I was originally going to open this review with a short list of reasons why it’s pointless, and to neither game’s credit, to pitch Paradox’s Sengoku against Creative Assembly’s Shogun 2. If congruent settings demand comparison, I was going to say, then anyone writing about a World War II strategy game has their work cut out for them.
I was going to do this very carefully, and emphasise that my intent was to guard Sengoku against the first impressions of casual observers: not to indicate that the game in any way needed my protection.
Then I saw the advertisement that’s currently running on RPS. ‘Remember that other feudal Japanese war game?’, it says. ‘WANT TO STOP MESSING AROUND?’.
‘Vigorous political simulation! With none of the real-time battles!’
I’m not reviewing Paradox’s marketing department, so, I should probably let this go. To their credit, there are worse ways of selling the particular qualities of this game. ‘COULD WATCHING A GREEN BAR BECOME A RED BAR GIVE YOU AN ERECTION?’ is one of them, and they didn’t say that, so good for them.
They’re not wholly wrong, I suppose. Sengoku is, after all, a political simulation first and a military strategy game second. Taking control of a clan during the titular Sengoku jidai, your aim is to seize 50% of the Japanese landmass and beat up anyone who’d deny your right to be Shogun. Armies play a key role, but armies are only a tool at the disposal of ambitious regional noblemen, who are themselves leaders or vassals, with wives and heirs and courtiers, who each have their own wives and heirs and ambitions.
The biggest hat goes to the clan leader most capable of manipulating the game on the microscale, where Paradox’s commitment to simulation is most apparent. Faced with a situation – let’s say a powerful noble plotting to split away from your clan – the amount of options available to you are staggering. You could strip him off his title, and force his hand. You could marry his family into the line of succession. You could turn his closest allies with gifts and visits from your Master of Ceremonies, or send your Master of the Guard to discredit him, or hire ninja to ruin his reputation or simply kill him. This is one common but very specific scenario, and each of these courses of action branches out in a fractal explosion of consequences.
With this much information in play, interface design is absolutely crucial: and this is where Sengoku is likely to start losing people. If it’s possible for the absence of a proper tutorial to be revealed with comic timing, Paradox absolutely nail it: clicking ‘single player’ hits you in the face with a full top-down view of Japan, a list of suggested regions, and dozens of clans. ‘Pick one’, it cries, as the deep end swallows you whole. The fact that the difficulty meter associated with each clan measures long-term viability rather than initial challenge encourages awkward first impressions: while the power of the larger clans is certainly an asset later on, the sheer mechanical expertise necessary to manage it make them a poor initial choice: and yet one that the game seems to promote.
The documentation is generally lacking, if the work-in-progress manual issued to the press is anything to go by: great at detailing concepts and objectives but completely uninterested in explaining their execution. Even in-game tooltips suffer from the same problem, and it’s possible to completely miss entire interface elements because the button is tiny, or vague, or on the opposite side of the screen from everything useful. It’s fine for a game to be difficult, even inaccessible, in service of a simulation, but this isn’t that. In the early hours Sengoku is like trying to play a song you know on an instrument you don’t: the instrument in this case being an impossibly ornate cherrywood pipe organ with five keyboards and three hundred stops, all of which are in Japanese.
It’s a shame, because thought has obviously been put into easing the load – I was still discovering time-saving shortcuts and summary windows a dozen hours in. As it happens, that was half a day spent learning: not learning how to be a better Japanese nobleman, but how the data revealed by, say, the ‘relationships’ map view relates to the currently-selected territory. Or that incoming diplomatic missives appear in an entirely different place to alerts, which in turn are miles from your low-and-high priority messages – all of which are important and none of which are accompanied by a sound cue.
The game takes place in real-time, with frequent pausing to issue orders. Given the decentralised nature of the interface, this means a lot of waiting with time progression at full speed for something to change in one of the fifteen to fifty criteria that you’re monitoring, adding to the wall that Sengoku seems intent on building around itself. Grand strategy veterans will no doubt feel much more at home, but willing newcomers deserve more – particularly because there’s a strong game here, when things start moving and the numbers stop making you cry into your tea.
Expanding beyond your initial territory involves a fascinating series of organic decisions. Borders are fluid, armies can move freely, and diplomacy has unlimited range. The result is a game that, in the early phase at least, feels much more three-dimensional than a typical single-front tug-of-war. Society is prevented from collapsing by the honour system – declaring war costs a significant chunk of political cachet, and haemorrhage enough and ritual suicide awaits. Honour regenerates slowly during peacetime, a process that can be sped up with donations to the Emperor and granting land and title to your vassals: but there’s only so much money and so much land to go around, making war inevitable. It’s a simple system, but an effective one.
The rhythm of Sengoku is such that planning an attack takes far more time and effort than war itself, which is for the best as combat really is just a case of watching two green bars attempt against all odds to remain green. This is also where the vaunted ‘plot’ mechanic comes into play: at any given time you have an array of situational schemes available, such as attacking a neighbouring clan. If nearby nobles like you enough, they can be invited to join in – resulting in genuinely exciting opening gambits where a declaration of war is accompanied by a vital enemy coastal territory suddenly switching allegiances or sprawling opponents finding themselves surrounded by smaller clans working together. These moments almost entirely justify the time spent struggling to get to grips with the game, and feel great. When Kinect support comes to the PC, I would very much like someone to patch Sengoku so that plots can be executed by giving the middle finger to your largest neighbour. I haven’t decided my game of the year yet. You’ve got three months. I’m just saying.
Taking my people from five-territory backwater to military and political juggernaut was a thoroughly satisfying journey that has furnished me with an arsenal of weapons-grade you-had-to-be-there-type anecdotes. If there’s a caveat to all this, it’s that as your power increases some of the nuance is lost. The micromanagement essential to smaller-scale play remains intact, but is increasingly sidelined as the effort demanded builds from ‘vigorous’ to ‘exhausting’. The focus shifts, perhaps inevitably, to building and maintaining huge armies – and with combat not the point, that’s to the game’s detriment. Dynamic events – the rise of Ikko-Ikki rebels, the arrival of gun-toting Christianity – offer a bit of interest, but it’s not quite enough to rescue Sengoku from the late-game doldrums that haunt the genre.
This is also where comparisons to that other feudal Japanese war game are warranted. The setting essentially demands that the endgame be a case of donning the big hat and repeatedly yelling ‘WHO WANTS TO FIGHT ME?’ – a laudable goal, and one to be proud of, but hardly the world’s most interesting bit of diplomacy. Here Sengoku loses ground to its real-time battling rival, which at the very least sprinkles the clean-up phase with spectacle.
If political web-spinning appeals to you, and you’re willing to put up with a number of false starts, then I can recommend Sengoku. Like any decent conspiracy, it demands patience, initiative, and a meticulous attention to detail: and it’ll even reward you for them, occasionally. Something to absorb slowly, and to be absorbed by slowly – and if you’re turned on by red and green bars, then boy have I got the game for you.