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  1. Developer: Koei Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games Platform: PlayStation 4, PC Release Date: October 25, 2016 ESRB: T The past couple of years have seen something of a rebirth of Koei Tecmo“s historical strategy titles. Though their major franchises in the genre -- Nobunaga“s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms -- have never been put aside, both franchises were absent from the west during the PS3 console era. But both series have returned in a big way, starting with Nobunaga“s Ambition: Sphere of Influence last year and the release of Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII just a few months ago. And now, Nobunaga“s Ambition is back once again with a stand-alone expansion to Sphere of Influence entitled 'Ascension.' Ascension, like past Nobunaga“s Ambition titles, is set during the Warring States era of Japan“s history. The ultimate goal of the game is to unite all of Japan under the flag of one daimyo through a combination of diplomacy and tactical warfare. What sets Ascension apart from the original Sphere of Influence, however, is its greater focus on individual officers. Similar in nature to Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII, the player takes the role of an individual officer and plays their part in steering their faction toward victory. Where the officer-focused gameplay of Romace of the Three Kingdoms XIII is intensely complex, Ascension is relatively simpler by comparison, but by no means is it an easy game. Also, unlike Sphere of Influence and ROT3K13, there is no dedicated tutorial. Helpful prompts appear whenever the player is introduced to a new concept or gameplay element for the first time, but it will be much easier for players to come to grips with Ascension“s mechanics if they“ve previously invested time into Sphere of Influence. As a stand-alone expansion, Ascension maintains a tight focus on its core gameplay. After selecting an officer, each of whom is tied to a specific scenario, and starting a campaign, the player is thrust into their role and free to act. Lower-ranking officers are granted a domain of land to develop as they see fit and are presented a list of objectives to pursue that are meant as progress toward a larger goal. For example, before the faction“s daimyo will order an attack on a specific castle, the faction must first deliver a certain amount of iron, lumber, money, and supplies, raise a force of a certain size, improve stretches of road, and engage in smaller battles with enemy tribes. Once all of these objectives are met by the player and/or allied AI officers, the larger objective will be presented. If that objective is met, a new larger goal will be declared, and the player will be tasked with a new list of smaller objectives. Every time objectives are met, the player earns honor, and as honor increases, so to do the opportunities for promotion. At higher ranks, the player gains more autonomy and is free to take on objectives with more freedom, or convince the daimyo to pursue new objectives. The player“s officer can also become a daimyo, granting command over their entire force. Or not, as it“s possible to turn down promotions and remain at a lower rank if so desired. Whatever path is chosen, progress is made through a combination of civic development, warfare, and diplomatic endeavors. Properly developing an officer“s domain through the construction of facilities and building strong diplomatic ties will aid the player in building a force capable of taking on enemy factions, but tactical slip-ups can (and mostly likely will) result in setbacks. Alternatively, the player can choose to betray their faction by agreeing to join a rival or by breaking away from their patron clan to become an independent force, though these actions naturally carry their own risks. Primarily driven through menus, Ascension has a clean, clear interface. It does a fairly good job at imparting the information necessary, though it at times can become dense, and the importance of some statistics isn“t immediately obvious. Curiously, the game“s UI is by default set to a very small size that“s almost unreadable on a 1080p television display; the first thing I had to do upon starting the game was find the option to enlarge the text in the main settings menu. The same issue was present in Sphere of Influence, but I have yet to understand why the default is set as it is. Aside from the primary campaign gameplay, there are two major customization features at the player“s disposal. One is a standard officer edit feature that allows the player to edit the stats of historical officers, or to create new officers from scratch. Without any forced limits, the player can create officers that are as overpowered or underpowered as desired. The other feature is an option to create custom events that will trigger if specified criteria defined by the player are met during a campaign. For example, a specific officer can be granted a specific weapon upon another specific officer“s death. While an interesting feature to tinker with in theory, the user interface is difficult to come to grips with and may scare off a lot of players after only a few minutes of struggling to understand it. Ideally, custom event creation should only be approached by veterans looking to spend a lot of time in the editor to get the most out of it, but there are no apparent rewards for these efforts beyond personal satisfaction. At its core, Ascension is a worthwhile expansion to Sphere of Influence. Though the lack of a tutorial may be off-putting, it“s more immediately approachable than Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII and still offers many hours of freeform tactical gameplay. While I would recommend players begin with the original Sphere of Influence, Ascension is still a worthwhile entry in the Nobunaga“s Ambition series. Pros + Refined, officer-focused strategy gameplay. + Numerous options are available for customizing the difficulty and elements in a new campaign. + Beautiful artwork and music, most of which is taken from Sphere of Influence. + Earning PlayStation/Steam trophies also unlocks bonus officers. Cons - No dedicated tutorial. - The custom event creation interface is obtuse and difficult to use. - Some PC mouse controls map awkwardly to a PS4 controller. Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great Ascension is a worthwhile entry in the Nobunaga“s Ambition series. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher.
  2. Marshall Henderson

    Review: Pokemon Conquest

    Developer: Tecmo Koei Publisher: Nintendo Release Date: June 18, 2012 ESRB: E For Everyone Platform: DS Pokemon has always been a series about conquest. Very few games so thoroughly conquered the market as Pokemon Red Version and Pokemon Blue Version did back in the nineties, and even afterwards, the most poorly-received spin-offs sold by the millions. Even in the games themselves, players travel across the lands, punching Pokemon out and becoming the Muhammad Ali of Pokemon. Dungeon-crawling and pinball are nice distractions, but Pokemon as a series has always been about conquering. The commiserate themes make Nobunaga“s Ambition seem a ripe target for absorption into the glorious empire of Pokemon. Unfortunately, Pokemon Conquest is an object lesson in the fact that even the hardest fought battles can win little more than a pyrrhic victory. Pokemon Conquest follows the story of a young, player-named Warlord on the path to unify Ransei and bring about peace, in the only way that anyone of history knows how: violent warfare and taking everyone else“s land. The Warlord and his or her Eevee is joined by a woman named Oichi and her Jigglypuff, and the two of them get to work capturing each area. The biggest threat lies on the horizon, however, as Oda Nobunaga himself seeks to do the same, though as a seemingly more sinister character. For fans of Japanese history (or Omega Force/Koei“s Samurai Warrior), however, Pokemon Conquest offers plenty of familiar faces as the Warlord and Oichi do battle against the biggest names in Japan. It“s all about the Pokemon elements. The most exceptional part of Pokemon Conquest is how well it integrates the themes and feel of Pokemon, even to a fault. The writing has the sort of levity that one would expect from the series, with defeated enemy warlords being as impressed as they are friendly, even after the player kicks them out of their own castle. Everyone seems to have their own convictions and motivations, but they lack any sense of gravitas, seeming as arbitrary and capricious as the story itself. It“s fun, it“s light, but it sweeps the rug out from under the narrative. For the first half of the conquest, what the player is doing doesn“t seem to necessarily contribute to the main plot, and even afterwards, the plot only seems to gain meaningful traction in the last three or four areas out of seventeen. While Pokemon isn“t a series lauded and beloved for its potent storytelling, the primary goals are always present for the player, whereas this isn“t the case here. There“s enough story where it bottlenecks a player into battling against specific enemies at a specific time, but yet is sparse enough where players won“t really be able to really sink their teeth in. Once the player completes the main campaign, other stories, focused around the historical figures, unlock. Unlike the main story, these stories are more consistent and compelling, providing at least a little historical context to events, even if it isn“t in a particularly groundbreaking way. There“s a difficulty curve from one story to the next, so if players don“t find the game challenging, and there are likely many who won“t, then this is a chance to take a few beatings. After all, conquest is about the battles fought, and if there“s any strength that needs to be had, it“s this. Instead of having the four move set-up of the main series games, Pokemon each have one ability, generally one of their base type. Type advantage is still important, though stats are simplified to just Attack and Defense, instead of breaking them up with Special Attack and Special Defense. Different attacks, as expected, have different attack patterns, and require a certain degree of strategy and forcible maneuvering to line things up properly. This can be especially irritating when a Pokemon evolves, changing the attack they use and forcing the player to re-evaluate their strategy, but that isn“t necessarily a bad thing; dynamic strategy being forced on the player is the main way Pokemon Conquest stays challenging, as enemies conform to a fairly predictable pattern. When selecting a Pokemon in battle, the warlord trainers each have their own abilities that they can use on the Pokemon. Usually it“s some sort of stat-boosting ability or a healing ability, and these can really help out in a crunch. The trainer can also use the one item a Pokemon holds, if it is a usable item. This is all done before a command is issued to the Pokemon, so players don“t waste a turn doing this. Each Warlord has affinity with a specific Pokemon, determining how high their “Link” with that Pokemon can go, with a higher link being equitable to leveling up. Each warlord starts with a Pokemon for which they may not necessarily be ideal, but it“s entirely possible to link with other Pokemon. When the player maneuvers a warlord beside an unowned Pokemon, “Link” can be selected, initiating a rhythm-style minigame. The number of successful beats hit increases the link, and if all are hit in the first try, it usually leads to a link. Unfortunately, there“s no way of knowing what Pokemon is perfect for a trainer before going into battle. When a Pokemon is selected in battle, the enemy Pokemon will have an icon of either an X, a bronze circle, silver circle, or gold circle overhead, indicating what degree of link can be made, if any at all. This is very useful once IN the battle, but outside of battle, it isn“t visible at all. When attempting to build the best team possible, this is a huge shortcoming, as a perfect link can evolve both trainer and Pokemon. Hazards and bonuses are spread throughout areas, with things like healing hot springs being in some areas, while poison may be spread across the floor in another. Areas are diverse enough to avoid stagnation, but also not really different enough to make a player feel challenged or surprised, and certainly not enough to blow a player away. Much like with the Beckett-esque Pokemon art, the level designs are familiar, but not stunning. Combat is either “wipe out the enemy” or “capture/hold the banners,” so the level designs act more as strategic roadblocks than strategic boons, making players have to take the long way around something or just eat the effects taking damage or a bad status. There is never a point where the Nobunaga“s Ambition angle feels like it really comes into play. Yes, it“s a strategy game, and yes, it is about Japanese history, but it doesn“t have the careful economic or social micromanagement that goes into the strategy elder. Pokemon Conquest feels like a Pokemon SRPG with a heavily guided narrative and a Japanese backdrop, and neglecting the richness that Nobunaga“s Ambition could have brought seems like a huge misstep. Remixes for Pokemon are iconic, but Pokemon Conquest knows that a merger is necessary for taking this back to the past. While nothing jumps out as strictly an especially iconic Pokemon Jam, the type of music is very faithful to the original compositions, with a classic Japanese sound in the undertone. For any other faults with the game, the music is a statement to what the blend intended to do, but even it can fade into the background after grinding for Links or prowling for Pokemon. Still, when the time is just right, a few major events still bring the heat with some pretty sweet jams. No campaign of conquest is perfect. This is a fact that warriors and generals of all history have learned. There are missteps, losses, and poorly planned gambits, and the Pokemon Empire is familiar with these. Pokemon Conquest, however, snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. It“s a good game, it really is. There is joy to be had here, but it feels as though neither Pokemon nor Nobunaga“s Ambition fully brought their greatest strengths to bear. It is a win, but a win with a cost. Pros: + Combat and the Pokemon are diverse and entertaining + Music blended well between the two source series + Combination of trainers and Pokemon provides an interesting dynamic Cons: - Inconsequential story - Lack of clarity for Perfect Link - Area designs can be cumbersome Overall Score: 6 (Out of 10) Decent Pokemon Conquest is a game that will be fun for Pokemon fans, but less so for anyone else. It is an ambitious idea that never quite made it to shore.