Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sengoku Review

Sengoku, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Enjoyable political positioning with many people to interact with, extensive personal attributes and relationships, perpetual war keeps you busy, nice map and music
The Not So Good: Shallow province management, small clans are easy targets due to their military and income restrictions, generally useless plots, typically static inter-clan relationships, lacks missions, only one starting date
What say you? Highlighted by the character management, this grand strategy game gives you just enough to do: 6/8

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Japan, historically a tiny island that isolated itself from the rest of the world, has had its share of internal strife. Most notable was the Sengoku period, where clans from all corners of the land fought for the Shogun crown. The first major computer game to touch on this conflict was Shogun: Total War, which recently had an enjoyable sequel. Taking another crack at the period is Paradox Interactive, in an attempt to adapt their grand strategy gameplay to the management of a clan. Instead of focusing on the tactical battles that highlights Total War: Shogun 2, Sengoku resides solely in the strategic realm, as you move troops, interact with other characters, and manage your domain. Does Sengoku triumph in victory, or commit seppuku?

Sengoku starts with the map, and it’s a beauty: a pristine, 3-D, slightly exaggerated facsimile of Japan, completely with varied terrain and textures that bring the game world to life. Of course, I spent most of the time using the alternative map modes, so I didn’t really get to see the beautiful textures all that much. Units are very small and it’s hard to see their detail without zooming in to unhelpful levels; animations are repetitive (endless stabbing during assaults, for example), typical of Paradox grand strategy games. The character portraits do repeat themselves with so many people in the game, but for the most part you can identify people visually. The relatively small island of Japan means Sengoku loads and run much faster than some of Paradox's previous grand strategy games, which is nice. The sound effects are basic, with low, subtle notification volumes that you might miss. However, the music is great: it fits the theme well and I remember it after I’m done playing, always a positive sign. Overall, I was pleased with the graphics and sound of Sengoku.

Sengoku is a real-time grand strategy game where you attempt to control 50% of the islands of Japan, then fend everyone else off to become Shogun of the realm. The game features four scenarios…sort of. They are actually just four sets of suggestions for powerful or interesting starting clans, as you can only start on May 26th, 1467. Like to start later on in the campaign? Too bad. However, in a neat twist, you don't have to play as the clan leader: instead, you can choose any land-holding male and attempt to claw your way to the top. While a subordinate role gives you less to do, you can still raise some personal armies and engage with other characters. Sengoku features multiplayer in addition to the single player option, if you’d like to duke it out with other humans online. Instead of opting for a set of comprehensive tutorials (which were a fantastic part of Victoria II), Sengoku has pop-up messages that appear whenever you open a new menu; they work well enough. The interface is standard Paradox fare: all of your options on the left, notifications along the top, and the handy outliner along the right. Plentiful map modes are also present, the most useful showing clan borders, your demesne, and diplomatic relationships. New is message consolidation (into low and high priority groups) into two inboxes, instead of incessant pop-ups in the middle of the screen. This is a nice feature, but possibly important diplomatic offers are way too subtle, appearing at the lower corner of the screen. You also have to redo character searches too often, and the filters leave a lot to be desired: some of the sorting options (by clan or opinion, specifically) only work partially (you can sort by your opinion of them, but not their opinion of you) or not at all (it’s really hard to find members of specific clans, as the alphabetical sorting is inconsistent).

In Sengoku, you control one character (and later his first male heir…hopefully) in a quest for island dominance. There are three main resources in the game: wealth, demesne, and honor. Wealth is collected from monthly provincial taxes and spent to construct specialty buildings called manufactories and hire mercenary troops. Your income and expenses are vague (one of the rare times Sengoku skimps on the tooltips), but balancing your budget is simply a matter of having less troops and more land. Honor is used to perform any diplomatic action in the game and earned by conquering territory and slowly accrued during peacetime; characters with no honor should commit suicide. Your demense is the land you directly control; you are limited to only five provinces (owning more will cause revolts), so you must delegate additional land to other members of your clan (preferably your heir, to elevate their position within the clan). All of the characters in the game are also rated in several areas that can be improved based on the ratings of your wives: health, martial ability, diplomacy, and intrigue. In addition, characters can earn traits (both positive and negative) over time that further influence their abilities. The other members of your clan might become pretenders to the throne, automatically nominated by land-holding clansmen based on inter-personal relationship values (thus, it’s important to maintain positive relations with your clan’s high-ranking members). Of course, you can always form your own clan and ignite a civil war if your heir is not in position for clan leader.

Managing your provinces is accomplished through your court: you nominate three individuals (hopefully based on their skill ratings) from your clan to supervise your lands. It is a straightforward process: pick the court member, pick the action, and pick the province. The first is the master of arms, who can improve the castle, hire troops, or restore order. The master of ceremonies can improve the village, improve relations, or collect higher taxes. Finally, the master of the guard can improve guilds (allowing for another special manufactory to become construction), sow dissent (increasing the possibility of a revolt), or hire ninjas. The options here are all disappointingly limited. The castle, village, and guild improvements are all very linear: simply the next level opens up, providing better defense or higher taxes or another construction slot. Affecting relationships, either positive or negative, seems ineffective at best (and really slow) and a waste of time at worse. Plus, since you only have direct control over only five provinces, land management becomes very repetitive, performing the same actions in the same places over and over again. There is very little strategy here, which is sad for a strategy game.

Diplomacy was a bit different during the Sengoku period. In order to found a temporary alliance with another clan, you must exchange hostages (actual family members) for five years, which is slightly more interesting than simply increasing relationships to a certain value (and relationship values are pretty fixed, based mostly on attribute values). Sending gifts is still there, but since you never need to declare war, you don’t need to destroy relationships before launching an attack. Peace options include conceding defeat by offering a hostage, or becoming a vassal of another clan. Sengoku features plots, where you can plan to overthrow your clan or gang up on a common enemy, but it’s hard to recruit people (even if they have a good relationship) and you can just attack whomever you want at any time. Moreover, you can ignite a civil war with a single, instant action in the clan management screen instead of wasting time messing with plots. Marriage is required to produce heirs and keep playing the game. There is a handy button next to each character that will bring up bride choices (it’s the ancient Japanese match.com!), so pick one with good stats (just like real life!) and hopefully she will accept. You can choose spouses for yourself and any of your children, and arranging marriages (especially for your daughters) is a great way to increase relationships with neighboring clans. It's a good idea to pair up all of your kids while you still can, though, as the AI seems to be pretty lax in this area.

Religion plays a small role in the world of Sengoku: building a specific type of temple gives you different bonuses, which I’m sure is how it worked in real life (Look! A Buddhist temple! We must reinforce more quickly!). The game fails to give you missions (other than “kill everyone”) in the short-term, so new players can be directionless. In addition, decisions and events are rare enough to be ignored. But war is not, as the island of Japan is in a constant state of conflict. Troops are recruited directly from your provinces: the clan leader can raise military units instantly with the push of a button, so the largest clan owning the most land will always have the biggest army. However, you can also hire a limited number of retinue to act as personal guards in the army you lead, and ronin mercenaries can be hired to compliment the native province-based troops. Combat is the same as with other Paradox grand strategy games: automatically calculated based on the fire and shock phases of the units involved. You can tip the balance of warfare prematurely by placing ninja clans in provinces, where they can assassinate characters, take hostages, weaken defenses, burn buildings, or cause others to lose honor. Still, the largest clans will have the most troops and win the most battles, leading to an ultimate showdown between the biggest groups in the game. Constant war keeps things moving, and I was rarely just sitting there with nothing to do. The AI seems to be competent enough: they manage provinces and move troops well, attacking and defending in appropriate places. I did occasionally get annoyed while playing as a subordinate at the clan leader’s choices in assault locations, but in general I did not experience any completely boneheaded moves.

Sengoku is a character-based game, and in places it shines as a multifaceted political simulation of ancient Japan. There are lots of people to deal with in the game, and finding spouses, exploring family trees, scouting rivals, negotiating with other clans is almost fun. Plots aren’t effective, but the relentless state of war means you can attack anyone at any time. Raising a sizable army is easy and instantaneous, and you can compliment them with personal troops, mercenaries, and ninjas. However, since the military is recruited directly from all of your provinces immediately, small clans will always be easy targets simply because they can’t field as many troops (or support their maintenance with tax income). But there is certainly more to do here than in Victoria II: I like delegating lands and positioning your heir as the next choice for the clan leader. Province management is really disappointing, as your court actions are quite limited and you can only do things in five provinces. There’s only one scenario, and no missions or goals other than taking over everyone and everything. The graphics and interface are generally nice, and the AI provides decent competition. Overall, Sengoku provides a different, personal take on the grand strategy game, and its threat of war coupled with political activities keeps you active throughout your time in Japan.