With a franchise that spans thirty years and includes fourteen main iterations, Nobunaga’s Ambition’s vitality and variety nearly matches the qualities of the man who inspired Koei’s prolific series. While known primarily for his determination of national unification and tactical expertise, Oda Nobunaga’s impact on Japanese history was momentous. From appointing leaders based on skill, rather than bond, employing technologies to improve weaponry and castle defenses, as well as demonstrating ingenuity across diplomacy and business, it’s little wonder that Nobunaga’s Ambition has resonated with players from regions across the globe.
Undeniably, inheriting the Oda clan and conquering the bulk of the Japan as Nobunaga is engaging, as evidenced by the franchise’s prolificacy. But tackling these endeavors as a lowly vassal is quite a different aspiration. It’s also the focus of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence – Ascension, Koei Tecmo’s PlayStation 4 and PC recent release, that tasks players with rising up the social ranks.
Heading into main Ascention’s campaign offers two divergent starting points. Initially, you’ll be welcomed with a map on Japan that’s overlaid with four randomly selected officers. Selecting one ushers players into a pre-built scenario, where the character recreates their real-world successes or even tries for a virtuous rewrite of history. There’s a chance you might be offered the archetypal aspiration of Nobunaga Oda, who starts with little more than a meager military inherited from his father, facing the daunting task of unifying Japan. Or you might reroll your starting four and tackle the trajectory of Ukita Naoie, a cunning warrior, who overcame internal conflict and banishment to rise from lord to daimyo.
Initially, I chose rifle-toting cover star Yukimura Sanada, aka ‘the hero who appears every hundred years’, known for his unfaltering defense against the Tokugawa at Osaka. Although his life-course eventually deviated from history, Ascension’s behind-the-scene number crunching meant that I accepted a similar kind of fateful finale as the crimson-armored champion. Sure, it might have been dumb luck, but across subsequently playthroughs the title exhibited a few uncanny coincidences where events didn’t always reflect reality but were still historically feasible.
But jumping into an officer’s role might not be the best way to delve into Ascension. If you’re new to the franchise or have missed a few iterations, you’ll want to bypass the selection screen and select one of the game’s twenty-one historically-rooted and fantasy scenarios, where you can jump into the geopolitical intrigue that occurred between the years 1551 and 1615. An ideal launching point in the game’s interactive tutorial, which extends a fictionalized conversation between Hideyoshi Kinoshita (not to be confused with the gender-bending character from Baka and Test) and an inquisitive young girl. Beyond explaining things like the hierarchy of chamberlains, lords, and daimyo, the retainer also expresses the capacities and duties of each role as they endeavor to earn honor and climb up the social ladder.
The five-section Sengoku-era seminar also instills the essentials of civic planning, as players learn how to nurture a small settlement into a bustling metropolis. Like SimCity, keen placement is the key to prosperity, with players creating throughways, buildings near natural resources, while adhering to abstract attributes like ‘entertainment’, ‘safety’, and ‘faith’. While the proceeding might sound confusing, it largely a manner of common sense and on-the-job learning. Soon, you’ll be instructively placing Warrior’s Quarters near the Lord’s Manor, rice paddies near bodies of water, and merchants near accessible roads. Of course, you’ll also have to do some forecasting as well, since facilities can have a positive effect on any future districts. Naturally, physical space quickly becomes one of the most pressing considerations, but if you plan things deftly, Ascension allows you to clear lands for additional development.
As you work your way up the chain of command, you decision-making autonomy grows- as you take the helm of castles, appoint commanders, and ultimately determine geopolitical direction. Since the task of regency involves a multitude of moving parts and an uncanny ability for forecasting, the game’s Office Play mode might also make an ideal starting point for budding daimyo. A campaign commences from a collection of 2000 historical figures, many by nature being low-level vassals. Starting a career from the very bottom exhibits two distinct traits. First, you’re range of administration gradually grows from a diminutive territory to a sprawling landmass, allowing you to adjust to the game’s escalating assortment of duties. But more importantly, the journey gives perspective. Stepping into a Lord’s role takes on a lot more meaning if you’ve had to painstakingly inch your way up to that position.
Inevitably, your personal ascension will be besmeared by battle, with even the most benign politicking raising the ire of others. Wisely, the sequences feel far more visceral that typical turn taking, as players create movement paths for each of the battalions they oversee. Beyond modeling melee and ranged warfare with hundreds of on-screen units, each company also has officer-specific abilities that can invert the momentum of battle. Like the rest of Nobunaga’s Ambition, the best warlords are the ones who adapt to ever-shifting circumstances. The downside is the visual representation of combat. Although troop sizes are understandably constrained, the physicality of conflict feels removed. As such, those expecting awe-inspiring deluges of arrows fired in unison or units not to filter through a castle’s masugata with militaristic precision will be disappointed. Sure, the naval battles and castle sieges are thrilling but can be undermined by a deficiency of animation and troops able to teleport through gates.
Few simulations deliver a sense of progress as proficiently as Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence – Ascension. Starting as a subordinate vassal and climbing the ranks to respected (or even feared) daimyo is a fittingly arduous task- and one that once accomplished, truly feels inspiring. However, as a standalone Ascension’s principal highlight might not be enough for purchasers of the original Sphere of Influence. While climbing the social ladder is enjoyable, the journey recycles a few too many elements from last September’s journey.
Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence – Ascension was played on the PlayStation 4 with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PlayStation 4, PC
Developer: Koei Tecmo Games
Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games
Release date: October 25th, 2016 (US)
Price: $59.99 (PlayStation 4) via retail and PSN, $47.99 (PC) via Steam