If only to avoid obvious puns like "Japan Universalis", let me make this clear from the beginning of this review: Sengoku, Paradox Interactive's new strategy title set in feudal Japan, resembles Europa Universalis. A lot. This is not wholly surprising, with both games sharing their developer and engine, but people who (incomprehensibly) did not like Europa Universalis should take note of this before considering sinking their teeth into Paradox's latest effort.
Don't get the wrong idea, though: Sengoku offers enough new content and ideas to stand on its own feet, and to dismiss it as a glorified EU expansion would thus be unfair. At the same time, however, the 'spiritual' influence from its big brother is so notable throughout the entire game (be it in the interface or core gameplay), that the occasional comparison between Sengoku and Europa Universalis is not more than logical and fair. Therefore, no attempt shall be made to avoid the inevitable.
The premise of Sengoku is quite intriguing. The game has you play as a feudal Japanese lord of choice, and take on numerous rivalling clans in a chaotic era of near constant war. The final goal of this game is to gain control of Japan by becoming Shogun. However, you may only attempt to claim this prestigious title after you control 50% or more of the country. On the lengthy road towards domination (you start out controlling about 3-10% of the country, depending on who you play as), you will need to use both diplomatic and military skills in order to be successful.
I sense a border confict coming...
Managing an army in Sengoku is relatively straightforward. In every province you control, you can call to arms a levy (bluntly put: a military division) that can be sent out to either defend or attack a certain territory. The confrontation with the enemy consists of two main phases: the battle itself and the siege. The outcome of a battle depends on numbers and troop morale. As such, the battle will end when one side either loses morale or is annihilated completely, whichever comes first.
When an enemy territory has been purged of hostile military units, the local fortress has to be conquered before the region can be claimed. As the siege wages on, defending forces will weaken until the fortress can be taken (usually with a final assault). Naturally, this process will take up less time as the number of attackers increases. In the end, warfare in Sengoku is a pretty self-explanatory process, and combining a good distribution of army units across the battlefield and making sure that you're never outnumbered by too much will usually be the main ingredients for military success. Consequently, this game is not very suitable for war buffs on the long run, as the combat is not deep enough for the game to depend on this aspect too much.
Diplomacy, however, is a different beast altogether. In fact, the intricacy of this element is what mainly distinguishes Sengoku from the Europa Universalis series. For instance, marriages between courts are now a lot more complicated, with every potential wedding partner having his/her own merits and defects. For example, if the love of your life turns out to be inbred, this may (severely) affect her fertility and the health of your potential children. On a similarly humourous note, an ugly partner may take its toll on diplomatic prestige. On the bright side, marriages may be a lot more beneficial than they were in Europa Universalis, as it's possible to rightfully inherit land after its ruler passes away. As such, war isn't the only means of acquiring enough land to become Shogun.
Sengoku also gives subtle tips on how to spice up your marriage.
Diplomacy in Sengoku is further complicated by the clan structure of Feudal Japan. As the ruler of a certain territory, you are by no means guaranteed the dominance over all of the provinces that fly your banner, even in times of peace. In order to maintain the stability inside your realm, you are forced to distribute provinces among vassals. While they are essentially your servants, they have agendas of their own, and they might revolt or even form clans of their own, separating their provinces from your authority. The interests of your vassals will thus have to be taken into account, as simply ignoring them can lead to tricky situations. For example, some vassals may not like it when you declare war upon another clan, and doing so will thus increase the odds of a revolt.
By no means can all the elements that come into play when trying to make it as a ruler in Sengoku be discussed in a single review, but it will suffice to say that playing this game demands that the player pay constant attention to a variety of elements that may all influence and/or undermine his chances of success. While the game does a fairly good job at notifying you of potential threats to your rule, finding out how to play efficiently requires a certain amount of trial and error. Because of this, players who are easily intimidated by complex gameplay mechanics may want to think twice before they attempt to make it big in Sengoku's rendition of Feudal Japan.
"Our ugly, inbred princess is in another castle."
Perhaps the 'scare factor' is somewhat reduced by the presentation, which is, especially in comparison to Europa Universalis III, rather slick. The menus and the interface are smooth and detailed, and the in-game information is distributed wisely across the screen. Hovering over HUD objects will often grant you additional information about that object, making it easy to, for example, find out why you can't declare war upon a certain clan. Meanwhile, the 3D map is quite detailed geographically. And like in Europa Universalis, you can switch between a wide array of different view modes, allowing you to see, for example, the geographical layout of a certain territory, view its diplomatic relations with the rest of Japan, or see which clan rules it. Atmospheric Japanese music will accompany the inevitably long playing sessions that this type of game demands, and quite competently so.
There's enough variation to prevent the game from too much aural repetition, and while the music was mostly intended to stay on the background, the compositions are good enough to see you through. One notable drawback is that the game has rather long loading times. It was not uncommon for me to have to wait over a minute to load a save game, or even to return to the main menu, which is not what you may expect from a game that, due to its structure, doesn't showcase a lot of graphical horsepower.
The main thing I wonder about Sengoku is what the target audience is. With the heavy inspiration it draws from Europa Universalis, comparisons with the latter are very much inevitable to anyone who has played it. And when comparing these two games, it must be said that Sengoku feels a bit restrictive in terms of content. The whole game takes place on Japan, which, while divided into numerous clans, feels limited in comparison to the expansiveness of the map of Europa Universalis. Moreover, many gameplay elements, such as managing the economy and colonisation, have been reduced or scrapped altogether, as dictated by Sengoku's more limited context.
No giant enemy crabs in sight. Phew.
In return, Sengoku offers an even more complex diplomatic and, to a certain extent, political system. This makes for an unusually deep strategy experience that requires the player to think beyond the idea of occupying a patch of land and simply planting his flag there to claim it as his own. While an interesting and in a way refreshing concept, it remains to be seen whether there are enough players willing to venture into the diplomatic depths of this game. Paradox Interactive's latest brainchild offers a sufficient amount of new and reworked ideas to be considered more than just a Europa Universalis spin-off, but in the end, I can't escape the suspicion that Sengoku might just be a little too niche for its own sake.
Jesse Dolman, NoobFeed.