Who here remembers Kessen? Just me? Okay great. The Kessen series of real-time tactics games were some of my favorite PS2 entries, and it was devastating when developer Koei dropped the series in favor of a seemingly endless stream of Dynasty Warriors games. With Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence Koei at last seems to be getting its strategy game back on point and revisits a pet historical setting by detailing the rise of Nobunaga Oda in the Sengoku period of feudal Japan.

The goal is simple - take over Japan by any means necessary - but the execution is something of a high wire act. Few next-gen games have presented players with the complexity and sheer level of challenge contained in Nobunaga’s Ambition. Though by no means the prettiest belle at the ball, this game does not mess around - you either put in the time to explore every corner of this strategy/RPG hybrid or prepare to be swiftly and mercilessly crushed. The learning curve may be brutal but for the devoted strategy enthusiast willing to put in the necessary patience and practice the rewards are bountiful.

“Edit Historical Officers → ‘Samurai Cats’ Faces”

Yeah, that’s a real menu option. Just let that sink in for a second.

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You Get What You Give

Strategy games tend to be a divisive breed, and true to form Nobunaga’s Ambition is an incredibly complex entry into the genre. The in-depth gameplay offers the player a level of control - micromanaging, to put it plainly - that will warm the hearts of hardcore armchair generals everywhere. The replayability is nearly unlimited, as you could likely sink hundreds of hours into the game and still find new ways to refine your tactics and approach each battle. The system of gameplay is so very intricate, so incredibly detailed, that it creates a deliciously dynamic and immersive experience that won’t wear out its welcome anytime soon.

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Careful planning is required to experience any measure of success, and the player is given a staggering number of options in every respect. From choosing construction projects for your cities and castles to forging relationships with clans and individual officers to refining each officer’s abilities in battle, Nobunaga’s Ambition offers a nearly unlimited number of ways to play. Gameplay is nuanced enough that players have the ability to be as subtle or hamfisted as they want. Whether sowing discord among enemy officers, taking over territory by force, or simply compelling other clans in awe of yours to surrender without bloodshed there is no one right way to go about any aspect of this game. As you grow your influence and your armies the number of options and skills available to you and your officers increases, adding ever more complexity to the proceedings. These individual abilities can make all the difference in very specific battle situations, meaning that the player must constantly learn and adjust in order to thrive. Fine-tuning the delicate balance between forging alliances, subtly undermining enemies, and open aggression is the key to attaining your ultimate goal of taking over the country.

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Okay seriously, what does “LEA” mean?

Are you a strategy rookie? Then brace yourself, this is going to be rough. If you’ve never dabbled in strategy before this will be a straight-up trial by fire, as it takes a good deal of intuition and a general feel for how these games should go in order to operate at the most basic level. The sheer number of menu options and the depth of control over every little aspect of your cities and armies can be a lot to take in, even for genre veterans. For all the meatiness of the tutorial Nobunaga’s Ambition gives no quarter when it comes to the finer controls, and expects the player to figure it out via trial-and-error through a series of painful encounters.

And it’s not just strategy beginners who may find themselves caught up in the punishing learning curve. Early on in the game I came upon a menu containing a table with categories labeled “LEA” “VAL” “INT” and “POL.” What do these headings signify? Fantastic question. For as long as the tutorial takes there’s a shocking amount of detail that simply isn’t explained. On one hand I can certainly appreciate a game that doesn’t hold the player’s hand; on the other it’s frustrating to be confronted with such a large amount of information that the designers just didn’t bother to make clear.

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The Unintentional Comedy of Imprecise Translations

Generally speaking the translations from Japanese are perfectly serviceable, and certainly get the main points across where necessary. That said, you’ll occasionally happen upon phrases like “fictional maidens will not born.” Materially problematic? Not really. Occasionally giggle-worthy? Absolutely.

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The graphics are …. fine.

I got very excited when I saw the gorgeous pre-menu video. I was not as excited once I was in the actual game. Dialogue takes place in standard old-fashioned box form, and renderings of large-scale maps and dynamic battles are less than impressive with muddy details and limited variety. The UI was also somewhat problematic on the PS4 as it was clearly designed with the PC gamer in mind. The text size was small and somewhat difficult to read, and the way in which the controller is used to cycle through the game’s numerous menus feels more than a bit awkward. That said, none of these issues takes away from the core experience. In short: I’ve seen worse.

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That Tutorial

The opening tutorial is long. So very, very long. Even Masahide Hirate, one of the the advisors guiding you through it, is constantly reaching for a sword to kill himself with. (That is … not a joke.) The game’s various commands and menu options are pointed out in painstaking detail in the guise of stilted conversations between advisors. The dialogue is wooden, the attempts at comedy awkward, and the kicker is that if you lose in the tutorial battle - not that I’d know anything about that - the entire thing ends and you’re sent back to the start menu with your tail between your legs. This sort of mercilessness is a good indicator of what’s to come but it’s incredibly frustrating nonetheless. Given the tedious nature of the tutorial I would love to advise you to skip it, but you’d only be dooming yourself to a series of swift losses. This section is inarguably necessary to succeeding in the rest of the game but there surely must have been a more brief and engaging way to go about it.

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Nobunaga’s Ambition is no game for strategy dilettantes. If you don’t have the patience, skill, or willpower to feel your way through the beginning stages then this game may not be your cup of tea. That said, if you can make it past the steep learning curve this game is an unmitigated joy to play and offers seemingly unlimited replay possibilities. This is a thoroughly addictive game that provides a rare degree of intellectual stimulation, allowing players to test their capabilities and challenge themselves to continuously refine their battle tactics and management skills. If you have the fortitude and motivation Nobunaga’s Ambition could very well be the game that will just keep on giving for the foreseeable future.

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Nicole T (street name: Barkspawn) lives in California and still occasionally plays Kessen III on PS2. You can find her on Twitter @ser_barkspawn, contact her here, and read more of her articles here.

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