Of the many Japanese games I've played, there are surprisingly few titles that tackle Japan as a subject, particularly with regard to history. Sure, the likes of Sengoku BASARA and Way of the Samurai are set during the time of the samurai, but their view of the events that shaped the nation is deliberately skewed, cheerfully warped into fun-house angles, rather than examined through a magnifying glass. Besides the eternal Nobunaga's Ambition franchise, I've yet to find a "realistic" Japanese history game.
Which is where the foreigners come in. Specifically, a bunch of happy history buffs located Horsham, the United Kingdom. Known as The Creative Assembly, they lit the landscape of strategy games in 2000 like the rising sun does to Glorious Nippon, with Shogun: Total War. Their hybrid of turn-based nation-building and real-time warfare delighted fans of both medieval warfare and Sengoku-period Japan alike.
Since then they've taken their Total War formula global, visiting ancient Rome, doing two tours in middle-age Europe, and stumbling about in the gunpowder age
Now with Total War: Shogun 2, they're back home in Japan. And from the looks of it, this is where their heart is.
Total War: Shogun 2 (PC)
To be frank, had I not known that the developers were from the UK, I'd have thought this to be a game made by native Japanese, a lovely tribute to their country's greatness. Well, it still is a lovely paean to Japan's greatness, and it's clear that The Creative Assembly understand what it takes to capture that soul, aesthetically and mechanically.
Veterans of the franchise will recognize that Total War stamp over much of the basic gameplay. They'll pick a faction drawn from a "Who's Who" list of Sengoku-era clans, which will determine their starting locations as well as opening bonuses. The Oda's masterful use of lowly foot soldiers grant bonuses to those units in battle, and the Takeda are feared for their mighty cavalry charge. The aggressive spirit of the Date clan is shown in the viciousness of its nodachi-wielding samurai, and the Shimazu's noble bloodline attracts the strongest swordsmen and most loyal generals. Differences such as those give the game an authentic feeling, lending every clan a distinct character and strategic outlook.
That distinctly Japanese flavor, though, comes in the form of "Mastery of the Arts", a special, tech-tree like table governing access to certain buildings, bonuses, and units. Divided into the ways of "Bushido" and "Chi", mastering the two paths confers benefits on the tactical and strategic level, putting the daimyo in charge of his clan's growth. Will unlocking the Sake Den (and the availability of ninja) earlier help the clan subvert its enemies, or will building Buddhist Temples to gain the use of fearsome warrior-monks allow for more glory on the battlefield? Managing priorities in that fashion can make every step along the path to Kyoto feel unique.
And Kyoto is always the end destination. The heart of the shogunate and seat of the emperor, every campaign has taking its massive citadel and holding it for a year as the final objective. After all, you're out to become shogun, not fool around in the sticks like a mountain monkey. The trick, of course, is in how to get there.
After all, the age being that of the "Warring States", and the franchise title being Total War, Shogun 2 is pretty much sending your state to war against their states. Diplomacy is for buying time and friends to use as stepping stones to the shogunate. That said, diplomacy actually works this time. Neighbors and rivals alike will (generally) react in a logical manner, waiting for a reasonably good opportunity to stab you in the back (or not, as your clan's "honor" serves as a critical factor in opening negotiations).
They'll even form treaties among themselves to halt your aggressive expansion. In one particularly grueling trial, a neighbor to the southeast, reeling from its ill-thought war with me, sought (and got) an alliance with my powerful northern neighbor, giving it ample opportunity to strike straight at my capital. My victory was hard-fought, and in the end, the dishonorable southeastern curs lay broken and conquered, and the northern fools shamed into becoming my vassals.
And battles can indeed be hard-fought. The real-time AI is smarter about screening its weaker missile troops behind powerful infantry. It takes advantage of territory, and its cavalry will finally shy away from coming straight at the tips of my spears.
It's not perfect, though. Some exploits that worked way back when still tend to work now, and human generals more competent than I (and I'm quite incompetent) will likely find the game too easy. Sieges are more entertaining thanks to the (historically accurate) fact that Japanese castle walls could be scaled without the aid of ladders and siege towers, making any assault (or defense) a multi-front affair, with the defenders often being attacked from multiple sides.
Naval combat is also streamlined (i.e. not broken), mainly because Japan's coastal, oar-driven battle barges maneuver more like land tanks, ending up less...cantankerous than Empire's sailships. Unfortunately, the side effect of that (historically accurate) simplification makes naval encounters boring, coming down to numbers and easily autoresolved.
It's not all mechanics, though. Shogun 2's real appeal, for myself at least, is in its character. Where games like BASARA use exaggeration and craziness to establish lasting figures (who could forget Honda Tadakatsu as a giant robot, or Oda Nobunaga as a red-eyed demon?), Shogun 2 uses level-up systems to attach players to their agents and generals. Skilled operators grow their own retinues and acquire personality quirks and special traits. A ninja might journey with a bloody-minded sushi chef (to augment his assassination skills), or a bow-loving general might take a personal archery range with him to improve the performance of his ranged units.
Genuine inspiration permeates the game's aesthetic, from the colorful fluttering of soldiers' banners to the stylized rendition of the passing seasons on the campaign map (sakura-pink spring gives way to verdant green summer, transitioning to sunset-red fall and stark white winter), to the little touch that unexplored territory is represented as ink-on-parchment illustration, rising into 3D once mapped out. Battling soldiers animate small, interpersonal duels rather than clipping through each other like stiff dolls, and everywhere, light bloom and shiny surfaces abound. War may be hell, but hell is damned pretty.
It's not just visual, either. Before battle generals give context-sensitive pep-talks to their men (in Japanese, with subtitles), hurling insults at the cowardly peasants on the other side and praising the honorable warriors of their own. Battlefield advisers grow livid, cursing the "shameful display" of your units routing. Ukiyo-e-style prints decorate the interface buttons, loading screens display death poems, and entries from the in-game manual/encyclopedia all begin with passages from various war chronicles and period documents.
For Total War veterans, Shogun 2 feels like a return to the franchise's roots, reestablishing the soul that many felt had been diluted by feature-creep and overreaching sprawl over the last decade. For Japan-fans, the game feels like that much-needed look at Glorious Nippon's history through the lens of participation, a collection of immersive "what-ifs" and "should-haves" that passive documentaries and dry history books can never quite replicate.
Score: 9.0 – Fantastic. Negligible flaws. Otherwise very, very good; a fine example of excellence in the genre.
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