Sengoku is more focused than previous Paradox titles, and all the better for it. There are far fewer of the sprawling, messy mechanics of games like Victoria II, allowing you to concentrate on what’s really important: expanding your feudal Japanese empire and making sure your heir isn’t a retarded psychopath.
Of course the game still falls under the ‘grand strategy’ banner, so you can expect fifty-some playable clans and over three hundred individual territories to cast your ambitious eye over. As leader of a 15th century Japanese clan during the ever-popular ‘Sengoku’ (warring states) period it’s your task to secure at least fifty percent of the country under your control before claiming, and then defending, the title of Shogun.
To that end, your major duties in the game are keeping a close eye on family matters, ensuring any vassels under your control remain loyal, avoiding territorial revolts, securing your borders and (naturally) scheming your way towards expansion. Paradox has scaled economic and military matters right back from previous titles, resulting in a greater emphasis on characters. Your budget is a pretty simple taxation vs military expenditure model, while armies are made up of just three types; ashigaru infantry, mounted samurai and (later) early firearm units.
There’s a small amount of territorial upkeep in the form of building village (for tax return) or castle (for defensive) improvements, and it’s possible to construct a couple of expensive specialist buildings, but that’s about it. In any case, an individual clan leader can only hold five territories (or kori) without risking a revolt, so you’ll quickly find that much of the upkeep is being performed by AI vassels.
All of which leaves you free to concentrate on securing your legacy. As with a game like Crusader Kings, it’s game over if you perish without an heir. And it’s quite possible he may not be a suitable candidate to take over as ruler.
Most characters in the game have certain traits, which define their diplomatic, martial and intrigue abilities. In my current game, the most eligible heir to the glorious Nanbu clan is the equivalent of Joffrey Lannister from Game of Thrones (wrathful, paranoid, envious and greedy). This is far from ideal (I’m praying I can raise another son and maneuver him into a position of succession), but it shows the sense of attachment (or disgust) for family members that can sometimes develop.
While it’s important to keep your house in order and make sure none of your vassels get ideas about stabbing you in the back (amusingly enough, if they get too devious you can order them to commit suicide), the characterisation doesn’t go as far as it should. Sengoku is largely missing the pop-up text events of Paradox’s Crusader Kings, meaning the majority of relationships remain numerical (a vassel’s disloyalty represented by a -40 opinion of you, for example) and cold. For a game based on character interaction and family dynasties, this is a major setback.
Sengoku attempts to place as much emphasis on plotting and intrigue as a method of achieving goals as it does military power, offering the means (through a separate ‘plotting’ interface) to secretly scheme with other clans against a mutual foe.
When this works, it’s brilliant. I was able to pull another clan into my master plan to attack the Osaki clan, whereupon my new allies immediately fragmented into two pieces. Luckily, half a clan was still enough to provide a southern distraction while my armies waltzed through Osaki’s northern provinces. As the war costs escalated, I negotiated a peace treaty that left me with four or five new territories. Osaki were weakened, and the remnants of my original ally had been wiped from the map (saving me the trouble of having to confront them later).
The problem is, plotting as a clan leader seems exclusively limited to ‘plot against clan x’. It’s a pretty narrow line of intrigue that always just leads to a war (albeit one with some allies). Wars themselves are rather boring, as they either involve two animated samurai having a statistics-off that results in steady troop losses or terminally tedious sieges that can quite literally last multiple game years.
It doesn’t help that the army movement system is very odd. Sending soldiers to a nearby province takes a couple of in-game months, but if you suddenly decide to stay in the current province this decision is enacted instantly, no matter how long the army has been travelling for. This is a big problem in wars against the AI, because it means you can’t catch armies ‘on the move’. If the AI sees you moving shedloads of troops towards a province he’ll simply change direction immediately with no penalty, even if he’d almost arrived at the destination. It makes no sense from either a historical or design perspective and can turn wars into a somewhat annoying game of ‘catch the AI’s surprisingly agile army’.
Military activities are male-dominated, but even for the period being represented women are horrendously underused. In Sengoku they’re useful only for popping out babies, securing friendships through political marriage and making you feel super creepy when you’re browsing a database of seventeen year old girls look for someone with a one hundred percent ‘fertility’ rating.
There’s obviously a historical precedent here, but it would make perfect sense to expand the intrigue options through the women of your family. Priming a daughter for an important marriage and giving her the specific role of destabilising a clan or even murdering a key figure would seem to fit just fine with the era. Sadly, this isn’t an option.
This doesn’t mean that other underhanded methods are completely out of the question. Fancy arranging a handy marriage for your daughter, but find that the ‘target’ already has a wife? No problem. Simply employ a roaming ninja to kill her and open the door for you to make the match. That’s horrible, you say? Sure. Horribly effective.
Oddly enough, there are a broader range of scheming options available to you if you opt to play as a vassel (entirely possible, and an excellent inclusion). Here, you can plot to break free from clan rule, attempt to spark a civil war to split it, or play a longer game and try to become the chosen heir to the present ruler. It’s trickier to play this way (and slightly ‘meta’ as you’re more concerned with local politics), but quite rewarding.
Another splendid feature is the ability to pick up as a different character whenever you reload a saved game. No matter what the state of Japan is, you can sneak into the body of a new character like a possessing spirit and resume the game on the other side of the map.
Multiplayer is present too, but as I spent my time with a pre-release review copy of the game there were a distinct lack of multiplayer matches to join.
Paradox don’t exactly have a sterling record for stable releases, but I encountered very few problems of a technical nature. Sengoku runs smoothly, ticking time away nice and rapidly at the highest speed setting (important if you’re waiting for a siege to conclude). I’m fairly sure that progress on certain ministerial tasks should never be endlessly reaching one hundred percent before looping back to zero with no result, but sometimes it can be hard to distinguish ‘bugs’ from ‘features’ with this development team. That aside, nothing particularly bug-like stood out.
But while Sengoku has the stable basis of a game, its biggest problem is a feeling of emptiness. Between key events, far too much time is spent simply watching the daily counter tick by as you wait for enough honour to ‘spend’ on attacking a neighbour, or hoping a nearby clan leader can build up sufficient honour to agree to join you in a plot. Focusing the game on intrigue, family and warfare was a smart design decision as it trimmed a lot of unnecessary and complex fat, but the plotting options are too limited, family affairs are in need of more personality and most military activity is a statistical bore.
The Paradox modding community has a fine reputation for adding new mechanics to the company’s games, so I have no doubt that some of the above issues will be eased in time. At present, despite a few great ideas, Sengoku feels too lifeless and hollow.