IGN Review of Nobunaga's Ambition: Iron Triangle
I've joked (even today on our podcast, actually) that the Nobunaga's Ambition series is reviewers' kryptonite. It's such a meaty, insanely lengthy and, yes, at times borderline tedious affair that expecting any sane person to get through it in any realistic amount of time is, frankly, impossible. Even with a good month straight of playing the game, I doubt I could have actually finished three different modes the game has to offer in their entirety.
Such is the level of depth and the languid pace (even on the highest speed setting) that the series asks of the player, and as such it's hardly for everyone. Those that can stomach spending dozens of hours just trying to get through one of the scenarios in the game's main Unification Mode will find, just as they likely would have with the previous games, that this is one of the deepest, most rewarding console strategy series in existence, rivaled only by KOEI's own Romance of the Three Kingdoms franchise.
I'm one of those poor saps that still digs KOEI's bread and butter -- the Warriors (Dynasty or Samurai, take your pick), Romance and Nobunaga -- and though little changes from one game to the next (barring smallish leaps in things like presentation by moving to proper 3D), they're still incredibly good at what they do. In the case of Nobunaga's Ambition, it's simply trying to unify Japan. This happens by way of careful diplomacy, keeping all the residents of your fiefdom happy and generally just building resources.
More often, though, it happens by way of force, and if you've ever wanted to bone up on your Japanese history, you'll have no better way of spending literally hundreds of hours with the denizens of feudal Japan. So long as you keep the historical prompts on, you'll also get periodic history lessons as your in-game timeline crosses major events in Japan's real history, and which point you'll see how it all played out -- and then, if you so choose, you can decide to rewrite some parts of history. Who says Nobunaga was the one that rose from Daimyo to literal Lord of Japan? Maybe it was one of the other clans, but you'll have to trounce at least half of 'em and negotiate peace with the remainders if you want to actually finish a scenario, and there are more than a half-dozen of 'em to play through.
Let that sink in for a second: a single scenario from only one of the game's modes (the others, Challenge and Local, task you with carrying out a set objective in a limited amount of time with no saves or loads or just conquering a smaller chunk of Japan, respectively) takes dozens of hours, and there are multiple scenarios. This is the very definition of getting a ton of bang for your buck, and so long as you can handle the game's absolutely plodding pace, you could probably play the game off and on for the rest of the year -- or at least until the inevitable sequel is made.
And really, that's Iron Triangle's biggest problem. The last game, Rise to Power, arrived almost exactly a year ago, and the fundamental parts of the game; unification, negotiation, and tactics haven't changed considerably since then. That's not to say Iron Triangle isn't a different experience, as there have been a number of tweaks here and there to help whittle down what is at first a daunting task. Battles this time around happen on a far grander scale. The old siege battles have been relegated to a simple order that you can give your troops to either attack a fortification or to just simply surround it -- a key strategy when you're clearly outnumbered, but the enemy has focused more on troop count than actual offense, since you can bring in as many squads of troops as the fortification has gates and just wear down their morale until the city can be taken whole.
It's actually one of the key ways to properly expand one's empire, since you can raze a building to the ground and then try to take on all the troops inside, but it makes more sense to leave the castle intact and just take over everything in one fell swoop. Yes, it requires quite a bit more resilience to outlast an onslaught from the castle itself (and any nearby turrets that might be raining down pain on your soldiers, be they musket troops, cavalry, regular grunts, bowmen, seafaring folk and so on), but the rewards pay for themselves when you can just occupy a full base instead of having to spend money and characters to repair it.
Using characters, from simple governors to recruited ronin to kin of the daimyo, is the absolute core of getting anything done in Iron Triangle. You can't build anything, draft troops, upgrade, research, conduct diplomatic moves or, well, do anything of actual worth without at least one officer to oversee things. This in effect makes your leaders (which are graded in everything from their leadership to loyalty) as valuable a resource as gold (needed to upgrade fortifications, build anything, recruit or... well, yeah, just about everything requires gold) and food (which is burned as you move troops around and head into battles).
It's a balancing act, but because you can move your officers around almost instantly (troops must be mobilized and moved manually with, you guessed it, an officer leading them, so that takes longer), shuffling around loyal underlings is key to keeping everything spread out and constantly working. You can boost loyalty by raising the stipend for each officer (which keeps them from defecting) and constant recruiting (either by way of manually looking or your fame causing some to flock to you) is vital. The better your officers' skills, the faster and more competent any task.
It's not an understatement to say you'll still be learning even basic commands 20 or more hours into the game; it's simply that deep and while the included tutorial covers the basics like building structures and attacking, it (and the manual, which is absolutely required reading) can only give you the basics. You'll have to learn by doing (or, uh, saving and trying something to learn the outcome in my case). Nothing is completely illogical, but understanding the flow of the menus and every entry therein can seem like a herculean task at first.
It eventually gets better, but that comes out of doing. Take, for instance, the simple act of building structures. You need, at the very least, three things to keep an army going: officers to lead, money to pay for everything and food to keep your troops from losing morale and essentially becoming tens of thousands of useless numbers. But building an academy so you can research more stuff requires that you first build the necessary starting blocks, as does something like a farm or trading post to gain more gold per season (harvests and collections happen every three months of in-game time). It takes a bit of trial and error, but eventually you'll learn what structures can be built on what bits of starting land, and eventually it becomes extremely strategic to lay down the foundations for things like turrets to repel invaders while still allowing for more barracks so drafting troops or farms for food or shops for gold can all be used properly.
Most everything in the game has a series of checks and balances to literally slow down the progression of things. It's extremely tough to rush early on, so going the normal PC RTS route of building up a ton of resources and then sending in massive waves won't really work. For starters, you can only draft new soldiers in the Summer or Winter; Fall and Spring are strictly off-limits. This can, like almost all the rules in the game, be used strategically, since attacking during a non-draft season can keep the enemy from re-supplying.
Honestly, if I tried to describe the entire process for building up an army and conquering adjacent territories, I could probably fill another two or three pages. There's a ton of things to manage, but the game does a fairly decent job of keeping it all within reach through a handful of shortcuts. Clicking R3 on screens where you need to select officers will pick the best three for you, the Circle button is used to skip past having to confirm everything and does it by default, managing all your castles and fortresses and the officers inside is done with a combination of the d-pad and the R1 button to quickly switch focus, clicking the L3 button will let you quick jump to any part of the world map, while holding Triangle pauses the game and lets you use the left stick to move around instead of moving the cursor... see? Even just trying to describe the shortcuts results in a huge paragraph.
The bottom line, though, is that there's almost always something to do. Eventually you'll have to let parts of your territory manage themselves (done by splitting things off into auto-playing segments where the skills of your officers will determine how well they do), but even when you're aren't babysitting things, you'll be constantly switching between areas to properly bulk 'em up, resupply, research, shift troops, build mid-point fortresses to rally a big charge into new areas and so on. Rather than feeling laborious, though, it's actually rather fun once you start building a head of steam. You'll often be fighting battles on multiple fronts while negotiating deals or indimidating others and trying to organize your own troops, but since things only happen in real-time during the Active Phase (you can swap between it and the Planning Phase by hitting Circle), it can be managed.
Again, though, this is not a game for those that favor action over strategy. Your troops -- particularly when capturing an enemy base, can be absolute morons if not given individual waypoints first. They follow a common AI path, which means the first group to arrive at a gate when attacking or surrounding will set up shop, and then the second will bump into them, realize they're supposed to be somewhere else, then go to their spot. By the time the third or fourth groups get involved, repeating the same actions, it can be a hair-pulling experience until you learn to route them properly.
The actual battles in the game aren't nearly as involved as they were in Rise to Power. Instead, a blobby mess of soldiers will butt up against one another and exchange executions of skills (which you can pick prior to forming a small army, and if you've set things to auto, they'll execute them ASAP or you can do it manually to pick when your will rises high enough to use more powerful skills, some of which will actual combo into devastating strikes) until the other guys are dead. It can be a little boring to watch, truth be told, but by the time you've garnered enough territory to own, say, half the map, you won't have time to watch things too much.
There are sea battles and massive clashes and captured bases and... yet again, I really can't emphasize how deep the game really. I also need to re-iterate that this is not a game for those that like to watch stuff happen. Building phases are lengthy and offer little to observe, battles are minimalist at best, and with only the occasional talking head, battle cry dialogue (with Japanese voices, I might add) and little prompts here and there, most of the time is spent just being proactive for a bit and then waiting... waiting... waiting for the results -- at least until you've built up your empire a bit.
The best example I can give of how long the game takes to play out was when I went in and edited a specific clan's stats to be maxed out, then went into territory mode so the battle wasn't nearly as big and let the game play itself. Even after six hours, almost nothing had happened. That's the kind of pace we're talking about here, and if you're the ADD-addled type, expect to go insane shortly after starting the first tutorial.
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