Wow, it has been a while since I last blogged...
In order to tide me over the last few days until Christmas, I rented Samurai Warriors 2 Empires a few days ago. This is actually the first time I have ever played a game from Koei's "Musou" series, and the first game in the imperial strategy genre I have played since a few really old and pretty bad SNES games. I was pleasantly surprised with how fun and addicting this game is, on both its strategic empire management level and its tactical action game level.
Focusing on the strategic side for now, I am truly surprised that they created an empire management game other than Civilization 4 that has actually managed to grab me enough that I completed an entire scenario and unified all of Japan in two days. Buying Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV for the Virtual Console was a recent reminder of how much I really used to get bored and frustrated with the genre, and why I lost interest in it years ago, but now I realize I may not have been giving the evolution and refinement of the genre enough credit.
There are a lot of reasons this game in particular works so well. For one, the strategic side of the game is fairly streamlined and focused, and is built entirely around acquiring, managing, and improving the soldiers and resources you need in order to fight the tactical battles that are at the game's core. Details like food supplies and the happiness of the citizenry, which at best only have a minor effect on the actual tactical battles, are extremely simplified and reduced down to being minor and easily managed numbers. Having troop numbers be a property of officers, so you can manage the replenishment and movement of troops simply by working with the officers in command is also a nice touch, that keeps the emphasis on the way battles are fought and keeps the system easy to use, and gaining additional troops is a nice side benefit of leveling up officers. Finally, the "Consult" system that gives you get good advice, lets you accomplish more, and manage your empire more quickly by listening to your officers works very well. All told, the system is a lot of fun, though that does not mean it is perfect.
The game certainly has a few issues that can get bothersome. For one thing, you can only freely "Decree" most kinds of policy only after one of your generals has carried out that command using the "Consult" system, which can be extremely frustrating when you realize that there were some great policies available that simply never came up. Even more annoyingly, you can only use various Tactics in Free Mode after purchasing said tactic using "Consult", even if you acquired that tactic as a reward for victory and used it in an Empire Mode battle, which brings me to the problem that you pretty much need to acquire everything in Empire Mode in order to use it in Free Mode. That makes the main advantage of Free Mode, the versatility, a little bit more annoying, though it isn't as problematic as the unnecessarily confusing way character growth carried over from different sessions of Empire Mode into Free Mode, or even vice versa (or even between different playthroughs of Empire Mode, which seems to defeat half the point).
Actually, the character growth problem only aggravates an even more significant problem for the game: the raw difficulty in just sitting down and having a few fun battles with your favorite characters. This can only be done in Free Mode, but in order to unlock every character for use in Free Mode you need to play through the full unification of Japan at least twice, in two different time periods. Because some characters only appear in one time period, the carry-over of stats can be a bit problematic when half the characters you want to use in the second time period start at level one, while everyone else is a monster (and yes, I know you can turn that off, but there are consequences to that I can't quite predict). The fact that some characters from the first playthrough ended up a monsters and others simply did not makes it even more complicated (and I don't even know how to correct that). Beyond just unlocking these characters, simply trying to use them can be hard. There are only two dozen or so characters that have unique character models and abilities (the fun and effective characters), but there are hundreds of generic characters who share the same role, and the game doesn't do enough to let you easily distinguish them. Even in Free Mode you need to scroll through the complete list of hundreds in order to even find one of the fun characters, and in Empire Mode they can be painfully hard to track down and acquire. If nothing else, there are three specific factions of Empire Mode that have a large number of distinct characters and at least a dozen more factions that are filled with nothing but generic officers, and the game doesn't give a new player any guidelines on which are the "good" options. Not to mention I haven't even seen Miyamoto Musashi yet... Ultimately, thanks to the amount of work you need to do, setting up a given Free Mode battles is too much trouble to really even be good way of having a good random match even if you have unlocked everyone for that mode (some more automation would be nice).
My last major complaint is that the game doesn't even really try to pretend that the player and the CPU both abide by the same rules. The CPU doesn't share the player's officer limit and CPU officers don't need to participate in a battle to gain experience like the player's do (another place where carrying over experience growth is problematic, though this one is weird even in across a single Empire Mode playthrough as you acquire more former enemies as player officers). Alliances with CPU opponents can be one-sided in their favor, since they can call on the player to help fight their battles but you can't call on them (if there is a way, I haven't found it yet). If you defeat an enemy province or push back an enemy assault, you would be lucky to have captured one or two enemy officers across the course of the battle, but if the enemy defeats you, then you stand a chance of watching nearly every officer who participated in that fight (and some who didn't) get captured, and since the CPU doesn't have a real officer limit, it means the enemy is likely to hire every good soldier in your army (including the fun and loyal officers you heavily depend upon). The last one is particularly bad, since it means losing isn't even an option you can really accept in the game, and it means there is a severe inequity in how easy it is to acquire new officers (particularly the powerful and fun unique ones).
One final, and fairly minor complaint I have about the strategic side of the game also extends into the tactical side. Namely, I can't seem to figure out if there is any kind of reasonable difference between generals and lieutenants. You bring an equal number of both into battle, so it is not that one outnumbers the other, and it is not really a reflection of power either, since you can assign any officer to be either a general or lieutenant. Only generals can give advice for the "Consult" option, but because you have so many the game tends to clog that option up with a bunch of generic characters (making the notable leanings individual characters have toward particular policies harder to sort out). It doesn't affect what they do in battle, since they all seem to act equally anyways. It seems like is either an unnecessary distinction or a failed opportunity, and if it is neither than it really hasn't come across in the game at all.
Still, I have been having a lot of fun with the game, so it certainly shines despite the flaws. Unless I get caught up with the games I will be getting as presents tomorrow, I will probably write about the combat side of the game next time. But for now...