Ambition, some people have it naturally while others never learn it. For over 25 years, Koei has been spreading the legend of Nobunaga’s Ambition. It’s a trait that began the unification of modern Japan. Sphere of Influence is the next installment of this grand series that in the past has been a hallmark, an icon of the Koei sector of Koei Tecmo. But has Nobunaga’s influence waned, or is this another grand epic in unifying a broken country?
Disclaimer: This review was conducted mainly on PC through Steam. All minimum requirements to run the game were met on a laptop, meaning even budget PCs can run this game with zero problems. Whereas the majority of other sites, listed on Metacritic, reviewed the game for the PS4, I did not, and only played the PS3 version to note differences between the console and PC.
Compared to previous games in the franchise from the PS2 era, SoI is bigger. There are more cities, fortresses, and characters in the game. This sense of scale is the gem that will keep people wanting to play it long-term. The area around Nagoya alone has a dozen places to conquer, for example. This is not a quick and easy simulation like the SNES era, having maybe 50 cities in total by comparison. It will take tens of hours to conquer all of Japan, meaning lots of opportunities for curveballs to waylay your strategies.
While the size of the map has grown bigger, the complexity of the game is what you make it. The A.I. does a good enough job at doing all the grunt work of building your cities and deploying troops, and unless you want to go through the tedium of building specific structures, it is not needed. I would actually go so far to say it is a detriment to the player to not have the A.I. control the infrastructure because once the player has more than a couple cities, it could take an hour to click everything. And what are you clicking? Crafts, rice and soldiers? There’s no random amounts of money to set, just click and done, and needing to re-click every month. Yes, you could use the ‘select all’ option, but why not use the A.I. if that is what it comes to?
This AI-driven game is going to make or break it for the player. Literally, with the A.I. controlling everything, all I need to do is click end turn. If I want to get into the action I can send out my Daimyo’s army too. That is it. For those who enjoy doing everything themselves the trade-off is you’ll be spending infinitely more time doing the basics in an inefficient interface. Someone might say, why not take more control than let the A.I. handle the action. But there is no incentive for the player to handle the macro-management.
Consequently, there is little depth to Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence. There are no special units to train or tech trees of any consequence to level up. Diplomacy takes exceedingly long times to nurture to be of any benefit, and if maxed out to get a marriage alliance, it is only temporary. You have to end it at some point to rule the country, and backstab your in-laws.
Gameplay that is in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, like continuous searching of areas for items/characters or the ability to allow any officer to marry, is absent. Small features that add to the experience take away from the long-term shine, and the randomness of new games. There are random events that pop up but they are mostly all positive, like an increased harvest or getting extra horses. There are special resources on the map like gold mines but, again, not so many to make any strategic difference like in the Civilization way of prioritizing what to go after first. The only exception are tribes, which give automatic reinforcements to whichever side they are loyal to, and give the benefit of having their troops killed first than their allies.
Combat comes in two parts. Normally, with few units on the map the A.I. will do the fighting for you and numbers will pop up above the blocks to show damage. Get enough armies together and you can enter mass combat. Here it becomes like any other type of strategy game, with you moving your units and giving commands on a battlefield map. This is supposed to make the game more strategic, allowing you to take a smaller army and defeat a larger one. The benefits are if the leading unit is destroyed, all allied units are gone as well automatically. Instead of having special units, the traits and skills of the officers are what adds variety to only three soldier choices: Foot, muskets, and cavalry.
What actually happens is more akin to a pro-RTS training simulator as your micro skills need to be very exact to click on the units, and if you click incorrectly the controls become unresponsive. Backing out or changing targets is not optimized well. Considering the A.I. does a good job fighting for you on the overhead map, there is little need to do these kind of battles unless it is your thing, or on the hardest difficulties when you want more control of your destiny.
The music and artwork is what makes this game special. Koei did a wonderful job making the musical score sound grandiose and inspirational. They even added vocals to the game’s theme song that can be heard once the game is completed. Just like with Romance of the Three Kingdoms 12, the time taken to craft the character portraits makes the player feel like they are stepping back in time to a world caught between Japanese tradition and western advancements. As a person who more easily accepted the west, you can see Nobunaga’s fashion become more western in his various portraits as he grows older.
The PC version of the game is the superior version because of the amount of bases and icons to click on. It is simply faster and more accurate, for example, to use a mouse than a controller to designate what cities are going to be put under the command of a regent. The console version does allow scrolling with the joysticks, but the accuracy is not pin-point like with a mouse. It becomes a weird combo as some bases are easy enough to scroll to using the D-pad. But then you get to parts where no matter how you move the cursor it won’t go on the base using the D-pad so the joystick has to be used to correct it.
Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence is a game solely for those who are enchanted with Japanese history or have a diehard mentality when it comes to Koei strategy games. There is little depth to the gameplay to entice the player to come back again and again after Japan has been unified once or twice. Unless put on extreme difficulties and giving yourself massive disadvantages, there is also little skilled involved in the game.