Impressions of Conquering Northern Japan on a Whim

About a month ago, there was a free weekend on Steam for Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, a long-running Japanese grand strategy series which basically dropped off the western rear-end of the Earth since the PS2, (technically last seen in the crossover Pokémon Conquest for DS, yes, that exists, pretty good SRPG actually). I messed around with it on that weekend.

Not that you’d know there was a free weekend for the first localised instalment for a decade of the long-running series, as it wasn’t advertised on Steam anywhere. I actually found it out through a retailer’s news post, great work there. Although maybe they were hiding the astonishingly stingy sale discount of 17%. Considering it has a £50 pricetag anyway, this brought it down to… still more expensive than even higher-than average PC game price. Fallout 4’s part of that club, being £40 instead of £35, and that sale still meant Nobunaga’s Ambition was more offensive to your wallet. The game actually went on the slightly more generous discount of about 20% during the Steam autumn sale with little fanfare. Now I may be a business novice, but I know enough that this is a niche game and it was on greater discount on PS3 at the exact same time. The PS4 version was not discounted as much as the PS3 one because they needed to make this more complicated, and you can grab physical copies of it cheaper anyway, and oh this is just ridiculous.

Oh, and they sell ‘additional scenarios’ (9 of them!) for £2, or £2.50 from PSN, a pop as well. Marvellous.

Enough about floundering attempts to sell your niche, relatively-unknown grand strategy games on PCs and consoles, to the actual game itself. Which is basically the Samurai Warriors version of Feudal Japan, not surprising as it’s also a Koei Tecmo game. Although with less of entire armies being knocked senseless by one or two people, and more shooting galleries of troops formations firing stuff at each other.

Not Peaceful for Long

It’s interesting playing a long-running Japanese large-scale strategy game for the first time, mostly as it’s not really something you see very often, and because it’s been around for a long time, it’s very much got its own style. It’s got more a focus on the lords and retainers than actual units themselves, the only differentiating factors between troops themselves being how there are, and if they have horses and/or firearms. Whereas the actual stats of them are most determined by the person in charge and who they have accompanying them as retainers. Your entire roster of officiers as it calls them, are very much the important factor, giving faces to conflicts, and there are many. They all have their own stats which can improve through practice, a single special ability they can use in battle, and a smattering of special passive talents they can expand. As such, its focus sort of sits somewhere between Crusader Kings and your Europa Universalis, having individual varied characters who can have their loyalties messed with in a handful of ways, but not a massive web of backstabbing, and also broader easier kingdom control, where you can manage individual castle development and muster armies whenever you want, but if you get too large you have to start delegating provinces away from your direct control, having to start asking instead of telling. It’s still all very polite however, and even the most disgruntled subordinate will do exactly what you tell them, right up until another clan gives them a better offer to betray you at one particular opportunity. Results include: watching all your people get killed right next to them, packing their bags and leaving, or just outright redecoration of their castle flags.Too Many Nobunagas

There are two ‘phases’ to a ‘turn’ in Sphere of Influence, at the beginning of every in-game month, you can set all the diplomatic, civil and economic actions that are to start, although almost any sort of action requires an officer to oversee it in some way, whether that’s improving a castle’s districts, building something, upgrading or repairing a castle, upgrading roads, sending diplomatic envoys to other clans or the Imperial Court, scouting out castles or their surrounding areas, bribing neutral minor tribes, or trying to cultivate disloyalty in rival officers. With the officer’s relevant stat and any passive traits they have affecting either the effectiveness or speed at which they’re done. Castles themselves simply have three outputs, agriculture, crafts (gold output), and conscripts (determines the maximum number of troops the castle can house for defence or deployment) that can be improved directly with time and money and have their limits raised by a few choice building. After the Council phase is done, the month will progress day-by-day smoothly, as at any time, you can muster and command armies from castles or do some military actions like request reinforcements from clans you’re friendly with. Therefore there can be some manoeuvring of armies around the road network of Japan, which is important as they have to go single-file down roads, but can gather in groups of three at the nodes of the network. Additionally, armies eat up food on the road, so you both need to have supplies to dispatch them with and not send too far out from any of your castles or they’ll end up starving. Also means you can’t just leave them at a choke point forever, they’ll have to leave eventually, which is important as battles near castles can damage the castle itself, and armies can option to pillage nearby settlements to replenish their own provisions. Also people don’t like fights taking place outside their homes, for some reason.

Flanking with Friends

Supposedly, later on Feudal Japanese Traffic Controller will lead to ‘mass battles’ if there’s enough armies involved, which just drags everyone in a radius into a single large pitched battle, but with the additional condition that a side loses once their lead unit is defeated, and the winning side automatically destroys all units of the loser. Which should help speed things up. Although I didn’t get that far.

Speaking of battles, they can left on the map to slowly auto-resolve, but you can also take command of them yourself, with the caveat that of course you can’t oversee two battles at the same time, as time keeps ticking away even while you’re commanding it, which also means reinforcements can saunter in for either side mid-way, and this is often the case due to the single-file width of roads. While controlling battles themselves is like some weird offshoot of traditional cannon-based nautical combat, with each army as a single controllable block that automatically fires at anything directly in front of it, and has to turn to face anything else it wants to shoot. In a form of representation of how the leading cause of death in warfare was being laced with arrows. Attacking things safely in the flanks seems like a good idea, and can help confuse a unit making it unable to do anything, but also means you’ve got less to shoot at. Therefore getting behind units completely is the ideal situation, but seeing as units can strafe around a bit while doing a pointy object exchange, it’s usually only by distracting them with another in front can you get around them thusly. Melee combat is also an option, though it tends to end up with a lot of dead people on both sides very rapidly unless one side is incapacitated through confusion and some abilities make units briefly juggernauts in the stabbing department.

Give up, youre surrounded

Speaking of abilities, each officer in a unit, of which there can be up to three, can use their abilities in a battle, each one using a different number of segments of the yellow ‘tactics’ bar at the top of the battle screen, which slowly ticks up throughout. Some are basic like raising the units stats for a while, which others boosts allies which are in front of the unit, slow enemies who are in front, or can even range to causing enemy units to attack each other. On top of officer abilities, a unit equipped with horses gains the ability to expend the bar to charge uncontrollable straight ahead for a bit, likely confusing, and stunning, any foes caught in their path. While muskets (as the game calls them) allow a powerful volley of gunfire which may also trigger a panic into a ball of confusion, but may be unavailable due to the time period and your location.

Purple is Bad

Historical dates are a big thing, in fact, many events will unfold at their designated times, complete with little talking head conversations between characters, because this game names a ridiculous number of people from the period, including their historical deaths (though there’s an option to make them live longer, or forever). Choosing some of the larger clans to start with (as you’re free to select any of them from any of the many start dates) even gives you a little chain of historical quests that task you with accomplishing roughly what the real-life counterpart of your clan did. I’ve had my conquest of northern Japan aided when my borders started to come up against the monstrously large Date clan, which suddenly suffered from an internal schism when the current daimyō is usurped by his son, splitting the clan’s holdings in two and immediately starting a bloody conflict.

I was conquering the north as I had started my own clan up there, because the game lets you do this and fill it with a roster of custom officers. You can edit any of the historical officers, all of the hundreds of them, or make your own, with either their collection of not-fully used portraits, or your own if you’re on a PC. You even unlock some pre-made ‘custom’ officers by completing various achievement-like tasks, not of which are visible, for use in later new games. There’s no limits on what you can make your officers, so you can make them as game-breakingly ridiculous as you like, and then put them in charge of their own clan in whatever spare space you fancy. You don’t even have to play them, you can just set up a few custom tiny clans if you want, and they have to be tiny, as they can only have one fortress to their name, which can make them a slow start, but there’s nothing stopping you from leveraging some nearby clans to help you take over larger castles that require more men to besiege and become a bigger name. Even your custom clans get little quests you can do, not historically-linked of course, being more generic fare, to try and get you to do some different things. Though you could also just assign your custom officers to particular clans or make them travelling rōnin for hire. The amount of random tinkering you can to is rather impressive, and you can even just activate an editor mid-game (which immediately disqualifies you from quests and achievements, obviously) to alter anything on a whim. There’s even multiple different aspects of the difficulty you can change on startup, like handicaps for you or the AI, how large you can get before needing to delegate provinces, or general AI aggressiveness (keeping it on Low tends to keep the smaller clans in play and prevent larger clans breaking historical quest chains by wantonly gobbling up territory).

Conga line in progress

I’m skimmed over a bunch of really specific things you can do, like forming allied coalitions of clans to take down big clans (or coalitions), using third-party clans to call truces for you, or failing that, calling in your favours from the Imperial Court to do the same, getting as micromanage-y as you want picking out buildings or castle upgrades, naval combat, that’s a thing, set the option to have a bunch of major historical characters’ portraits changed to samurai cat versions, arranging diplomatic marriages, casually upset the course of history, execute officers because you’re a bad person, decide to be progressive or conservative in your enactable policies, or somewhere between the two, building your own fortresses whenever you want, and probably more things I’m forgetting.

It’s certainly something that’s worth looking at if you’re a large-scale strategy person, if only because it feels remarkably different. Even just dealing with historical quirks, like holding onto a newly-capture castle when it doesn’t have a garrison built up yet, lends a change of pace, as well as being a bit more character-centric, with its smaller timescale of playing months at a time instead of years a lot of grand games tend to be set in. It’s a historical sandbox, of some detail of one particular country spanning 70-ish years, which you can kick about in. Not massively unlike those Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis I compared it to, although probably a deal less complicated than either of those. Although it does have an entirely fictitious ultimate showdown of most of the period’s most famous characters as one of the scenarios just for fun. It’s showing its Warriors side. Even though that came after this, but the idea of messing with history for fun like that certainly seeps through.

Except the PC price tag is still ridiculous. So might be easier to look into alternatives if you’ve got them, like the console versions, although considering the amount of menu navigating going on, might not be the best fit there…

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Posted on December 14, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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