The Nobunaga’s Ambition series is one of the oldest in grand strategy games, with its first title having come out in March 1983, which blossomed into a franchise to include multiple sequels, ports, and even a notable collaboration with Pokémon in the form of Pokémon Conquest — a fact that still boggles the mind, as I had not heard of the series before now. The newest entry, NOBUNAGA'S AMBITION: Awakening — hence referred to as Awakening, is not only the newest entry in the series, but it also acts as a celebration of the series’ 40th anniversary! These are some very big shoes to fill, but will the game, as Nobunaga himself, blaze its way into my heart, or will it falter at the gates, honour stained forevermore?
In the game, you take on the role of a daimyō, a powerful Japanese leader. Your goal will be to manage your lands and loyal retainers, all while expanding your dominion and keeping an eye on both friend and foe. When beginning a new campaign, you can choose from multiple scenarios that take place within the Warring States Period, 16th century Japan — 1546-1614. While the game is named after and follows the life and exploits of Oda Nobunaga, you are not limited to playing as the legendary warrior. Instead, you can pick from any of the large clans present in the selected scenario. As the game is purposed to be a historical simulation in addition to a strategy game (think Crusader Kings), all of them and their leaders start off as accurate! To make the choice easier, the game offers a difficulty score for each, as well as recommendations for some of the more interesting choices. If you’re new to the game, the Battle of Okehazama, naturally playing as the titular character, is recommended as a good introduction, which is what I went with.
As in many titles in the genre, your main view is of the map of Japan. On it, you can see your holdings, your allies, and your potential enemies at a glance. You can also see the progression of the month (each “round” of the game being represented as a month of in-game time), in addition to setting the speed of the game or pausing! Additionally, you have a log of the recent events, in addition to your advisor's comments — more on that later. In general, I found the UI to be understandable, though some of the finer controls took some getting used to.
The gameplay of Awakening itself can be broken into three facets: Clan management, Diplomacy, and War, with clan management probably being the most prevalent of the three. When not in a fierce battle or trying to get your lazy, good-for-nothing neighbour to help out with the whole giant attacking army thing, you’ll be managing both your sizeable clan and the lands under your rule. As in many grand strategy titles, you have resources to keep track of, here represented by money and supplies. To keep your coffers full and your soldiers fed, you need to develop your counties, building up farms and fairs, in addition to creating strategic buildings such as arrow towers, markets and irrigation canals, all with their own bonuses. Additionally, independent tribes and landmarks may be situated in your holdings, providing extra soldiers and bonuses respectively. Now, skilled as any daimyō is, this is a lot to do by oneself. Thankfully, you are not alone and can assign your loyal subjects to develop and improve your counties or even rule over parts of your domain. In addition to tending your gardens and developing your lands, your loyal retainers and lords also offer many other services in the form of advice and goal suggestions.
As a lord has their knights, a daimyō has their samurai. Depending on what time period or clan you choose, you may have only a few or an abundance of willing servants ready to aid their leader to victory! When playing the recommended scenario with the Oda, I had the latter, with more warriors and statesmen than I knew what to do with. Each lord has their own stats and perks, usually specialising in battle, statecraft, or diplomacy, giving bonuses whenever tasked with something related to their expertise. As your domain grows and your council increases in members and experience, you will get the chance to both promote members to higher positions, therefore getting better bonuses, and to award them special titles and accolades based on their performance! A brilliant strategist, for example, could gain the title “the wise”. In addition to acting as your council members, your servants also represent the number of actions you can take, as each larger action, such as diplomacy and development, require a leader to oversee the process! The more lords and workers, the more can be done, simple as that.
Every daimyō also has their personal advisors, who counsel them on the current situation, warn them of impending worries, and suggest wise courses of action. These suggestions may be something like “Hey, we found this tribe, we should appease them so they’ll fight for us” or “Um, the enemy castle is looking pretty well fortified… let’s burn it!” to name but a few. You, as the daimyō, may agree to these actions, paying the requisite resources and assigning a leader and then awaiting the result. You may also simply decline without much hullabaloo or hurt feelings, which is nice. In addition to counselling actions to take, your advisors may also set some long or short-range goals for you to attempt, such as increasing your income or defeating an enemy troop, which rewards you with honour, resources, or other goodies!
While working to keep both your fields abundant and your vassals happy, you will have to cast a glance at your neighbours near and far. Colossal coalitions may be forming, power-hungry enemies may be knocking on your door, and potential alliances may be a message away. Each of the clans has a disposition toward you, some starting off friendly or even in an alliance, while others may be hostile or neutral. Instead of charging your vassals to appease the nearby tribes, you may instead attempt to gain favour with another clan by sending them to negotiate. The system used is simple enough. By sending a representative, you can slowly build trust — measured in points — which you can later cash in for favours or military reinforcement! These political ties can make or break your clan, as they may be enough of a deterrent to larger foes to keep them guessing or may allow you to keep a potential enemy from attacking you. While, again, the system seems simple enough, I found myself struggling in many cases since I had a finite pool of subordinates to send and many clans to appease. Sure, you can always send the other clans money or treasures, but it felt difficult to stay on top of things. Maybe chalk it up to newbie ignorance?
The third facet, and an integral part of most grand strategy titles, is combat, and Awakening is no different. The game finds an interesting balance between the intricate battles of games like Shogun: Total War and the simplified combat of Crusader Kings. When forces collide, they start doing battle, with both sides slowly losing troops. The loser is the one that retreats or runs out of soldiers. But, if you happen to have one of your leaders nearby, you are given the option to face the opponent in a more active manner.
In these skirmishes, both sides of the conflict are placed on a map with nodes and routes between them. Some of the nodes hold key points or resources, while some are registered as routes of retreat for each side. You control the army of each lord you happen to have at your disposal, either letting them run wild or controlling them yourself. You can set them to move to a node, attack an enemy army, or occupy/destroy a significant point. At the surface, this seems like a fairly simple battle, but there is a fair bit of strategy involved. With skilful feints and uses of resources, armies can be lured into tactically advantageous positions, such as performing a pincer attack. Additionally, each commander has a unique skill that can be used to even the odds or ensure victory. For example, Nobunaga has a skill where he can command his musketmen to fire, causing damage at range, or he can activate his ability, Awakening, to gain improved attack and defence. These sections were very fun and engaging, though the AI was very untrustworthy, with my second army blazing a trail into the middle of enemy forces when I wasn’t looking. Additionally, the game has a habit of pausing the game to let one of your advisors shout out advice, such as 'THIS ARMY IS WEAK, ATTACK THEM', while I'm trying to command my army to attack them. These interruptions were frequent and got on my nerves, but they were only an issue in larger battles where multiple armies were ripe for the attack simultaneously.
Another case where we are able to take a more hands-on approach in combat is during sieges. When you are trying to occupy a castle— or protecting a castle from the same fate — you are able to siege them, blockading the target and waiting them out. As an alternative, you can also undertake an attack to take their main building by force! In these battles, the defender is encamped within their fortress, with multiple armies and resources that can be used to hinder the enemy or boost the defenders’ attributes. The attacker, on the other hand, is given multiple possible points of entry, allowing a smart daimyō to deploy their forces strategically. I think the fortress sieges were my favourite parts of the game, as the attacker has a very strict deadline to meet, with each destroyed resource or defeated enemy netting them precious seconds of time, whereas the defender is throwing out everything they can to delay and defeat the invading forces. It is said that the number of soldiers is second to a winning strategy, and this mode definitely followed the same logic. I found myself facing a much larger force with a minimal group of soldiers. By placing my troops and slowly drawing back, I was able to delay the enemy just enough that I was declared victor! Though, to be honest, they were seconds away from victory, and I'm not sure the result should count as my win. My only complaint is that I seemed to lose an inconceivable amount of troops to very small forces in this mode without explanation; a group of 1000 being bested by 100 felt a bit unfair. But again, this may have been my noobness showing!
In addition to being a grand strategy game, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening also prides itself on being a history sim. Other games, such as Crusader Kings, can also be attributed to this genre, but more often than not, this means that a game sets off from a relatively accurate historical starting point and ends in utter chaos when El Cid winds up as Emperor of the newly established Spanish-Roman empire. In Awakening, however, the scale of the game, both geographically and chronologically, is much smaller, taking place in glorious Nippon over a matter of decades. Due to this, the game can present relevant historical events and people without fear of the player changing history irreversibly. As you go about your daimyō business, your advisors will inform you of hearsay that has been going around. If you wish to know more, you will be given a summary of what clans this hearsay affects, who is involved, and what the results will be, if any. If you decide you want to see more, you will be presented with a small cutscene showing the event and characters in question. I think it is a really cool addition, as it adds a touch of life and authenticity to the world around you. However, the amount of hearsay you will be presented can be very disheartening, especially as the cutscenes can drag on and are a real flow killer. The game itself states that these are completely voluntary and can be skipped completely without repercussion, but I felt this was a waste since here was a chance to learn about one of the more important eras in Japanese history! I gave up after a while, though.
Additionally, when certain key dates are met, a more elaborate cutscene will play. These usually show a major historical event, more often than not related to the rise, life, and eventual fall of Oda Nobunaga. They are thankfully far enough apart that this is not an issue and are relatively short. The art style is easy on the eyes, and the backdrops are stunning. The characters themselves are 2D images that do not move or emote as such, but this is pretty common for the genre. These events also represent a possible large shift in the balance, as one such event may leave you as the lord of multiple new counties and warriors! If you are a history buff and know the intricacies of Japanese history, this may be an absolute treat for you! If you're like me, eager to learn but also restless and impatient, they may leave you reaching for the skip button.
In terms of visual design, the game looks good. It’s very faithful to its Japanese roots, looking very much the part. The main map view is gorgeous and surprisingly detailed, with the map even changing with the seasons. Relations between clans are apparent from a glance, and most commands are easy enough to intuit from their icons. The music design is also ok, though I will admit they did not stick with me. The gentle music became a background drone I hardly noticed, and I found myself switching to my own music or audiobooks before long; to its credit, this is an amazing game to play while catching up on your podcasts! In battles, the sounds are sharp and are used to accentuate the action, with each use of a special skill being preceded by a small moment of silence to give it that extra oomph. The main area where the game falls flat, though, is the English voice acting.
While Nobunaga himself sounds great, and some of the more prominent figures have ok voices, I noticed very quickly that some voices did not fit their character at all, with multiple leaders even having the same voice. This is understandable, as the game has an abundance of characters to voice, but I wish they had had a few more options to choose from. Now, normally I'd default to using Japanese voices for a game set in Japan, but for whatever reason, the VO language was tied to the language of the game! However, KOEI TECMO thankfully patched an option to change the VO language to Japanese after it was requested, which is a plus on their behalf!
When I started this review, I was set on giving it a below-average score. The game was difficult, the commands and intricacies hard to understand, and I kept losing. However, while writing this review, I realised something: I kept losing, but I also kept coming back to the game. There’s something about the energy the game has, the over-the-top visuals and the relative simplicity of the game kept me coming back, even when my advisor kept screaming about the same thing or when I kept getting stomped by other clans. It's not perfect, it may not even be great, but I do think it’s worth trying! There is a definite passion for this iconic period in Japan's history, and playing through the different scenarios with different clans ensures that there will be plenty of content to go around. There are some annoyances and issues, but when did a self-respecting daimyō let something like that stop them?
NOBUNAGA'S AMBITION: Awakening (Reviewed on Windows)
Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.
Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening is a fun game to sink a day, week, or lifetime into, but suffers from slightly confusing menus, odd AI, and “helpful” advisors. Regardless, the game kept me coming back time after time, trying to find my own Awakening.