Platform: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Paradox Interactive
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Feudal Japan is an exciting and colourful era in which to set a strategy game, and one that the Total War series has an action-packed stranglehold on. Enter Sengoku: an in-depth historical grand strategy sim that balances the equation by being all about management, bloodlines, diplomacy and the occasional deployment of ninja assassins. Paradox Interactive are no slouches when it comes to historical accuracy and immersive, impenetrable strategy, though you might be surprised to learn that Sengoku is one of their most accessible offerings yet.
After choosing which of the hundreds of historically accurate characters you'll control, the objective is to secure your clan and bloodline as a dominant force in Feudal Japan. You'll do this by making alliances with other clans, creating vassals to do your bidding, tactically arranging marriages to create an heir (who will continue your legacy if your first character dies) and occasionally declaring open war against rivals. Diplomacy is by far the most important part of the proceedings, with an intricate interplay of alliegances, vassals and your all-important reputation in the eyes of your peers. You'll need to dominate and hold over fifty percent of the country for three years in order to win a match, with enemies redoubling their efforts once you've attained enough territory. Slow, methodical play leads up to a tense end-game struggle, providing a refreshing change of pace in each game.
Provinces, displayed on the world map, can be upgraded with a number of defensive features as well as revenue-generating city structures. This is bolstered and aided by a series of advisors who can be employed out of a pool of worthy candidates with different scores in martial prowess, diplomacy and other statistics. Appointing the right men for the job is absolutely essential, and one that removes much of the grind and annoyance inherent to the genre.
Honour is everything in Feudal Japan, and makes for an interestingly subtle gameplay element. It's primarily a running "high score" that affects how you're perceived by your allies and rivals, and can be modified by supplying the emperor with gifts or troops, canny diplomacy, declaring war without provocation or marrying above or below your station. However, your honour value also functions as a form of currency, unlocking a number of advanced options and essentially empowering you with the ability to fight the odd war without worrying too much about revolution or repercussions. Choosing a character or clan with high honour at the beginning of the game will make the proceedings much easier, but fighting to attain it (by fair means or foul) is by far the most rewarding part of the Sengoku experience.
The battle system, like most Paradox grand strategy titles, doesn't grant players any degree of direct control. Instead, it's all about amassing as many competent units as possible and choosing a commander with a high martial skill to lead them, with the results of each engagement dictated by an unseen algorithm that balances offensive strength, martial prowess and the terrain of the territory in question. Defenders receive huge bonuses from impassable mountains and steep relief, meaning that cutting off, bypassing or encircling difficult areas is much more important than an inexorable march to glory. Naturally, total war plays a much smaller role in each game compared to diplomacy and skullduggery (not to mention maintaining your honour), but it's functional as far as it goes. Many players, however, will find themselves dissatisfied at the number of options.
A number of pleasingly nuanced Japanese quirks make an appearance, such as the ability to hire Ninja Assassins (yes!) to remove problematic pretenders or rivals. You can also collude with foreign powers such as the Dutch and Portugese, losing a lot of honour but gaining powerful allies in the process. By far my favourite new feature is that AI characters who are denied a clan can become Ronin - wandering Samurai if you will - who can be hired at a steep cost to bolster your armies. However, apart from these few nifty flourishes, the experience is broadly similar to the Crusader Kings or Europa Universalis series in everything but setting.
Interestingly, Sengoku is relatively accessible compared to most Paradox-published grand strategy games. There are no in-depth economic research or economic options to worry about, and appointing the right advisors lets you concentrate on the bigger picture and the task at hand. However, one man's accessibility is another man's lack of depth... and genre veterans will likely rail against it - especially since naval warfare and other gameplay features oddly don't make an appearance.
Aggravatingly, though, this focus on accessibility hasn't been carried through to the most important aspect of any strategy game: the interface. A capable GUI is the most fundamental way that developers can empower their players with the skills and knowledge to succeed, but Sengoku's horribly bitty and menu-driven front end is a confusing, messy and counter-intuitive shambles. Even entering these menus requires a variety of different clicks, and the reliance on icons rather than text can severely hamper the decision-making process. The delay between highlighting an icon and displaying the relevant tooltip compounds this problem. The uninspiring world map does a uniquely poor job of relaying important information, though it's admittedly visually pleasing at multiple zoom levels. Combined with astoundingly weak tutorials, Sengoku proves to be much more fussy and impenetrable than it needs to be.
But at the end of the day, Sengoku is still utterly compelling when you've finally learned the ropes - and the sun streams through your blinds after what you promised would be "just a quick go" at the end of the day.
- Compelling grand strategy
- Streamlined economy and research
- Ronin and ninja assassins
- Horrible clunky interface
- Simultaneously overwhelming and not deep enough for veterans
- Innovates little beyond the usual grand strategy formula
The Short Version: If you're a sucker for Japanese history and grand strategy, consider this an essential purchase. Sengoku is a worthy addition to Paradox's lineup, but the vast majority of players will probably be better off waiting for Crusader Kings II.