appealing. Newcomers will be daunted by the complexity and depth on offer here. I am no expert in the genre but certainly enjoyed offerings like Rome: Total war, Starcraft II and Supreme Commander, but did find jumping head first into SoI to be something of a kick in the guts. I was surprised by how much I had forgotten about the basics of what makes these genre titles work, but there is a meaty tutorial that will get you up to speed on the basics of the game’s rhythm and how its structure works. To be honest, the tutorial left me confused rather than ready to begin my bloody conquest, and jumping right into one of the games many historical recreations had me simply winging it during my first few tries to see what worked and what didn’t. Still, this is a deeply technical title that rewards patience, being meticulous with resources and taking the time to learn what all those stats and numbers mean, you get what you give so to speak.
Everything you do will have an impact on the big picture, for instance developing farmland from a small scale will over time reward in dividends for your crops and conscripts. Each game will start at a snail’s pace as you take care of all the finer details before heading off for a good old bloody battle. This will make or break the game for you in terms of how invested you can be (I certainly found it slow), as taking care to establish good foundations early is essential in ensuring victory once you go into battle. While not truly required, having a cursory understanding of the history of 16th Century Japan helps, as you are bombarded with real world facts that will make things a lot more interesting as you build an empire.
Once thing start to get into full swing however, your sense of purpose and power feels like it means something. Barking orders, raising an army, organising trade routes and conspiring with other factions to reach a common goal is quite satisfying (especially when it all comes together). The slow pace does work well in this regard, especially for newcomers as it does allow you to soak up all the information and keep tabs on just where you have resources building up and who is on (or off) your side. This is an obvious staple of the genre and one that SoI handles quite well in terms of pacing.
Each ‘turn’ takes place over a month within the game’s timeline. During this period you have a countless amount of options at your disposal such as recruiting new soldiers or creating an alliance. Each month you will spend resources for these privileges (which are also gained from farming as mentioned before). Keeping an eye on your balance and property is key to not running into the red, especially if history changes through a month- and this certainly does happen. As each month passes you will be doing much the same things in order to grow, however during the passage of time enemies may deploy troops or scouts to come knockin’ on your door, and without prior defences built or a plan B this can be devastating. Random events can change the political landscape at a moment’s notice, forcing you to adapt to the change and consider the impacts on the alliances you have formed. Will you betray or be betrayed? Some battles can even be won before they even begin by spreading distrust amongst your rivals’ most powerful adversaries. It isn’t all about swords and blood, the diplomacy aspect of the game serves as just a powerful weapon as 10,000 raining arrows.
Combat is just as deep as the beats of preparing for war, offering an increasingly large amount of options as you expand your influence and grow your armies. Every officer has their own tactical advantage on the battllefield, and careful planning with the right officer against a foe whom you know the secrets of can turn the tide of a fight very quickly. Battles can either be managed manually or (if you are confident enough) you can leave your commanding officers to smash it out while you tinker away in the background. You will also have a lot to think about tactically before a battle even starts. Positioning and gauging just how effective your army will be against a particular foe can prove challenging, but with practice you will develop a deeper understanding of how best to approach each situation with the armies and resources you have accumulated. Battles prove to be a highlight once you’ve got a grasp on how it all fits together and will occur in real time (hence.. RTS), but if you are buckling under the complex weight of what it is you need to do to turn the tide of battle, you have the option to pause the action to stop and think. I especially found this handy as I am in no way as advanced with the genre like some players are. You will need to regularly keep your eyes peeled around the battlefield as a battle develops; keeping troops positioned correctly and watching for flanks is key to victory. It can be a little daunting at first as you try to remember just what the strengths and weaknesses of each unit are, and combat can become pretty hair-raising once the epic dial of just how many troops are fighting is turned up to 11.
SoI rewards forward thinking and taking risks. Admittedly, it can be devastating seeing your once grand armies crumble on the battlefield after making a seemingly harmless mistake. It isn’t Dark Souls crushing but does make you pause and rethink what it is you did wrong. Again, this is a title that demands many hours of tinkering and fine-tuning your skills to better control the outcome of a battle, adapting appropriately to changes brought about by the fickle machinations of History.
So how does the game look? Well, for a top down strategy game it is all rather pretty. Cut scenes look just as good as any Dead or Alive scene (minus the breast overload), landscapes are rolling in lush greenery and as a settlement grows it is nice to see all the little details build up as you sit back, satisfied that you are its creator.
Story-wise this is Koei doing what Koei does best: over the top stories with heart. The English voice-acting isn’t amazing but certainly captures the essence of the script in a light-hearted way (considering this period of Japan’s history was in reality quite brutal).
As mentioned in the beginning of this review, this is a game for the hardcore strategy fan. If you only have a passing interest in the genre or have never tried an RTS game before I would recommend a title that isn’t so taxing on the knowledge you will need for success. The staples of the genre are all here but amplified in a way that for fans of the genre will be deeply satisfying. Newcomers will likely be daunted by the experience, but if you don’t drown in the details initially, and are willing to sink a fair few hours learning the complex systems, you too may become the ultimate samurai daimyo warlord.