Review

Sengoku Review (PC)

Four years after his father's death, Tozawa Hidemori married his widowed mother. It was a decision intended to restore honour to the family’s name, and he had to tread carefully. Prior to the old man's passing, the clan had been waging a war against its neighbours. This decision to throw reason to the wind had split public opinion of the ruling family. Civil war was brewing.
 
Japaninsula
Never mind that the wars were successful. It was conflict that transformed the Tozawa clan from a single-territory clan to one that occupied the northern tip of Japan. It numbered six lands and more conquests were beckoning. Hidemori made one mistake though. Three years into his rule, he sent envoys to the northern territories – he wanted control again. His father had installed a uppity vassal and a lack of direct control was playing on his mind.

His Master of Arms declined. Honour plunged. Armies begun to march in the face of a clan schism. With Hidemori’s troops deployed in the south, the pretender put into action a long-planned plot. Hidemori fell on his sword four years later after a drawn out war destroyed the hard work of his father. Game over.

Playing Paradox's latest grand-strategy game, Sengoku, requires a rather active imagination. It’s often the case with map-based strategy titles. They’re blueprints for fun, full of stats that allow you to realise your military dreams. Obviously if you lack that creative gene, Sengoku will be a dull slog through a digitised atlas. However, with the right approach, Sengoku shifts into a blank slate, ripe for storytelling. It’s a feudal Japanese canvas awaiting a masterpiece.

It's primed for (self) narrative weaving. It begins with the player being presented with an overwhelmingly detailed map of Japan. There’s little advice on who you should choose. Several famous conflicts are available to play, but that’s just a gentle nudge in the direction of a powerful, easier faction. Those wanting a challenge should get away from central Japan and focus on building an empire in the further reaches.

Obviously only experts at history will be familiar with the timeframe. Even with my recently found love of Japan, (following a personal visit), I struggled to put the map into context. Whatever your choice, it’ll ultimately define what type of game you'll play. Should you go for the economic powerhouse – one that flexes its income over others, buying its way out of tricky spots? Maybe you favour military might – vast levied armies awaiting your beck and call?

I've always preferred the reclusive state - the single territory empire which slowly grows unbeknownst to anyone. A sleeping dragon ready to strike others while they’re off tormenting their own rivals. It’s Pearl Harbour personified - how very Japanese of me.
 
Jastats
Yet for all its Risk-like swordplay, Sengoku is more concerned with diplomacy. Alongside the traditional tax income is Honour - a useable currency intended to limit aggressive actions. For example, declaring war requires a huge chunk of your honour. This cleverly prevents anyone from plunging the country into combat mass combat. It makes you think about your actions, carefully plan your choices, and avoid rushing into anything. It sounds like real war.

If your Honour drops too low you have the option to jump on your sword and let your heir restore your name (if you run out of heirs, you lose). This cap on aggression obviously slows the game down and those interested in Shogun style warmongering will be salivating for something more aggressive.

This might be Sengoku’s main problem – if people appraoch this game with the wrong mind-sight, they’ll make mistakes. (Although it's an easy thing to do - even other Paradox titles promote warfare more than this game). Again, it’s more of an interactive storybook - not The Art of War. It’s chock full of hundreds of characters, each with their own ambitions, families and traits. Everything interlinks dynamically which leads to a different game every time.

The end aim, controlling 50% of Japan and hold for three years, is always the same, but the stories that grow from your efforts are never repeated. The biggest issue is getting players past the first page. To call Sengoku daunting is flattering. Its learning curve can be compared to Mt. Fuji - ridiculously steep until you reach the summit - once you've struggled past its lack of tutorials and support, you'll wonder why you ever had a problem in the first place. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill.

A less than intuitive interface creates the majority of its issues. For example hints explain how components function, but not how they relate to real world examples. When you decide to do something, knowing how to do it is half the issue. This can lead to frustrating menu flicking hoping an answer is revealed.

When you finally do understand what's going on, a lot of the time sees you sitting, doing nothing as time is shunted to maximum. To prevent imbalanced building, you can only improve one city's military / commercial buildings at one time. To get round this you can provide a clan member control of territories. You can still raise armies, but you don’t have direct say over what’s built. Obviously ensuring they're loyal and not plotting to overthrow you is important.
 
Japlanning

Sengoku
is an interesting mix. If it wasn’t so daunting, it’d pick up more fans. It’s a setting that’s seen rarely in video games. European conflict dominates the strategy landscape and seeing a fresh perspective is very welcome. The fact it’s addictive and enjoyable is even better. This is history made fun. All it needs is a better tutorial system – some handholding through the cherry blossoms. That said, if you give it time to show its strengths you won’t regret it, especially if you’re a historical strategy fan.


Top Game Moment: Ninjas. That is all.

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Comments

By Psychotica (I just got here) on Sep 19, 2011
Psychotica
I just don't get why this development group just refuses to develop tutorials. Why?! Their games sound great but they couldn't care less about teaching people how to play them. Their attitude is that it's perfectly acceptable to let players waste 20 hours trying to understand the game. I downloaded the demo then deleted it once I saw it had no tutorial. I am not wasting any more of my time and money because I already have several Paradox games without tutorials as it is.
By nocutius (SI Elite) on Sep 19, 2011
nocutius
"...some handholding through the cherry blossoms"
Someone is a romantic :)
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Sep 19, 2011
SirRoderick
@Psychotica
But if you already have several paradox games...you know how to play this anyway. I agree with you that it's a questionable decision at best, but this really is one of the simplest games they have, it took me about 15 minutes.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Sep 19, 2011
Kres
Would you compare it to EU Rome Sir Roderick? But probably more like a true EU game? EU Rome was real simple. I loved it. Still play it here and there.
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Sep 20, 2011
SirRoderick
Actually they are quite similar, yes. Given an expansion, like Rome, I really think this will be better. For the moment, they are about the same in complexity.