Nobunaga's Ambition: Rise to Power Review
Most Japanese games, if the publisher intends to bring it to the US, take only a few months to make the border leap. However, there are times when a game takes a little longer...say, almost 4 years. Introducing Nobunaga's Ambition: Rise to Power for the PS2, a title that launched in Japan way back on April 1, 2004 and only recently came to the US this past February. So we dive into this very deep RTS in an effort to see if the four-year wait was worth it, and whether or not it will satisfy all you strat buffs out there. Now, we know you're kinda in the minority, but certain console strategy games have done very well in the past (take the Disgaea series, for example), so we were hoping for a solid experience from this one. By the way, if the name sounds familiar to you but you're having trouble placing it, there was a Nobunaga's Ambition for the SNES way back in the early ‘90s. This time around, you can certainly expect a far more intricate experience, even though the graphics aren't much better than the 16-bit entry.
Yep, those graphics sure are outdated. We won't be too harsh on them, because after all, they're not just PS2 visuals, they're 4-year-old visuals. Even so, God of War arrived in 2004, so developers certainly had the capability to produce some fairly impressive graphics by then. We certainly won't hold Koei's effort here to the same standard; almost by definition, RTS titles aren't technologically advanced in the realm of pretty pictures. They may have some pretty good soundtracks - we'll talk about that in just a second - but fancy graphics are almost never part of the equation. Even so, they probably could've managed these visuals on the PS1, and the level of detail is absolutely dreadful in some areas. These days, many RTS titles boast some relatively complex detailing, despite not being able to offer sweeping, high-quality scenery. Nobunaga's Ambition appears drab and depressing, even after building up a good-sized fief and surveying your freshly created base of operations. Unfortunately, not much good can be said about the graphics, besides the fact they're not a focal point.
The sound is markedly better, but only because the solid soundtrack outweighs the below average voice acting and effects. As expected, Koei has provided the player with a variety of nicely orchestrated classical tracks, which fit the medieval Japanese atmosphere very well. Beyond that, the effects are nothing more than generic battle cries on the field, and the standard building sounds when working on your structures are predictable and yawn-inducing. Most strategy fans won't care too much about this drawback, just because they've been listening to the same thing for about a decade and they don't seem to care too much. What really matters is the gameplay; the graphics and sound only serve as complementary factors that can only add to or detract from the overall experience. Sadly, in the case of this particular title, the great soundtrack can't override all the combined technical shortcomings, and the graphics and sound definitely detract from our virtual strategy campaign. We were able to ignore it - for the most part - just because the gameplay is so damn complex and engrossing.
And speaking of that gameplay, let's begin. If you're not a strategy fan, now would be the time to stop reading, because your eyes are going to start glazing over as soon as you read the next few sentences. Like most RTSs, you're goal is to build and expand your kingdom, or in this case, your fief and "Doimyo." The basics are relatively simple: you control several aspects of your rise to power, including gold, food, troops and building several structures that enhance your fief's culture and wealth. For example, a Market will generate Commerce, Farms handle Agriculture, and Garrisons are responsible for churning out the Troops (obviously). The main options you have at your disposal from the start include City, Military, Negotiate, Tactics, Personnel, Culture, Info and Advance, and each of those selections (save Advance, which ends the current season) has its own unique set of commands. You will find Punish, Marry, and Bestow under Personnel; Invade, Declare and Assign under Military, and the ever-important Spy under Tactics...just to name a few. There are many other sub-commands, and you'll have to use them all in order to succeed. Yep, it's all that and a bag of chips.
When play begins, you're only a very small fief headed up by Nobunaga Oda, who is known as a "fool" by most everybody. His father, just recently deceased, shows up during the Tutorial to teach his son the ways of building and leading a civilization, which is a major asset for new players. Early strategy will include using a Spy to infiltrate neighboring fiefs so he can secure valuable information, building standard start-up dwellings, and attempting to secure Alliances with other fiefs. This is done via the Negotiate option, and it's crucial early on in the game. You won't be strong enough to directly invade until you've gone through enough seasons to enhance your society's stability, so a Joint invasion is typically your best bet. Of course, you'll have to butter up other fiefs with Gifts in order to obtain an Alliance, but when you do, it means they can't attack you (allies can't attack each other, duh). In the same vein of "buttering up," you'll also want to reward your officers with special items, gold and titles in order to keep their Loyalty high. The higher the Loyalty, the better they'll perform in the field.
Now, building up your Doimyo has a direct impact on your castle. The more you add to your fief, the more fortified your castle will become, so it's important to keep an eye on both proceedings. Furthermore, even though you're limited to only building one thing per season, you can develop to your heart's content. Developing essentially adds another level to the established structure and ramps up its effectiveness and productivity, thereby allowing you to reach certain goals that much faster. If the Market isn't having a big enough impact on Commerce, simply choose to develop it and watch the money roll in. All this being said, here's the simple bottom line when it comes to building up the landscape and expanding your power and influence- there's more than enough to do each and every turn, and there's plenty to preside over. It's interesting that Koei has found a way to attach multiple commands to one another; for example, you can't just ask that a structure be built, you also have to assign an officer to the building process. Same goes for when you wish to Negotiate; an officer must go and attempt to sway the governor over to your side.
So there's plenty to consider, although it seems we always used a very similar approach to achieve success. There really aren't that many different structures to build (although more become available when your Doimyo rank goes up), and provided you take full advantage of each season and take the time to form valuable Alliances, the results will be good. It makes the game a touch too easy, and at the same time, this process gets both repetitive and time-consuming, primarily because there just isn't as much experimentation as we would've liked. There's one formula for success, and it tends to work, but that's about it. As for the battles, they play out very much like any other RTS you've played in the past. It's all about keeping your main camp safe - and conquering the enemy's main camp, which immediately ends the contest - while keeping your troops' health and morale high. This can be done by taking over enemy fortresses, which immediately become major assets because they will restore a regiment's health and morale over time. As you win battle after battle, your Doimyo rank will rise: you'll go through Minor, Major, Warlord, Conquerer, and Unifier.
With each rank comes more options. "Tax" shows up when you reach Major, you can always build more structures if your rank is higher, and more roads will begin to sprout up all over the landscape between fiefs. If a road doesn't connect you to a fief, you simply can't invade. The more you invade, the more you increase your power, and suddenly, your Alliances won't become quite so valuable anymore. Therefore, when you take your army, comprised of spear, horse, bow and musket units, to battle, you are always in prime position to increase your Doimyo rank. Unfortunately, much like the civilization options, the battles tend to blend together after a while, and you'll feel as if you're fighting the same battle over and over. Again, there's an obvious plan of attack and only rarely does it change enough to be classified as a significant gameplay alteration. On the other hand, there are two different types of battles (Field Battles and Sieges), and that adds some much-needed diversity. Field Battles are exactly what they sound like, but Sieges occur within your own fief when you must repel and invading army. This does make things fresh every now and then.
In the end, Nobunaga's Ambition: Rise to Power should probably satisfy the hardcore strategy fan, but it's not accomplished enough to be high on their priority list. There's too much repetition and while the depth is there, the game doesn't encourage much in the way of experimentation, and freedom really isn't in the cards. Your fief isn't very large, the battlefields can be sizable but hardly anything to be intimidated by, and because there are only four basic units, combat isn't tough. Even so, just about everything you could hope for from a RTS is here, and if you enjoy the Japanese feudal setting, you'll probably want to give this one a try. However, if Koei wishes to continue this franchise in the new generation, there are plenty of areas to improve upon, and we'll just leave it at that.
4/15/2008 Ben Dutka