Sometimes it feels like there are two types of video game enthusiasts: those who adore strategy titles and those who can't stand them. It's a divisive genre that often demands patience, planning, and a lot of practice, but all of the best strategy games reward you appropriately for the amount of time and effort that you sink into them. In other words, you get back what you put in.
Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence is easily one of the most in-depth releases currently available on the PlayStation 4, and it absolutely fits the above description of the strategy genre. This is a title that you can pump hundreds of hours into and still find new ways to play; its countless systems and intricacies create an experience that's shockingly dynamic, but as you'd expect, such detail makes it seem almost impenetrable to anyone who hasn't dabbled in the genre before.
To the title's credit, it tries its best to introduce you to the workings of such a robust strategic offering. There's a reasonably meaty tutorial campaign that teaches you the basics of developing your castle and its surrounding lands as well as the fundamentals of combat, and the game will throw up numerous info boxes when you're feeling your way through a campaign for the first time, too.
As you can imagine, though, there's only so far that text boxes can get you when you're trying to absorb such a massive amount of new information. Ultimately, you're going to have to get stuck in and try stuff out for yourself, subsequently learning from your mistakes – and this is something that simply won't sit well with everyone. Trial and error becomes a natural process when you're just starting out on your path to unify Japan, but if you can overcome these rocky beginnings, Sphere of Influence blossoms into a thoroughly addictive and satisfyingly cerebral experience.
If the name of the release didn't give it away, Nobunaga's Ambition has you take on the role of a historical figure of your choosing during Japan's most famous feudal period. Featuring scenarios that stretch from the birth of Nobunaga – one of the most successful warlords of the era – right up until the nation's eventual unification, the goal is to bring Japan under your rule through a mix of diplomacy and good old fashioned bloodshed.
In order to detail everything that the game has to offer, we'd have to write a review at least three times as long as this, so you'll have to forgive us for glazing over a few of the title's finer points. In essence, Sphere of Influence is a very methodical release that rewards careful planning and forward thinking. Whether you're playing as a famous warlord who already has a hefty amount of land and resources or you're in control of your own custom ruler who barely has an army to their name, you're always going to be moving towards a specific, short-term objective that you've either set for yourself, or taken on as advice from your subordinates.
These smaller goals, like developing farmland to a certain degree or increasing the amount of trading in your region eventually add up to the larger objective of crushing your competitors. Everything plays out on a big and reasonably detailed map of Japan, but most of the time, especially in the early hours of the game, you'll be watching over your own territory and patiently planting the seeds of your empire.
Fortunately, pacing is something that the title gets very right. While in the beginning it'll no doubt be a bit too slow to keep the interest of those who aren't particularly invested in the history or the genre as a whole, it's fair to say that once you've brought a decent amount of land under your control, proceedings instantly acquire a different feel. Suddenly, you're delegating orders to your computer controlled generals and making decisions that have huge ramifications for both your allies and your enemies, and it's this constant sense of progression that acts as the game's hook.
The title's gameplay loop is similarly well done. After plotting your course for the month – you may wish to recruit new soldiers or forge an alliance with a neighbouring clan, for example – you then move into a phase where time passes and your orders are carried out. Once that's complete, the calendar moves to the next month, and you do it all again. But of course, things are never quite as monotonous as they might sound. Within that passage of time, your foes may deploy troops and begin marching towards one of your castles, or a historical event could occur, forcing the political landscape to change. As a result, it feels as though you really are navigating through a twisting and turning time of war as you're given no choice but to adapt to each situation.
However, it's the sheer amount of options that are open to you which really cement the release as a rock solid strategy game. From the ability to spread distrust amongst your enemy's most prized warriors to the fact that you can simply demand a rival clan's immediate surrender if your army's imposing enough, there's never just one way to reach your goal. You'll be questioning each choice, no matter how small, and at times, your plans are bound to come unstuck – but this is also what makes the release so rewarding. When you decide to satisfy a clan's demands and work towards building an alliance, you may not think too much of it at first, but when their reinforcements come to your aid just as you're about to lose a vital location on the map, you can almost hear the cogs clicking into place – and what a satisfying click it is.
Combat is the same, offering an increasingly large amount of options as you expand your influence and grow your armies. Each and every officer has their own tactic – basically a special move of sorts – and the diversity on show means that no two battles are ever quite the same. Clashes can either be managed manually – which is recommended when it's an especially important brawl – or you can leave your commanding officers to get on with it. When you're busy dishing out orders to numerous castles dotted around the region, you'll likely end up adopting a more hands-off approach, but combat still proves to be a highlight once you've got a grasp on how it all fits together.
Occurring in real-time, you'll often have to think quickly when it comes to the tactical combat system, although it is worth mentioning that you do have the option of pausing time if things should get a little too hectic. The basis of battle is all about positioning your available units, with each squad being led by one of your named officers. In the bigger clashes, which crop up once you've raised a sizeable army, you'll need to regularly flick your cursor around the battlefield as you adjust the movement and positioning of your troops. It can certainly seem a bit finicky at first, but with enough practice, combat can become surprisingly intense – particularly if you've opted to set permanent officer deaths to 'on' in the options menu.
The previously mentioned officer-specific tactics can be absolutely vital to your success thanks to their various effects, and making good use of them can even turn the tide during seemingly hopeless battles. In one instance, things were looking grim as we came up against a massive army that we couldn't possibly match in size, but by utilising a certain warrior's skill which provoked and drew the enemy's main unit closer, we were able to flank it and wipe out the opposition's leader, which caused the rest of our aggressors to fall into total disarray. It's memorable moments like this where Sphere of Influence is at its best, rewarding you for making calculated risks and seizing the opportunity.
Our story may not have ended so happily, however. All it takes is for one enemy general to have a particular tactic that negates your own, and when that happens, it's once again a case of adapting to the worsening situation as quickly as you can. Indeed, decisions can blow up in your face in what feels like an instant, but you shouldn't be put off by the game's sometimes merciless difficulty. When setting up a new campaign, you're free to edit the difficulty settings in any way that you want; you can tweak how fast your troop numbers recover, for example, or you can make it so that your foes do less damage in combat while you dish out more – you can even decide how clever the artificial intelligence should be. As such, it's safe to say that Sphere of Influence is a very customisable release, which is appreciated, given its obvious complexity.
That said, there is one area where the game could have allowed for a little more player optimisation – and that's the user interface. Sporting just one relatively ineffective option to make icons and text boxes larger, it's clear that the game was designed for a mouse rather than a controller. From the way that you have to drag the cursor to the edges of the screen to explore the map, to the scrollbars which sit at the sides of menus, it all feels out of place when you've got a DualShock 4 sitting in your hands. Needless to say, the title's already inaccessible enough to newcomers without having to wrestle with the controls as well.
If you've been patiently waiting for a deep and engaging PS4 strategy title, look no further than Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence. While it certainly doesn't do anything new to win over those who aren't fans of the genre, it does more than enough to sap away the hours of anyone who's willing to wrap their head around its complex workings. And although its move to consoles could have been better executed, you'll still struggle to find a more rewarding experience on Sony's latest machine.