Historical strategy games have always seemed to show a European bias; from Roman times onwards Europe has been a hotbed of diplomatic intrigue and violent warfare, fractured into many shards until the rise of nationalism. However, for those of us versed in world history there is an alternative setting that would fit this style of game. It is an even more insular culture that until the birth of the modern world was happy to spend its time and energy plotting, fighting and otherwise making trouble for itself. I’m talking, of course, about Japan. For such an abundant setting to have really only produced the two Total War: Shogun games is a real shame, and with Sengoku Paradox Interactive seek to offer gamers a new option.
Sengoku is a character based strategy game set in the Warring States period of Feudal Japan, or the Sengoku period as it is properly known. Hence the title. You play the head of a family from one of many clans in 15th Century feudal Japan. The overall aim of the game is to eventually control enough of Japan to be able to declare yourself Shogun, and then survive the ensuing crap storm. Oh and it is also helpful if you can avoid getting knifed in the back by your own family members.
As the game starts you have the option to choose which family you would like to head. Not only are you free to decide to pick a family who also heads up a clan, but you can also decide upon a family who are vassals to a clan leader. As you can expect this adds a new level of complexity entirely as before you can begin your rise to Shogun you must first successfully manoeuvre out of the clutches of your ruling clan. Sengoku clearly isn’t intended to cater for the crowds who clamber for easy victory, and instead rewards the armchair general who is prepared to play the long game.
To accomplish your rise to Shogun you have to utilise all of the various tools at your disposal. Naturally you can raise armies of samurai and ashigaru with which to destroy foolish rivals and unprepared neighbours. You will have to wield your diplomatic skills to create alliances and gain vassals which then increases the number of levied armies you can raise. In addition to this you’ll need to keep your current vassals content, otherwise they may gain delusions of grandeur and out you as clan leader. Should you prefer your diplomacy to be of the non-verbal variety you can recruit ninja clans to create ninjitsu flavoured mayhem.
Those new to the grand strategy games of Paradox Interactive may feel somewhat daunted when faced by the mechanics and concepts of such a game, especially considering the lack of a tutorial. Luckily they are helped by each of the various screens having associated tutorial text that explains what the various functions do. Even if you have never played a grand strategy style of game before there is no need to worry about over the complexity; sure it requires you to think, but you’re playing a strategy game not World of Button Mashing!
In order to fund your conquest of Japan you need a combination of resources. The first of these is cold hard cash with which you can hire retainers for your character, providing him with his own private army. To increase your tax revenues you will need to develop the demesnes under your direct control - other provinces under your influence will belong to your vassals and so you have no direct control over their development. This is one aspect of the game which comes across as pretty basic. . . There are three actions you can take to build up your provinces. You can develop the village to increase tax revenue, you can build up the castle to improve defence against sieges as well as improving the province ability to raise levies and you can create Guild slots which allow you to build further improvements that provide specialised benefits. Unfortunately the only development aspects you have any control over are what you choose to fill the guild slots with, everything else progresses in a linear fashion. This focuses attention on the overall core elements of the game, but it does feel like an opportunity for appropriate micromanagement have been lost.
The other resource that you will need to consider in your rise to Shogun is your character’s honour. Rather than being an abstract concept, honour in Sengoku is a tangible resource just as important as your tax revenue and ability to raise levies. Gained through certain character traits and performing honourable actions like giving gifts to the Emperor, honour is needed to perform certain actions. It is a necessity should you wish to be successful in the arena of diplomacy. Some actions, such as relentless war mongering on your hapless neighbours will quickly see your honour depleted. If your honour is reduced to 0 then your character will be forced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide by disembowelment, thus ending your character’s bid to become Shogun. However one nice touch by Paradox is that you can then continue the game playing as the deceased daimyo’s heir, but if you have no heir then it is game over. Honour is a nice touch by Paradox and provides not only a mechanic to prevent steam rolling your way to victory through mass conquest but also enables a more in-depth utilisation of diplomacy to achieve victory.
Sengoku is looking likely to launch as an enjoyable and solid strategy game, particularly if you’re more interested in diplomacy than development. Given the character driven focus of the game it is the interactions between characters where the game really shines. Marriage, plots, eliminating rivals and keeping underlings in order adds a level of depth to diplomacy not found in a lot of more combat oriented strategy games.
Sengoku will be released on PC on 13th September 2011.