Even the deepest pool can be dived into with the right preparations, proves Nobunaga’s Ambition.
The well trodden era of ancient Japan has been covered by all kinds of media, but in video games it’s mostly been limited to the fantastical with titles like Tecmo’s Samurai Warriors series. The long-running Nobunaga’s Ambition games are very decidedly different to the hack-and-slash titles we’re more used to, putting players in the role of a historical clan leader who must reach their goals through either diplomacy or war.
In many ways, the best way to describe even the latest entry, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Taishi, is that it is what you would get with the coming together of Total War, Civilization and Risk in a singular strategy title. If that sounds like it results in a rather layered game, that’s because it totally is. However, Nobunaga’s Ambition did an admirable job of lightly guiding my hand as I got up to speed with the interlinked systems of managing an entire kingdom from economic, trade, diplomatic, systematic, military and political angles all at once.
"During the planning stage, the player is welcome to take all the time they need to decide on a whole host of choices presented that all loop back into each other."
Much like the Civilization series, each turn of a planning stage is followed by a period of action where all your formulated plans will take their course. During the planning stage, the player is welcome to take all the time they need to decide on a whole host of choices presented that all loop back into each other. For example- deciding which trade areas to expand or invest into. Such a decision sounds rather simple at first, but with a limit on the actions you can take and no way to alter them once made, making the proper decisions is important.
Even that decision is influenced by a variety of factors. Perhaps an advantageous trading hub is just the next space over, but if you haven’t been sending out goodwill ambassadors to neighbouring states and clans, you aren’t going to be on good enough terms to just let your merchants wander into their territories. Conversely, competition is good for a trading post, but once it’s making a lot of money, you could risk your relationships by monopolizing it for yourself at the cost of slowing future growth.
The economic system only gets you gold, however. Even before you ever dare send your soldiers across enemy borders, you should have your own people well taken care of. The player is in charge of a whole host of castles which function as the player’s bases of operation, and can build or annex more as the game goes on. Within their walls, players will have to decide how to make use of the people and make sure the people are taken care of for their efforts. They can tend the lands for you to produce more rations for your army to march on and the peasants to live off of. Should either population’s needs go unmet, you won’t find them being very loyal, either deserting your marching army in droves once the food is gone, or rebelling and refusing to do any work for that turn.
"Truly, novels could be written about how the systems of economic, agricultural, political and military systems that weave in and out of each other here."
Such agricultural decisions are locked into being made on a quarterly basis, and while the game will remind you when they come up, it’s totally happy letting you see the opportunity pass by if you forget to take advantage of it. Quite unlike how Civilization will remind you that there’s still an important action that you can take, Taishi isn’t going to tell you twice. That’s a trait that I both kind of respect about Nobunaga’s Ambition, and can also see being a sticking point for a new player. The game will take the time to explain the systems to you and what they’re there for –at least most of the time – but it isn’t going to hold your hand about it, either. It’s best described as explanation without talking down to the player.
Truly, novels could be written about how the systems of economic, agricultural, political and military systems that weave in and out of each other here. I’ve not even touched on Political Points and policies, Warlords ageing and dying only to be replaced, the many benefits of goodwill relations with other nations, and building up infrastructure around your castles. The monumental task of developing a UI that made sense for all of this intricacy must have been a daunting one for the developers, which makes the occasional glitches in the game a bit more forgivable. For every five instances where the game puts the information right where you need it – like if having a village raise such and such soldiers will leave them without food – there’s maybe one instance with no easy indication of, say, where you can build your Iron Forge and why.
There’s not really so much of a set story with Nobunaga’s Ambition as there is a campaign mode, much like what’s seen in Civilization. The player will begin as one of many historical warlords and clan leaders, each with their own “Resolve”, which determines their strengths and play style. You’ll follow along their path through your campaign, attempting to fulfil different conditions depending on the mission. Resolve can range drastically – much like with the leaders of Civilization – such as one who would unite Japan through trade, or another that believes in power and that a well-armed infantry is the best way forward.
"As far as new additions to the series are concerned, Resolve is probably one of the smartest."
Again, like Civilization, the Resolve of your main lord and the nations surrounding him can inform a lot of things, such as how they might proceed within the game or how they might react to a player’s actions, with players playing into their warlord’s style granting bonuses, for instance, and guiding the simulation of the game without completely taking away agency. As far as new additions to the series are concerned, Resolve is probably one of the smartest and adds so much to the simulation and storytelling of the game.
With all that said, we haven’t even talked about direct engagement with the enemies, which can be just as intricate and has a similar stop and start flow about it. At the beginning of a conflict, the player has a chance to select a plan, suggested by the generals in the engaging army at the time, and execute it to gain an advantage. Positioning units works like a light version of a Total War title, where taking position in a base can provide a defence buff or hiding in the trees to flank an enemy for a pincer attack can be an excellent idea. Once a trigger is hit, your plan will go into action, but players can easily alter course and ignore the plan – or conversely mess up the plan by going off script. Victory occurs when either the opposing army is defeated, or flees because the odds during the battle were not in its favour.
If there’s one really disappointing area of Nobunaga’s Ambition, it’s got to be the presentation. The large portions of the game taking place on an overhead view of Japan show a rather bland and ugly landmass, dotted densely with icons, colours and dividing lines depending on what’s happening, only muddled even more by marching armies. Selecting between two leaders who happen to be on the same tile is an ordeal on the PS4 when it really shouldn’t be and it’s an area of the presentation that really should be cleaned up.
"With such layers of depth, would I recommend Nobunaga’s Ambition: Taishi to a new player? For a genre fan, absolutely."
Presentation in battles isn’t much better either, with models and textures popping in and out with camera movement. On the PS4 Pro, I noticed considerable lag while the game tried to load a simple seasons changing animation. Music, while fitting to the period, is also completely forgettable and rather repetitive. If there’s any area to polish for the next title, this is it, as it’s fairly unacceptable for a game to look and run like this on the PS4.
With such layers of depth, would I recommend Nobunaga’s Ambition: Taishi to a new player? For a genre fan, absolutely. The tutorial systems and UI allow the game to be just forgiving enough for the player to be able to feel effective as they learn, and continually rewarded for dozens upon dozens of hours as they dig deeper and deeper into their conquest of Japan. Wrapping some of the best of several strategy games into itself, and helping players get into what it has to offer smartly, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Taishi scratches a lot of itches for would be conquerers.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Oceans of depth to enjoy through planning, action and battles; Resolves give each leader a defined style, which allows the player agency while still guiding the simulation; Thoughtful tutorials and well designed AI don’t make the learning curve harder than it should be.
Some really poor presentation through dull map design, cluttered map overlays, and forgettable music; Lags where it really shouldn’t happen; One or two smaller UI hiccups in an otherwise very well designed system.
Nobunaga’s Ambition: Taishi has some small bugbears with its presentation, but thankfully nothing that hurts that core strategy experience too badly. It is one of the few of its kind that mixes both the excitement of battles and the mundanity of managing politics, while making both engaging. The UI designs and tutorials making the game an excellent place for genre fans to give it a try. An easy recommend for the kind of player who’s sunk hundreds of hours into Civilization or Total War.