16th century warlord Oda Nobunaga never quite managed to unify Japan under his control, but he gave it a damned good go. Ruthless and strategically brilliant, he understood that wars aren’t won solely through military might – to defeat your enemies, you have to have a strong economic foundation, superior weapons, and a powerful network of allies to call upon. Let’s just ignore the fact that he was ultimately betrayed and murdered by those same allies. Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence challenges you to go one step further than the great man managed, and bring the entire island of Japan under the iron grip of your clan.
Rather than a grand campaign, Sphere of Influence offers several start points set at key points in Nobunaga’s life, as well as some that take place in the chaotic vacuum of power after his death. Though there’s the option of playing things out historically, following quest chains that tell the story of what really happened, you’re not restricted to controlling one clan, or even real-life figures – you can create your own ruler if you wish, and there’s a respectable suite of options for setting up a unique custom game.
Once you’ve chosen a ruler and started a campaign, the initial setup is familiar grand strategy stuff; you start, depending on your choice of period, with a few major holdings scattered around the map. These are your feudal castles and their surrounding villages, forming the bread baskets and manpower reserves for your budding Shogunate. Each of these holdings can be upgraded, developed and secured with military fortifications by spending ‘labor’ reserves – this builds up depending on the number of civilians at your disposal, and in the early stages is a key resource. Later on you’ll have all the peasant labour you need and more.
Number one tip - always be negotiating
Sphere of Influence gets markedly less fun when you have a sizeable empire to take care of. This is a familiar problem with games in this genre; once you have dozens of holdings to worry about, managing them all and dealing with hordes of disloyal retainers becomes a tedious headache. Sphere of Influence’s often obtuse interface doesn’t help matters. Menus are unintuitive, and cluttered with statistics and concepts that aren’t well explained. You’re bombarded with pop-ups from your various retainers, and generally bogged down with micromanagement that isn’t very fun or interesting.
On a more positive note, Sphere of Influence does a nice line in diplomacy, offering you plenty of options to help secure your position. In other games in this genre diplomacy often feels like an odd afterthought, a token gesture that might give you a few rounds to breathe before the AI inevitably betrays you. Here it’s far more reliable, and essential to would-be conquerors. If you simply gather your armies and start running roughshod over neighbouring clans, you’ll quickly find alliances and coalitions springing up against you. Even at the height of their power, Nobunaga’s Oda clan can’t take on the whole of Japan. Instead you have to send out your smoothest talkers and secure your relations with clans you’re not immediately interested in conquering, creating a network of support that will provide you with extra troops in the event of a coalition attack.
You can't accuse Sphere of Influence of lacking content – there are lots of different scenarios to try out, and countless leaders to play
There’s a range of different approaches to employ. You can opt for straightforward negotiation, bribe greedy leaders with looted treasure, and even work on enemy generals’ loyalty over time, swaying them to the point where they will immediately surrender if you pass through their lands on your way to defeat their leader. It’s a complex web of alliances of convenience and minor betrayals that offers a more personal, Machiavellian take on war – you won’t become Shogun merely by excelling at warfare. Which is good news, because the real-time battles are a bit of a mess.
Forces are represented by wedges on the campaign map, and you can either order them around manually, or issue mass deployment orders to summon all your levies to a certain region at once. If they bump into an enemy army as they march forward, they’ll start hammering away at each other. You aren’t forced into the real-time battle mode – you can let the AI do all the work, but if the situation is dicey, you’ll need to hop in and take control yourself.
Battles manage to somehow make samurai versus samurai warfare dull. Impressive
Unlike the strict rock-paper-scissors approach of games like Total War, in Sphere of Influence you’re given blobs of generalised troops; infantry, cavalry and ranged units all bunched up together. Rather than setting your formation out, picking away at the opposing army with your archers and breaking their infantry with a well-timed cavalry charge, you just sort of point your units at the enemy and let them get on with it.
Effectiveness in battle is really about the commanders you have at your disposal, rather than the grunts doing the fighting and dying. Each unit is lead by one of your retainers, and each of these has a set of abilities to use in battle that are dependant on their individual traits – skilled cavalry leaders can close with the enemy more quickly, while musket specialists can decrease reload times. There’s a slight pleasure to be found in activating these powers at just the right time to cause maximum carnage, but there’s little real sense of impact thanks to the combat engine’s muddy, ugly graphics and awkward animations. Hero abilities are a little dose of tactical variety that sadly can’t prevent battles from feeling like an awkward, clunky chore.
NOBUNAGA’S AMBITION: SPHERE OF INFLUENCE VERDICT
You can avoid fighting them at all, of course, but that leaves the game feeling a bit lacking. The diplomacy is well done, but without a robust battle system and satisfying nation-building to back it up, the game feels like it’s missing something – it’s all build-up with no pay-off. It’s a shame, because Sphere of Influence does some interesting things with the standard grand strategy formula. The way it mixes historical storytelling with freeform play is commendable, as is its focus on the political, personal side of military campaigning. Unfortunately, it falls at the final hurdle. Much like Nobunaga himself, in fact.
TOP GAME MOMENT
When you’ve stored up enough loot to start bribing enemy generals into turning the other way, aggressive expansion becomes a whole lot easier.
Strong diplomacy system
Interesting blend of freeform play and historical quests
Clunky and simplistic combat
Graphics are very bland, especially for the £49.99 price point on Steam.