The unification of Japan shouldn't be this much work.
here hasn't been a release for the Nobunaga series in North America for 14 years — not since the heyday of the SNES. Fortunately, Koei has decided that the newest version should receive the localization treatment, and Nobunaga's Ambition: Rise to Power is here, ready for our enjoyment.
For anyone who doesn't know what this series is about (and I am sure that there are many of you), here's a quick rundown. The series follows Japanese history from 1551 to 1582. During this time the daimyo Nobunaga Oda fought to unite the country until his death in 1582. The game allows you to relive this history by playing as Nobunaga himself, or rewrite it by playing as one of the many other daimyo. The game itself plays out like a large game of Risk or Shogun, with some SimCity elements thrown in.
Nobunaga's Ambition follows the standard formula for other Koei games, in that you'll end up spending a lot of time on mundane tasks while enveloped in deep gameplay. Not that this is necessarily bad if you enjoy that kind of thing. The game itself it split into two areas: management of your fiefs and combat. Fiefs are arranged on a large map not unlike a Risk board. Selecting a fief allows you to enter it, observe the buildings inside, construct new buildings, manage your army and officers, work out alliances, and complete several other vital tasks. There is a great deal of depth here, and mastering it will go a long way to doing well in the game. As you obtain more fiefs in your territory you have the option of controlling their development yourself or to leave it to your AI officers. With the constant expansion of my territory I found it easier just to let my officers take control but you always have the option of taking it back if you don't like how things are going.
The combat part of the game is where you'll be spending most of your time. Here is where tactics and smart planning will win the day. Combat takes place on one of two types of fields, an open field or on a siege field. Victory is the same in both areas either wipe out the main base or castle, or take out the enemy warlord. Armchair generals should find a great deal of enjoyment in planning out methods of attack, defense and overall strategy. Your choice in units is a bit limited but they all do serve a purpose; enterprising generals will find appropriate use for all of then. An issue of contention with units is that it is possible to regenerate the losses taken to them. By having them take refuge in a friendly fort they will gain back lost fighters. This is not an issue that ends up breaking the game as badly damaged units cannot regain full health again, but it can become an annoyance when enemy units start retreating to regain men for their armies.
The game does come with the standard tutorial, which is entirely optional for you to take. I highly recommend going through it, as it only takes roughly an hour and it gives you a rundown of the majority of commands and actions.
Graphically, the game isn't going to be winning any awards. It's hardly surprising for a game that came out in Japan four years ago, nor is it that big of an issue. Images are clear, though your combat units tend to be on the small side — even if you zoom in the camera. But no one is going to have a problem identifying what's what. As far as the music is concerned you can expect to hear relaxing tunes with a very Japanese flavor to them. Things get more upbeat as your status goes up in the land or as you enter battle but on the whole there is nothing here that's going to wow people. Sound effects are pretty standard fare but they do get the job done.
Gameplay has several problems, some of which are detrimental to the overall enjoyment of the game. While not totally useless, the camera is slow and clunky. This makes moving through fiefs and combat fields more of a chore than anything else. Another issue with the game is in some of the limitations of building up your fiefs. While you have a lot of control in where things go, you lack control over where your central palace or fort is located, as well as the general defenses of said palace or fort. Removing this option from players ends up undermining the tactical aspect of the game and only ends up hurting you when you are attacked. It would have been far more interesting to have seen the control of palace defenses be put in the hands of the player.
The most glaring flaw in the game however occurs during combat. Simply put, the pathfinding for your units is atrocious. Units freeze, regroup, then move and regroup again — before moving to their new destination. The distance on the new destination has no bearing on this stop-and-go behavior. It could be right beside them or on the other side of the map; units will continually perform this behavior to much annoyance. Attacking enemy units displays the same problem; enemy units circle a stationary enemy unit after being ordered to attack. Even after orders to attack are reissued, a unit continues to circle around the enemy. Not until a unit is pulled back a bit does it attack as intended.
Finally, you can let the game play itself for you. As mentioned earlier, you can have your fiefs be controlled by your officers. You can also put your army on "Auto" and have it manage the battle itself. While it certainly is much easier to have the computer deal with some of these aspects, especially combat, it only serves to weaken the game. If you aren't playing the game yourself, then you are only putting up with tedium to ensure that you are still on the winning path.
Nobunaga's Ambition does offer a lot to strategy game lovers. However, with such problematic unit movement and engagement, the game too often becomes an instrument of frustration.
© 2008 Game and Player. All rights reserved.