Review by admtanaka
"This game is simply not for everyone."
Koei's Nobunaga's Ambition series has had a rather long layoff from English translation, last appearing in the United States during the early 1990s on the Super Nintendo. Nevertheless, the series continued in the interim in Japan at a rate roughly equal to that of their other historical simulation franchise, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In 2008, Koei ended the long absence by bringing the 2004 installment of Nobunaga's Ambition to America under the subtitle of "Rise to Power." They do so to mixed results.
Like the rest of Koei's turn based strategy games, Rise to Power gives the player a battleground - in this case 16th century feudal Japan - and control over a particular fiefdom. The goal of the game is to unite the entire country under the flag of one ruler by developing his territory and expanding militarily into the lands of other daimyo. To this end, the game is divided into separate phases - one for fighting battles that takes place in real time and the other turn-based for building the economy of existing territories.
For better or worse, however, the defining characteristic of Nobunaga's Ambition: Rise to Power is the exceptionally steep learning curve. Besides Nobunaga himself and maybe Ieyasu, almost the entirety of the officer pool in the game will be completely unknown to a Western gamer, as will the names of castles, fiefs, and regions of Japan. This unfamiliarity tends to hide the game's rather deep political and social relationships between officers and forces. Christian officers, for example, are more likely to get along with other recent converts, and, conversely, not get along with anti-western officers. Unfortunately, a casual gamer-historian will likely be so lost in the sea of the unknown that he will not notice these somewhat subtle relationships. The popular practice at the time of officers changing names during their lifetime only serves to further complicate this mess. It's a shame, because the game has a hidden depth that can take more effort than most are willing to give to appreciate.
The game fares even worse in the case of battle dynamics. Unlike the strategy phase, warfare takes place in real time in the form of either a siege or a field battle. Somewhat expectedly, this does not fare well on a console due to the limitations of a controller versus a mouse and keyboard combination. To overcome this, the developers allow the player to pause the battle and continue to issue commands to the units. This works fine in terms of functionality, but it also defeats the purpose of having a real time battle in the first place.
The problems aren't limited to the theoretical realm either, as the entire battle system is rather weak. Battle commands have practically no depth whatsoever, and go no deeper than moving, attacking, or entering a structure. There are some battle skills that are unique to officers, but these have little emphasis and truly aren't crucial for success. Units are also frustratingly unresponsive to orders and sometimes can't even handle moving to a destination without substantial personal attention. The end result is a choppy battle necessarily paused every few seconds in order to ensure units are actually doing what they're told. These rather poorly-executed battles ultimately drag the game down, especially as it begins to reach its conclusion, where your kingdom will be fighting just about every season.
Like many of Koei's other games, Rise to Power also suffers from rather poor AI. In battle, this usually translates as blindly rushing structures, even if the computer's opponent (be it another AI or the human player) have garrisoned the base with muskets. The outcome of this is usually mounds of computer corpses fanned around the fortress. Other times, the AI will seemingly arbitrarily ignore the forces protecting castle and instead begin to pillage the fief. The problem here is that they tend to do this only in the rare situations when their force might actually have been able to win the battle otherwise.
In the strategy phase, the AI also makes numerous errors. Somewhat ironically, on the higher difficulty levels the computer forces tend to be so aggressive as to eventually cripple themselves. It's not uncommon to watch a computer force attack the same enemy fief 20 seasons in a row, only to face defeat each time. This usually causes the attacking force to leave its own lands undefended and exposed to invasion. It's also incredibly frustrating to have to fight 20 defensive battles in successive seasons against an opponent who seemingly doesn't care if he ultimately wins or loses. In the cases where the computer does meet success, however, they expand so quickly that a human player will have a very hard time keeping pace.
On the bright side, the strategy phase of the game is otherwise done quite well. Fief development in particular has a substantial amount of depth, with a large variety of customization and variation possible. There are around 15 different structures capable of construction on each territory's area, and each give different bonuses to the controlling force. Unlike some of Koei's other games, proper development of a fief takes essentially the entire course of the game, and remains a priority for most of the player's campaign. The one problem with development is that the total number of structures possible for each territory is dependent on the total amount of fiefs under control of the player and thus forces a minor daimyo to quickly expand.
Other strategy commands are also done soundly, if not as well as development. Spy commands are rather typical Koei fare, allowing players to send ninjas to disrupt relations between enemy daimyos, gain information on other fiefs, or spread rumors amongst other force's retainers to lower their loyalty. While not crucial for success and somewhat under-emphasized, these commands can make a campaign against an enemy a little easier. Negotiations are also perhaps deeper than any stateside Koei game by virtue of including a deep rank and title system that requires building relationships with the imperial court and whichever force controls the shogun. Again, however, this system suffers slightly from the game's learning curve.
In terms of presentation, this game does well compared to some of Koei's other offerings (especially considering the original release date), but still poorly compared to other contemporary titles. Troop animations and details in battle are pathetic, and it is difficult to discern musket troops from bowmen from spearmen. Conversely, most of the officer portraits are impressive and varied, although sometimes misleading - some officers wear full military garb despite being more civil-minded retainers. The game's soundtrack is really wonderful and perhaps the best Koei has ever included in a game. There are a large amount of tracks, and they all suit the tone of the game very well. Unfortunately, few gamers purchase games for the soundtracks.
At the end of the day, Nobunaga's Ambition: Rise to Power is unlikely to appeal to more than a rather narrow gaming audience. The game's learning curve can appear insurmountable, and the battle dynamics will likely frustrate real-time strategy fans unwilling to sacrifice gaming quality for sake of interest in the historical period. For those few that can cut through the barriers and look past the inadequacies, however, Rise to Power might be worth a look.
Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 03/19/08, Updated 03/24/08
Game Release: Nobunaga's Ambition: Rise to Power (US, 02/05/08)
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