The more experienced and patient of strategy fans are sure to enjoy the newest entry in one of Japan’s longest-running gaming franchises, but newcomers might struggle to get into it due to its deep learning curve and conspicuously limited tutorials.
In Japanese, there is a word that perfectly encapsulates my time playing Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening: it’s the verb “gaman suru”, meaning to have patience, discipline, and most importantly, perseverance to overcome challenges. Nobunaga’s Ambition is a videogame franchise that’s basically been around as long as games themselves, and it’s something that demands plenty of gaman from your part, not only for its depth, but also for the issues that will permeate your time playing it.
It feels like I’ve been hearing about Nobunaga’s Ambition for decades at this point, probably due to my watching of Japanese gaming show Game Center CX, which prominently showcased the earliest titles in the series on the Famicom in its first few seasons. It’s something I’ve never personally tried until now, having the opportunity to review Awakening, the latest entry in the 40-year long(!!) series developed by industry veteran Kou Shibusawa under the Koei Tecmo banner. Are you feeling old yet?
For the uninitiated, Nobunaga’s Ambition are hardcore strategy games set in the Sengoku period in Japan, where the numerous clans vied for control of the island of Japan. Chief among them was the titular Nobunaga Oda, who above all else wanted to unify the country under his control. As history tells us, he never lived to see his dream through, but that never stopped players from doing so in the series of games named after him.
Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening brings the series to Nintendo Switch and it’s the first time I’ve ever had contact with the franchise. And I was not surprised to be taken aback by the sheer amount of detail that has gone into it, knowing I was in for a challenge after watching bumbling “Kacho” Arino dabble in the game on his show. This is by far one of the most complex games I’ve ever played, one that requires an amount of attention and care similar to that of a Civ game, but on a whole other level.
The main goal of it, as you have probably guessed, is to conquer all of Japan as one of a number of clans from that period in the country’s long history, and there are a ridiculous host of options for you to do so since every single one of those groups has unique characteristics, and of course, pros and cons, including Nobunaga’s Oda faction.
We’re not talking about a simple stats match here, but in-depth analyses of every single one of each clan’s officers and leaders, not to mention territory, and the means which they start out with before your quest begins. It’s the sort of thing that requires careful examination before heading out your merry way with your army; deciding who to place where and to take care of what, politically and economically. It’s that careful balance of the various aspects of your clan that will ultimately determine if you’ll be successful during one of the multiple campaigns available to play in Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening.
Given the absurd number of options available at every turn, be it scenarios to pick from or simply deciding on which faction to go to war as, it’s no exaggeration to say that this game has nearly endless replay right off the bat in this review. It’s something that can be picked up at any moment where you’ll start a new campaign and have an entirely different experience than anything that came before it simply by highlighting a menu option out of the dozens that there are in any given scenario.
Taking that into account, the team at Kou Shibusawa’s studio tried their best at making this entry more palatable to audiences by injecting a certain amount of humor when playing the tutorial, but that didn’t really do much in making the game’s pill any easier to swallow when it comes to its depth and ease of approach to a new player such as myself.
There are simply too many menus and minute detail that even though the tutorial tries to smooth over in its explanations, it glosses over otherwise critical details, such as the importance of character stats and the general procedure of war, to name a few. It makes it so most of the actual important gameplay elements have to be learned by simply attempting to play the game, which surely would work in any title other than this one, where the smallest mistake on your part can mean hours of gameplay down the tube.
Then again, if you stick to it and go through the trial and error motions that Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening’s loop takes you, there’s a hugely satisfying experience waiting to be had. Ironically, the unfriendliness to newbies ends up contributing to it, making this the sort of game that is prickly and rough to handle, but whose interior is positively yummy to those unafraid to get stung in the process of enjoying it.
On the Switch, the process of getting to that juicy filling is made somewhat more difficult thanks to Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening presentation, which offers very tiny text when playing portably and a low res font when playing on a larger screen, both making it slightly harder to simply read what’s going on in the game.
Keeping tabs on the constantly shifting situation in your clan is paramount to your success, by navigating Awakening’s numerous menus and submenus, a process that takes some time getting used to on Nintendo’s hybrid console, thanks to a bevy of shortcuts in the form of button combinations to make up for the omission of a keyboard.
Graphically, it’s pleasing enough when navigating its many, many menus, but it can be confusing to tell what’s going on especially during battle, where the camera is way zoomed out. Like Koei Tecmo’s other historical drama games like our favorites Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty and Nioh, the cutscene and portrait art is simply fantastic in this one as well, even though it’s sometimes hard to tell characters apart in the rapid succession that they’re introduced, something that’s common at the beginning of a campaign.
In all other regards, though, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening is a very impressive effort by Koei Tecmo. Getting a chance to travel back in time and experience Nobunaga’s illustrious military career, from his humble beginnings to his ultimate demise and his successor Hideyoshi Toyotomi and later follow-up Hideyori is a very enticing proposal, even more so knowing that it’s totally possible to change the course of Japanese history. The game’s scenarios give plenty of possibilities to do so, in a wide range of ways which makes Awakening last for way, way longer than most other sims.
If it weren’t for some of its issues with a less than satisfactory tutorial and cumbersome UI, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening would be an eyes-closed recommendation for just about every type of player looking for this sort of gaming to crunch away hours and hours. As it is, though, if you are the sort of player that can muscle your way past issues like the ones that this game suffers from, you will find that there’s a lot of entertaining content to sink your teeth into in this latest entry of this long-running and successful franchise.