Being such a long running series, Nobunaga’s Ambition, as well as its Chinese based sister series, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, has been one of the workhorse franchises for Koei Tecmo. Deep and engaging, folks who pick up one of these titles can expect a title focused solely on wiling away the hours simultaneously stressed and relaxed. The titles majestically tap that “just one more turn” addictive cycle that chews free time the way Jack Nicholson chews the scenery in The Departed. They are truly magical. They also have a tendency to be inconceivably inscrutable, mired in the muck of menus upon menus to accomplish the most basic of tasks or gather needed information. The latest release, Nobunaga’s Amibition: Taishi, seeks to address these concerns, as well as introduce new mechanics to keep the simulation of the true history this title represents intact. The end result is that of one step forward and one step back due to the removal of elements present in the last title.
Taking place in the Sengoku period of Japan, the title invites the player to choose one of many different scenarios, selecting a real life daimyo from the period, running a clan, and hopefully, uniting Japan under one leadership. As a title, it’s so steeped in the minutiae of the period that it could serve as a companion to a college level course about feudal Japan. The player must engage in diplomacy, subterfuge, trading and judicious use of force in order to succeed by outwitting or befriending all other competing daimyos in order to thrive and conquer. Imagine Firaxis’ Civilization games with a more focused bent.
The primary improvement that Taishi brings to the table over previous iterations comes in the form of accessibility. The last title in the series, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence – Ascension, was a dense brick of a game with a confusing menu structure and an opaque veil over the moving parts. Yes, it did have a tutorial system in place, but it was subpar and managed to only add to the confusion. It was to the point that learning to play the game properly was a challenge in and of itself. Taishi sidesteps this issue. It also features a tutorial system. This time, though, the instructions explain what the functions do clearly and with detail. This goes a long way to easing the player into the process of farming and beating those plowshares into swords when needed (that’s how the colloquialism goes, right?)
Bolstering this improved onboarding process is a revamped menu system. All of the commands, and their potential benefits and costs, are located logically in a smartly designed grid system, making exploring potential options a breeze. Building a relationship with a neighboring daimyo, setting up an outpost, and monopolizing a market are exactly where they should be, making navigation a trivial matter. Making a title as complicated as this is no small task. Making the nuts and bolts easier to understand must have been a herculean task. Not everything is perfect, as there is sometimes a question as to whether or not a particular village improvement can be installed on a particular land mass, but sometimes it’s up to the player to actually understand the rules instead of having everything highlighted for them. The way it stands now, Taishi is the place for a newcomer to jump in.
One of the particularly cool features of this iteration comes from the Resolve system. Each of the daimyos have their own “Resolve,” things that they value, that grants bonuses when used. For example, one daimyo values building a large, heavily-armed infantry. Another might prefer to conquer the land through trade. Taking the role of either of these and playing well requires sticking to strategies that play into their Resolve. The system itself helps keep the simulation on track, and allows the simulation to play out logically based on the actual history, while still affording the player the agency needed to forge their own path to victory. Additionally, the player can see the Resolve of the AI characters, giving a quick Cliff Notes version of what makes them tick. This makes sense, as these are people who would be known to each other and advisers, while still allowing the AI to pull some dirty tricks if an opening is left.
Of course, as a fresh entry in a long-running series, there is the risk of seeing some things that were in prior titles get cut for some reason or another. Two major items from Sphere of Influence – Ascension are notably absent here. Siege warfare, one of the components that made the last iteration so darn intriguing, is missing in the same capacity here. Setting up blockades and starving out a town just isn’t possible through any methods that I could find. Also missing is naval warfare, an element that added so many more options to the budding warlord. Other, pickier grognards will probably be able to point out other items that were there before that have taken a runner. One cannot help but believe that this is in service of an impending “complete” release, which, to be fair, is what Ascension was to the original Sphere of Influence.
The newly-drawn map of Japan is also a sticky point. Some surely will prefer this 3D rendering that allows for spinning, rotation and zooming of the basic world map, but it loses some of the elegance that the broad overview map of the older titles maintained. There is absolutely a place for more intricate pizzazz during city and battle scenes, but it feels like the developers wanted to make this look more modern and sacrificed the cleaner view when it wasn’t needed. This is a personal taste thing, though, and not a true deal breaker.
One other thing of note: the music. Usually in these titles the tunes get muted in favor of my personal tracks. The songs here actually managed to survive the cut. Chill and relaxing when needed, while still evoking the feeling of the setting, this manages to be one of the better soundtracks for this type of game that I have heard in awhile. It’s possible that my opinions have changed and mellowed over time, but that doesn’t mean that credit shouldn’t be given where it’s due.
With the fifteenth entry in the Nobunaga’s Ambition series, Koei Tecmo could have taken the easy route of piling more things on to please long time fans while leaving the uninitiated in the cold. Instead, they took the strategy of reworking the entire user interface and tutorial to let the newbies have some fun, which works extremely well. Anyone who has been intimidated by the series but has always wanted to check it out has an excellent place to start. It’s harder to recommend to long time series fans, though. Items that have made their way into the games have been excised again, making this feel less like the ultimate culmination of the series, but another reboot that’ll be built out in subsequent iterations. The new features, particularly the Resolve system, are cool, but the title still manages to feel incomplete. For those elite, it’s best to wait until the next version.