Disclaimer: I don’t play many strategy games. Discounting tactical games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, smaller scale games like Civilisation Revolution and the like, this is the first strategy game I’ve played since Civilisation II, in 1999.
Nobunaga’s Ambition is a strategy game set in the Warring States period of Japanese history (16th and early 17th century). I know a smidgen about this because I played Kessen III (set in precisely the same period) for the PS2 some time ago. Historical knowledge is not necessary as the gist is: there’s a massive war in Japan. Pick a clan and kick the stuffing out of your enemies.
Initially the vast array of menus can seem bewildering, or did to me. However, once you get used to how things work, which doesn’t take long, most commands are obvious and it’s usually not hard to work out the slightly more finickity ones.
It’s a mix of turn-based and real-time strategy which dovetails very nicely. Turns happen each month, and during this phase you set policy for each city (or can delegate it, which, after the initial part of the game, makes sense), negotiate with other clans to try and get them on-side, conduct trade, give gifts to officers, improve roads and bolster defences. In addition, you can plan military attacks, although this can also be done in the real-time phase.
Battles can either just be left for the computer to resolve or you handle them yourself. In addition, there are ordinary battles and mass battles. The latter involve very large numbers of troops and are won or lost when one commanding general’s unit is destroyed (so they can present an opportunity for an inferior force to defeat a larger one), which also eliminates all other units on that side. The battles are fairly simple, with numbers being the single largest determining factor. However, officers do have skills (bolstering defence, increasing speed, etc) which can change things and commanding officers’ stats improve/diminish a unit’s capabilities. It’s pretty basic and quick, but this is a strategic rather than tactical game.
I’ve completed the game on Easy (read a review which recommended starting on that if not au fait with strategy games, but found it a bit, er, easy) and Normal. Normal seems a nice challenge without being too difficult. [As well as the basic Easy/Normal/Hard settings you can customise difficulty to make aspects such as individual resources harder or easier for you or the computer to gather etc]. Your rivals are not passive, and will attack you, sometimes collectively. Early on in my Normal game I’d sent out forces to take out a mountain city (slow roads) and a neighbouring daimyo sent two units to attack my cities (which I’d emptied of troops). I sent reinforcements which managed to see off the units (who were forced into a circuitous mountain detour) and then attacked that daimyo’s cities. Later in the same game, out of nowhere a six daimyo coalition against me was organised. Fortunately, I’d done diplomacy and had a comparable number of allies.
There are three major resources: supplies [which do not spoil over time], money, and troops. Supplies are necessary to feed your soldiers, so if you emphasise troop numbers and don’t improve your agriculture you may have 5,000 soldiers rather than 3,000, but you won’t be able to deploy them. Money, as well as being accrued through each turn’s income, can be increased by selling supplies to the merchant. Sale (and purchase) prices will vary. If there’s a famine in parts of Japan but your land is unaffected, you can benefit from prices being up perhaps 40%. As well as supplies, horses and muskets (for war) can be purchased, as can treasures (to butter up your officers or other daimyos).
The music is fantastic, one of the real highlights of the game. Sound effects are good but limited (as you might expect). Voice-acting is generally quite good but the sheer number (literally hundreds) of officers means you’ll get repetition of voice actors/actresses.
You can also make your own characters (hundreds, I think). More can be made on the PC, where you can also import your own custom headshots (rather than using the in-game ones) but that’s still very flexible. Additional fictional characters are earnt as you progress through the game, and including the extra characters or not is up to the player (you can also turn off or on individual fictional characters, so if you loathe Lady Okatsu, you can keep her out of your game).
The translation is generally very good but there’s one quest early on (not especially important) where you have to capture a castle. Only you don’t, because it’s meant to say ‘capture a province’ [provinces usually had at least 2-3 settlements and often more].
I’ve completed the game twice (held back the review because I wanted to ensure there were multiple ways to do it). The first time I conquered a hefty chunk of Japan, got made Shogun and then was able to impose a War Ban which ended the game. The second time, I conquered the whole country, which took quite a while. I did have to dissolve a couple of marriage alliances to declare war on my erstwhile allies (one of whom had repeatedly failed to honour requests to reinforce me, so that was sweet revenge).
Replayability is significant. Having finished it twice in a row, I am on a short break but have begun a third game. Whilst most will pick the Oda clan, you can choose any you like or even make a new one (though I haven’t tried that yet).
Downsides? Building up a strong position, whether through diplomacy, improving your road network (if you can get troops to defend/attack more quickly than the enemy, that’s a real advantage) or allowing troop numbers to recover between wars all take time. Par for the course with a strategy game, but it’ll take a while to win. Also, when playing various scenarios (starting points) the snippets of history interspersed [not all the time, just every few months or more] may be repeated, which gets slightly tedious. The battles could perhaps be a bit more advanced, but I’m being picky (it is a strategy not a tactical game).
Again, I’m not a strategy connoisseur, but I did enjoy this and will be returning to it. If I were to slap a score on, it’d probably be about 8.5/10.