NOBUNAGA’S AMBITION: Sphere of Influence – Ascension Review

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I’m no stranger to Koei Tecmo games and as such I’ve become very familiar with what to expect from them. In many ways this has made me an even bigger fan of theirs because I’ve experienced so much good work from them. But the many reviews of their games I’ve done have also shown me just how unoriginal a lot of their newer products are. Today Koei Tecmo’s catalogue of games can be split into two main groups: Historical Simulation Games and Other. Their other category includes titles like Attack on Titan, Toukiden, and the upcoming Nioh. All three of these are excellent titles that I personally own or will own in the case of Nioh and highly recommend. There are also countless other games in various genres that fall into this same other category. But the main staple of Koei Tecmo is their historical battle simulations.

They have so many historical battle sim franchises that have been going strong since well before the merger of Koei and Tecmo in 2009. Examples of this include Dynasty Warriors, Romance of the three Kingdoms, Samurai Warriors, and Nobunaga’s Ambition. These are all franchises that have released several titles over the years which basically recreate the same game over and over again with new features and improvements each time. For many reasons this can be really nice for people who really like to play just one of these franchises. If you’ve been following Romance of the three Kingdoms since the first installment on the MSX back in 1985 all the way to the thirteenth version released on the PS4, XB1, and PC this year, then you’ve seen vast improvements to the franchise in every aspect of the game. Even though you’ve experienced the same general story over and over again, you can still enjoy each installment as you see the various changes and improvements each time. But if you play several of the franchises like I do then you too are probably starting to get bored by now.

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence – Ascension (NASIA) is an improved version of the latest edition of the Nobunga’s Ambition franchise originally released in 2015. This improved version just released on October 25th of this year. When comparing it to the 12 earlier Nobunaga’s Ambition games, it’s a vast improvement to the franchise and overall a highly detailed and generally solid game. But when you compare it to the other Koei Tecmo historical battle sim franchises that have been released in the last year or two, it’s severely lacking. Having also personally reviewed Romance of the three Kingdoms XIII, Samurai Warriors 4: Empires and played several other historical battle sims by the company, I have to say that I was not impressed with NASIA. The reason for this is not that it’s a bad game by any means. But more for the fact that it’s in several ways a rehash of their other battle sim titles, of course set in a specific place and time in history, as they all are, but not nearly as well done or polished by comparison.

The graphics aren’t as well done or impressive as those in either Romance 13 or Samurai 4. As with all the games, there’s a local map mode, a country/city map mode, and a topography map mode. The first two maps aren’t nearly as detailed or impressive as those in the other two games mentioned. The topography map mode is quite good, but still not as good as that in Romance 13. The graphics are lacking as far as character renders and specific details outside of the opening cinematic. Everything character focused in this game is 2D drawings except for in the officer view of battle mode. Most of this game is told in text boxes with drawings of the characters and backgrounds. These may be very nicely done but it doesn’t compare to the beautiful cutscenes and council sequences you get in the other games. The battles aren’t very impressive looking. I’ll go as far as saying Kessen II (2001) on the PS2 by Koei has much more impressive battle sequences even if the general caliber of the graphics is lower because of the time period it was released in.

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The general menus in NASIA are ugly. They have retained the simplicity that has become the standard in all Koei Tecmo games, but lack the clean finish that I’m accustomed to in their products. These are just solid gray squares with smaller yellow squares in them under black or yellow Times New Roman font. I’m by no means a professional graphic designer, but even I can produce the menus seen in this game. And again, it’s not that the graphics are bad or even below the general expectations of big budget games today. It’s that they’re below the standard that Koei Tecmo has made me come to expect from their specific company because of all the other games I’ve played by them over the years. They’re biggest competitor at this point is them and they failed to outdo them self this time.

The gameplay in this one is similar to that of all their historical battle sims. It retains many of the same concepts and ideas, requiring hours of concentration, planning, development, and strategy in order to unify a country, in this case Japan. In this particular game you have multiple classes with varying levels of power which translates to options and access to resources and information. You can choose to start at any class/rank you want and play from there but the most epic experience is by starting as a retainer and working your way up to a daimyo. As with all Koei Tecmo games, the gameplay is very technical, hard to understand at first glance, and requires a lot of reading and practice to master. This game is particularly less exciting than the other ones I’ve played precisely because of how little you can actually do if you start at the retainer rank. I feel like the gameplay in general attempted to be a bit simpler in NASIA than in Romance 13, yet it felt harder to understand when playing the tutorial and reading through the notes. This came off more technical and less active. Battles are hard to work your way to initiating and aren’t that long or particularly interesting when you do finally get to them.

There are two types of battles. Field battles are about defeating the main enemy unit on the field while sieges are about taking castles. You control units in battle in either a map view where all units and landmarks are shown or in an officer view where you can only see the particular unit you’re focused on. The map (normal) view allows you to see the entire battlefield at once and make general strategy decisions. The officer view lets you make unit specific decisions like special moves such as charging, guarding, and morale boost battle cries. The normal view plays a much bigger role in the grand scheme of the game but officer view is necessary for battles against units that might not be a sure victory. Losing a battle does not mean losing the game. As such, battles cannot be replayed. The game continues on and you deal with the results of the battle, win or lose. You can save and load the game whenever you want though, so you could replay battles if you wanted to.

As this is a sim game, occurrences do not happen in real time. Whether in battle or in the council mode, you make decisions which the computer then executes. You can pause and make changes at any time but you are not enacting things in real time. As with many historical battle sims by Koei Tecmo, the game is broken into scenarios. There are 20 total plus a tutorial scenario. Each of these allows you to experience a specific point in history as a specific officer of your choosing. You can also customize scenarios and create your own. You have a lot of freedom about what you can actually customize and what happens because of it. There are 2096 different officers in the game, which can also be customized. You can create your own as well. But the officer creation system is more about stats than actually shaping your officer. You can’t change their appearance in this one like you can in Samurai Warriors 4: Empires. You just choose from a list of pictures that are used for other officers in the game. You can customize basically every detail of who they are on paper and how they affect the game though. You can create up to 100 different officers and custom events. Everything in the game runs smoothly. There is no lag or anything like that. But the in game menus are hard to navigate and often inconvenient to access. Overall I felt the gameplay was lacking in a number of ways, but still had the same hardcore level of commitment required for all the other historical battle sims from Koei Tecmo. It’s a lot like Dungeons and Dragons where much of the game is minute tasks and details that ultimately affect the outcome, while not being nearly as exciting and instantly gratifying as simpler, more focused battle games like Dynasty Warriors.

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The sound in NASIA is of course excellent. Koei Tecmo never disappoints when it comes to audio. There 56 different background music tracks which can be customized however you want. Each track is played for a specific in game occurrence but you can set the music for each occurrence by hand. The sound effects are appropriate and varied. Even just navigating the menus uses three different effects depending on what you’re doing. There’s not nearly as much voice acting in this as in games like Romance 13, but they actually did do English recordings in this one, which I really appreciated. The sound lives up to my expectations of the company without question.

There’s a lot of writing in this game. The instructional notes are long and technical. The tutorial was actually a bit too simple in my opinion. It tries too hard to be friendly and accessible, but ultimately this made it too simple and casual to really help you understand how to play the game. It gives you the gist of things, but not enough information to feel really comfortable with executing it on your own. It’s the instructional notes that pop up during normal gameplay and can be accessed in the help menu that really tell you how to play NASIA. But as per usual, they are very detailed, long, and often hard to fully understand. Mastering this game takes practice and patience more than anything else. Each of the 2096 officers has their own gallery page complete with a bio, lifespan, stats, and a list of which previous games from the franchise they were involved in. It’s a lot of information. And when you create your own officers you are asked to create just as much information. You get to handwrite the bios and everything.

The story is told through text boxes with background drawings. Sometimes these are narrations and other times this is dialog between characters. Each scenario is its own story that focuses on specific characters and their personal interactions. The game takes the time to express the characters’ feelings and inner thoughts as well. This requires you to pay attention because rarely is the situation just laid out before you. You have to figure out what’s going on based on the dialog and occurrences you are shown. In a number of ways it’s like watching Game of Thrones and then being asked to take part in it as a specific character that may or may not be that important depending on which officer you choose. The only thing that was lacking with the writing was the presentation. There’s not too many cutscenes or special sequences like I’ve seen in other Koei Tecmo games.

As with all Koei Tecmo historical battle sims, there’s a ridiculous amount of replay value. 2096 officers to choose from in 20 different scenarios with a high level of customization options. Add this to the fact that you can create your own scenarios and officers which can also be shared and downloaded with other players online. There are 42 movies that can be unlocked in the gallery by causing them to take place in the game. There are 29 achievement/occurrence based trophies including a platinum. While this may not be the best Koei Tecmo game, it certainly gives you enough to do to earn your $60. If you actually do enjoy the game enough to play all the scenarios to completion, that alone will get you your 60 hours and then some.

I was not personally impressed with Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence – Ascension, but again that’s because Koei Tecmo has an extremely impressive track record. When compared to other games in general, it’s an excellent work with loads of customization options, tons of replay value, good graphics, several tracks of music, a novel’s worth of plot based writing, and is an all-around impressive game. If you haven’t played any of their historical battle sims, this is not their best, but it’s in no way a bad game. It’s only because I have played several other battle sims by them that I can be so critical. I gave this game a 6, but understand that this is a developer specific grade that takes place in a vacuum otherwise it’s easily a 7 or higher.

rating-6

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@brashgames.co.uk.

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