Command and Conquer
Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence has marched onward to wage war the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and PC. The fourteenth entry in developer Koei’s long running series of strategy titles, Sphere of Influence aims to bring a robust campaign of feudal domination to the current generation. Packed with hundreds of hours worth of conquering content and a deep and engaging system that allows you to rule either through absolute military conquest or through broad strokes of diplomacy, this simulation offers a wealth of options to entertain even the most jaded armchair tactician.
That said, if you’re unfamiliar with the strategy genre, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence is going to be a trial by fire. The game is steeped in menus and a myriad of dynamic options to consider when plotting your course for conquest. While the game does feature a rather meaty tutorial campaign to teach players the ropes of building fortifications, training your military and bolstering your economy, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the multitude of menus you’ll be flipping through as you learn the intricacies of Sphere of Influence‘s complex system. Throughout your first hours you’ll likely learn a great deal through trial and error as you come to grips with maneuvering your forces, learning the ins and outs of waging war all while balancing your kingdom’s checkbook. However, once everything clicks you’ll find yourself immersed in a thoroughly challenging and rewarding strategy experience.
The core of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence‘s gameplay lies in competing with warring clans to expand your reign over Japan. The story, which is set against the backdrop of Japan’s Sengoku era and spans from the birth of the game’s titular feudal warlord Oda Nobunaga up to the nation’s eventual unification. There are several campaigns available from the outset, and each of which will put you in control of a different clan as you build up your state through any means possible. While tried-and-true warfare is always an option, oftentimes more subtle methods, such as enticing foreign officers to join your ranks or cause dissent in rival clans, or outright diplomacy are sometimes more effective options. Forging alliances with your neighbors will allow you to depend on their support against especially versatile adversaries, so maintaining close diplomatic ties is crucial, especially when considering the AI states you’re competing against will be forming their own pacts with your enemies.
Striking the balance between military might and fostering relationships to help your state rise through the ranks proves to be the ultimate hook of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence. While your budding empire may begin as little more than a spread of humble hamlets from the campaign’s outset, watching your empire expand through the construction of new facilities, conquest of enemy castles and other landmark moments in your ascent to power is tremendously satisfying. Eventually, you’ll come to control so many territories that you’ll be able to issue commands to officers to oversee a castle or town’s development, such as expanding their emphasis on cultivating crops, fabricating crafts and bolstering your number of conscripts, which factor into your empire’s population, economic growth and military strength respectively.
Sometimes even the best laid plans come tumbling down into chaos, and that’s very much true in the case of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence. The enemy generals are skilled tacticians, and picking a fight with the wrong foe can quickly result in your precious empire being razed to the ground. Thankfully, each of your generals can perform a special skill on the battlefield which can help to even the odds. These skills aren’t instant-win techniques though, as rushing charges can be cancelled out with volleys of rifle fire, which adds a rock-paper-scissors element to their execution. You’ll often discover the best way to turn the tide of a battle in your favor is to employ multiple regiments into the field and capitalize on flanking and pincer techniques to strike at the broadside of your enemies.
In addition to waging war on the field, you’ll also have to master siege techniques to blockade heavily-fortified castles, cutting off their provisions and depleting their morale so that you can overtake their defenses. Sieges are costly however, and require tremendous reserves of forces to guarantee their success, which leaves many of your installations vulnerable to attack while their valuable forces, cavalry and munitions are deployed across the map.
That said, waging war is a difficult yet rewarding endeavor. However, if you just want to take it easy and focus on building up your empire with little fuss you can tweak a variety of modifiers at the outset of each campaign allowing you to set how quickly your depleted forces recover, how aggressive the enemy AI will be, and the damage ratios you incur during battle. while purists will likely crank the dial to 11 and bask in the punishment, Koei has implemented more than enough options to allow newcomers to get a handle on the finer points of the game’s mechanics before being thrown to the wolves.
In terms of visuals, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence is far from a jaw-dropping spectacle, but it gets the job done. Much of your time will be spent hovering over the terrain of Japan from you tactical map as you watch for deployments of enemy units, jump from province to province to upgrade your territories, and manage your empire. The terrain is varied, from snow-peaked mountaintops to verdant woodland and grassy plains. Up close, town details are rather muddy though, which is somewhat disappointing. Additionally, while the number of forces on-screen during skirmishes can be impressive, the character models themselves are flat and lifeless, which takes much of the impact out of these engagements.
And then there’s the interface. Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence‘s PC roots are readily apparent when playing on home consoles. The game features a ton of important text to pore over, and unfortunately it’s criminally small. Those who sit close to their television sets likely won’t have too much of an issue with this, but playing the game on my big screen from roughly six feet away proved to be problematic, as I often had to lean in close to read critical information on enemy installations, what benefits certain facilities afford my bustling towns and castles, and moments of important story dialog. Cycling through menus while navigating the map can be problematic as well, as you have to drag the cursor to the edges of the screen to scroll across the scenery, which feels unintuitive. Having said that, Sphere of Influence certainly isn’t the first game of its kind to struggle with implementing the ease of mouse and keyboard controls into the confines of the console world, and other games have done much worse.
Visual quibbles aside, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence is an immensely deep and rewarding game. Strategy titles are few and far between on the PlayStation 4, and Koei’s latest strategy epic works well to fill the void for simulation buffs looking for something substantial to play from the comfort of their living rooms. While undoubtedly intimidating to newcomers, the incredible wealth of options and customization the game puts at your fingertips is truly impressive. If you’re looking for a finely-tuned strategy title that will keep you busy for months, look no further than Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PlayStation 3 (digitally) PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PC ; Publisher: Koei Tecmo America ; Developer: Koei; Players: 1; Released: September 1, 2015 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 review code of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence provided by the game’s publisher, Koei Tecmo America.