[20 September 2011]
If there’s a genre of game that PC gamers can expect to secure their future in an increasingly console heavy market, it’s the RTS. Real-time strategies require more finesse and complexity than a controller can provide and they require a patience and skill that no console game can match. Given how impossible they are to replicate on a console, it’s no surprise that there have been a plethora of strategies being released every year. Among them is the recently released Sengoku, an RTS based in feudal age Japan. But while it does most of what is expected out of an RTS, it’s no Age of Empires.
Sengoku throws the player into one of a list of feudal Japanese conflicts, where they can represent one of the many clans that ruled Japan during the feudal ages. The goal in each of these scenarios is to control and hold at least 50% of Japan’s provinces for 36 in-game months. Which lord you choose to play as will determine the difficulty: lords beginning with a large head start will have an easy time expanding their rule while smaller lords will be at the grind a lot longer.
There are two currencies in the game that must be monitored: honour and money. Money is collected by each province the player rules and is spent on recruiting soldiers or sending gifts to other warlords. Honour, on the other hand, is spent by interacting with other lords. Negotiating truces, offering clan membership and exchanging hostages all cost the player honour; succeeding in these trades or winning battles will net more honour. If the player runs out of honour, than they must commit seppuku (suicide) to regain some of their honour and pass their empire onto their first male heir. The game is over if they have no male heirs.
The honour system works better in theory than in practice largely because most interactions between lords are empty options. It seems the only way to really gain any territory in the game is through military expansion. And whether or not that may be the history of feudalism, it doesn’t make for a good game and it feels much like half of the game is missing. Exchanging hostages with other lords, offering (or accepting) daughters for marriage, and sending gifts barely alter each lord’s opinion of you and it’s never clear what impact other lords’ opinions have on the game. The most effective way of making any ground is to pool your armies together and to burn through as much territory as possible before the army runs into something too big to take down.
That said, the strategising in the game is fairly strong. Each territory comes with a constantly growing troop of up to 750 soldiers. Moving your armies around territories, combining them, disbanding them when they get weak and reinforcing them all takes a satisfying amount of planning and nearby enemies are always ready to slip into any cracks in your defence. Moving, attacking and defending feels fluid and natural, with well executed plans resulting in huge gains and miscalculations costing significant setbacks. Unfortunately, moving armies about is all there is to the game.
The player can improve villages to increase income or build better castles that are easier to defend, but these actions seem to take forever. For all the time it takes to improve a province, and with the benefits so far off in the future it isn’t likely to have any impact, it’s almost not even worth what little effort it takes to complete these improvements. The player is also given the option to try to improve relations with other clans, but again, it takes so long and the result is so insignificant that it’s not even a noticeable feature. There are enough options when clicking on unowned territory to suggest that there are ways outside of conquest to reach the goal. But in reality, the only commands that matter are the ones issued to the armies. The player can never buy, barter, connive or negotiate their way to victory.
Beyond feeling incomplete, there are other spotty issues that ruin the experience. Spelling mistakes peppered through tutorial pages damn the game from the beginning and make the experience feel as though it were rushed by a team that never got to make the game they wanted to. The soundtrack is pleasant and matches the Japanese aesthetic, but otherwise the game could just as easily take place on the moon. There’s little sense of setting and before long the consequences of each action diminish in value. Each campaign scenario does pique the player’s interest with a paragraph explaining the history of the major clans and the scenario as it happened in real life, but that, again, is too shallow to be really engaging.
Many of these issues are not deal breakers, and at its best Sengoku is compelling and enjoyable. But it’s a brief ride and one that ends quickly. The game promises so much more than it can offer, and maybe with more time the developers could have put everything they apparently wanted into the game. But as it is the finished product leaves a lot to be desired.