Review: Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle (PS2)

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle
Developer: Koei
Publisher: Koei
Genre: Historical Strategy
Release Date: 1/28/2009

I have to admit going forward that I’m a whore for Koei games. Many of the things I like to do in video games, be they employing my intricate war strategies or just killing a whole lot of people at once, are things that Koei facilitates, be it with Yoichi Erikawa’s Historical Simulation series of games for strategy, or the Musou style of games (Dynasty Warriors, Samurai Warriors and Gundam: Musou). Many of my favourite games are from this obscure Japanese company that happened upon its first hit with the original Nobunaga’s Ambition in 1983. If Koei starts making sports management games, I might just smile myself to death… oh wait.

With that out of the way, Koei isn’t the kind of developer that turns everything they touch to gold. Their hits are all-time-favourites, but their misses tend to either be quickly forgotten or scorned. Unfortunately, there are quite a few misses. Dynasty Warriors 6 wasn’t a very good game, nor was Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI, IX or VIII. Depending on who you ask, Warriors Orochi is either a brilliant idea of a waste of a coaster. It doesn’t take many guesses to figure I’m in the latter group. Don’t even get me started on Kessen.

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Rise to Power was released in February of 2008. It was an unbalanced mess of a game. You had to balance your spending and food usage throughout an entire year. Everything you could do was based on your rank, and there were so many silly metrics involved, combined with an insane difficulty curve and a whole lot of waiting for your next harvest/taxation, that it was almost impossible to play properly. Koei must have sensed something was wrong themselves, because less than a year later, Nobunaga’s Ambition:Iron Triangle is out in America. I didn’t know it was out until Lucard looked at me and went, “Bowen, you’re a stat freak, you’re getting the new NA game”.

After getting over my surprise, I dove into Iron Triangle like an Asperger’s patient into an internet argument. After more than thirty hours and the better parts of two weekends resulting in me getting virtually nowhere in any of my scenarios, I can attest to the fact that while Iron Triangle is a marked improvement over Rise to Power in almost every sense, except that it’s almost too deep for it’s own good, and hurts itself with a menu system that’s actually gotten worse.

All Nobunaga’s Ambition games take place in the latter part of the Sengoku period of Japanese history, starting with Oda Nobunaga’s rise to leadership of the Owari province upon the death of his father Nobuhide, and ending with the unification of Japan under Toyotomi Hideyoshi, which transitioned into ther Tokugawa shogunite started by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The earliest starting scenario in this game starts off in 1555, and the last one starts in 1582, the year of Nobunaga’s death at Honno-Ji. Like other games in this series, the officers, locations, and situations are all according to actual historical events, with the exception of the fictional scenario. Thus, anyone familiar with the history of the era is going to have an advantage going in. However, there’s also too much history to learn for most people. It’s not just about what Nobunaga did in the era, it’s about what everyone else did as well. Anyone not knowing what happened in real life could very easily be surprised by the events happening in the game. That said, if you want to learn the history of the era, this is a wonderful place to start, and much better of one than the Musou counterparts, which have always played fast and loose with history for dramatic effect.

Sad to say, Iron Triangle doesn’t play up it’s own story as much as it could. One of the few things that I liked about Rise to Power was that it would break the action with little story bits. For example, in the first scenario, Nobunaga was about to punish his sandal bearer Kinoshita Tokichiro for trying to steal something before realizing that what he had was Nobunaga’s sandals, which he kept pressed against him in a storm so that they wouldn’t get dirty or wet. It was an interesting bit of foreshadowing; Kinoshita would go on to be Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who would succeed Nobunaga as the head of the Oda clan and eventually unite Japan. There’s no little asides like that in Iron Triangle. The presentation of the game is very dry from top to bottom. What’s worse is that the game plays things a bit loose when it comes to the events that really do happen. Using Oda as an example, he started coming to real power due to his defeat of Imagawa Yoshimoto in 1560; in the first scenario of this game, Imagawa had been more or less attacking me since 1557. However, any reference to the real-life defeat of Imegawa was passed over in this game. By 1562, nothing was mentioned of it, and by this time, I was pretty much in the same situation I had been in in 1555, that being one of isolation and playing catch-up. In the last scenario, the game starts in 1582, and autoplaying it led me to see that Nobunaga had indeed been killed by the attack by Mitsuhide at Honno-Ji. However, going through as Nobunaga himself didn’t show me much. I was given a warning that some officers hadn’t pledged themselves to me at the beginning, at which time I raised everyone’s stipened a hundred gold each, but by 1583, no other mention was made to Honno-Ji. That was it? That was all I had to do to keep the most successful officer of his time alive? Jesus, if only the real-life version of Nobunaga himself learned that! We might never have seen the Tokugawa Shogunite if only the Oda weren’t such spendthrifts!

One of the main selling points of Iron Triangle is the full, real-time 3D map. Unlike past games, you don’t have to go to a separate map screen to see everything broken down into colour codes. Instead, you can scan the map and see in real time what’s going on, from the building of farms and shops to full-scale battles. It works beautifully, as the whole game is played out like this. I’ll go into why this can be disadvantageous later on, but it’s perfect for most civil functions. There are also two phases to the game: planning, and active phase. In the planning phase, you can give orders at will, and the game pauses, with your orders being carried out in the active phase, which is where the game passes time in real-time. I like how this works; it has real-time elements, but allows the player to pause the game to give orders, which is a necessity whenever someone’s commanding a clan with a lot of property. Taking a game like Nobunaga’s Ambition or Romance of the Three Kingdoms into full real-time would be problematic because there’s simply too much to do. While you can delegate certain tasks in Nobunaga’s Ambition, this usually turns out poorly, so for best results you have to have the time to properly give orders; this gives you the best of both worlds in my estimation.

Just like in Rise to Power, you have to create buildings and fields in order to increase your stats and stature within the game. To be able to create shops, trading posts, fields, barracks and the like, you have to build farms, garrisons, and other large “parent” fields to attach them to. The type of child you can build depends on the parent, and each area has a certain amount of time necessary to build it depending on the politics rating of the officer building it. The parents are called “districts” in the game, and there’s a limited amount of districs you can build. Unlike Rise to Power, where it was limited to what your rank was, in Iron Triangle it depends on the size of the fief you’re building in, which is a tremendous improvement. Furthermore, all of your resources are put into a giant pool for all of your areas to use. This means that if you spend 4,000G on upgrading a castle, that’s 4,000G you can’t use on an area that might need some domestic work such as farms. On the other hand, this means you’re not getting punished as badly for having an area that’s lagging behind in income and harvest, so it’s a wash. Another improvement over RtP is the fact that the gold you need to build anything is gathered four times a year instead of one. I’m so bad at keeping to a budget that I am basically ceding control of the family chequebook to Aileen the moment we get married, so you can imagine how much I hated having to budget a year’s worth of gold in a video game. Iron Triangle‘s way is much better, and since this is the majority of what you’re going to be doing in the game, that automatically makes Iron Triangle a far superior product to last year’s title, which sadly isn’t saying much.

Civic duties aren’t perfect, however. Getting gold and food is easy enough, but anything further than that is needlessly hard. You have to draft soldiers, which can only be done in the summer and winter unless you have a special skill (in spring and fall, everyone that’s not in the army is tending the fields), which is a nice addition, but you need barracks in order to do this. Every barracks adds about 100 to your soldier yield whenever you draft, which isn’t a lot. Considering the penalty you pay – a drop of ten points to your popularity with the common people, you have to build an abnormal amount of barracks in order to get anything substantial out of drafting. There’s also the aspect of gaining technologies and skills, which requires a set number of research academies, which you can’t build unless you have that skill, which you can’t get unless you have X amount of officers with an “A” rank in that discipline. Even then, you need Y amount of gold and Z amount of academies to research for Q amount of days… It’s hopelessly obtuse, and the game doesn’t really tell you what exactly you need more of to get the skill you need. You can piece it together, sure, but that involves fiddling with menu after menu after menu. All Koei strategy games are badly in need of a menu redesign, come to think of it. What makes this worse is the fact that all of your opponents seem to have no trouble gaining technologies, as you’re often allerted to by an ESPN Ticker-like bar at the bottom of the screen that tells you just long enough what’s going on in the game for you to go “what’d I miss” before it’s gone. The log you can get from the pause menu doesn’t tell you what you miss in this area, so it serves as little more than a distraction. The menus and interaction with the player feel half baked, and considering the fact that this is little more than a glorified patch for RtP, that’s inexcusable.

The power of your commands depends on the statistics of your officers. Like most Koei games that are historically based, some rulers have stacked decks when it comes to the skill of their officers. Obviously, the Oda clan has a much better chance of survival than, say, the Kono. The stats of each officer are static throughout the game, which is a little disappointing considering how Rise to Power had younger officers improving as they got older (with Hideyoshi sometimes jumping multiple points a month), and older ones getting worse. Every stat is important, but early in the game high political skill is going to be more important as you are building the base of your empire.

I mentioned the interactivity with the player as being a major strike against Iron Triangle a couple of paragraphs ago. It doesn’t just affect civic affairs, it also comes into play during battles, and just about ruins what is otherwise a great idea on Koei’s part.

In most Koei strategy games, when it’s time to engage in a battle, you’re whisked away to a separate screen for battling purposes. For that time, the battle is all you have to worry about. Those days are over. In Iron Triangle, battles happen in real time. This means while you’re in a battle on one side of your kingdom, you can give orders to the other sides, which is great if you want to send in late reinforcements to help out. This also means that you can see the battles on the same map that you see everything else happening on, which is really a great idea. It could have turned out gorgeously if it wasn’t for the insane way information is layed out to you. You can see information about a group with a little overlay that pops up from the group that shows how many troops they have, what the group’s morale is (with light blue being the highest and going down from there), their skills and anything else you might want to know going into a battle. This is fine, but every other group, including your enemies, have the same overlay. This overlay cannot be hidden, which means in large scale, open battles, you have multiple groups – sometimes involving as many as four clans, and multiple groups per clan – fighting against each other, with overlays thrown all over the place that you cannot hide or put into focus, meaning you have to put the game into planning mode every time you want to see how many troops you have left, considering the fact that it’s almost impossible to see how fast everyone’s losing troops in larger battles. Once again, Koei’s ineffectiveness at getting information to the player in a proper manner bites it in the ass.

There are also battle skills to be used in combat, which after more than thirty hours I still haven’t quite gotten the hang of. For each group you send into combat, you’re allowed to pick skills depending on what type of unit that group is (bows, muskets, cavalry, etc.) and what the skills of your officers are. Skills are used when enough will is compiled, though I have no idea what the formula for compiling will is. All I know is that when enough is gathered, skills become available depending on how much will is necessary. At this point, you can use a skill, which, depending on what skills you have equipped, has a percentage of linking into a second or even a third skill. Equipping the same type of skill increases the chance of this happening. However, like everything else, a separate menu – one that’s very, very hard to find in the heat of a battle – is necessary to manually use a skill, so I typically just set my skills to auto, especally if I’m fighting wars on two fronts.

Battles are realistic in the sense that, the longer your armies spend away from their homes, the quicker morale decreases. Once morale goes to zero, that unit is destroyed because the soldiers run away. This, combined with the use of different types of turrets, means it’s much, much easier to play defence than offence. The Art of War states that to claim someone else’s land it takes three times as many soldiers as it does to defend it, and that holds true for Iron Triangle, By the time you march to someone’s castle, probably having to get past a scouting party and numerous turrets set up around the castle, your party of 8,000 is likely going to be tired, pissed, and down to 5,500 men, meaning you now have to send them back to heal, bring up another army from another area, burning food the whole time and possibly leaving you open for a counter-attack.

Everything mentioned leaves a lot of stalemates, meaning the only way to break said stalemates is to acquire every technology, weapon, siege technology and man you can. Since every clan in the game is doing the same thing, it basically turns the game into an arms race. Playing the game on Easy doesn’t help anything; it just means you get to keep your stalemate longer than you would on normal or hard. There’s so much to do and so much to worry about that it takes a playthrough or two before you really get the hang of things and learn how to get the upper hand on everyone. This is not a good thing if you’re trying to play the standard Unification mode, which even the game’s box says could take sixty hours EACH to complete. There are nine scenarios, four of which are unlockable, in this game, so playing through all nine scenarios could theoretically take 540 hours. There’s deep and then there’s a job that you pay for – this falls into the latter category. Koei does do a good job of breaking down the monotony with a couple of different modes. There’s local mode, which involves you only conquering a region of Japan instead of the whole thing (the rest of the country is blank), and Challenges mode, which basically amounts to “conquer X within Y time”, but the crux of the game is still Unification mode. Unification mode is also hopelessly long. Despite the pacing improvements made over RtP, Iron Triangle is still a slow paced game, and often in the beginning, you’re going to do a lot of sitting around and waiting for things to be built, or the seasons to change so you can collect taxes. Yes, it’s possible to learn the game by going through the included tutorial mode, but said tutorial is well over an hour, and doesn’t even touch on a lot of key things that need to be learned to succeed in the game. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like this review. I’m already over 3,000 words in, and there’s a lot I haven’t even gotten a chance to touch on. I can either go back and hit on every little detail, making this a 6,000 word, unreadable monolith in the process, or skim some minor sections and hope the player figures it out. The tutorial in Iron Triangle reminds me of that: any longer and it would have been a detriment, but it’s still insufficient.

Aesthetically, Koei’s strategy games have never been pretty; the best-looking one is ROTK XI, and that was obviously an attempt to bring in the Musou fans which fell flat with long-time fans. There are no such problems here; Iron Triangle seems like a love letter to old school Koei fans with it’s design, leaving an extremely ugly game that actually goes backwards in the looks department. Combined with the slow pacing, hardcore difficulty and mounds of information to dissect, it should scare away anyone coming in curious from the Musou games. You don’t have the ability to zoom in close to the action, and what little you can zoom into is just flat-out horrid looking. The one time I can remember even seeing rendered polygons is when two officers are meeting each other for negotiations, and even they look like early-generation renders. There’s sound, but it’s all the same operatic, Oriental pipes and reeds we’ve heard in every game since they started putting them on CDs, so there’s no accomplishment there.

Ultimately, I judge Koei’s strategy games on how addictive they are. These games, due to how poor they look and the limitations of the genre, will never “score” well due to the limitations of our system, but I can remember times with ROTK X – my favourite Koei game of all time next to Dynasty Warriors: Gundam – where I’d end up awake until five in the morning without a care in the world. This is a problem when you start work at eight. In the end, Iron Triangle is an addictive game, much more so than RtP was, but not nearly as addictive as ROTK X, or even ROTK VII were. Part of the reason for that is because every square inch of Japan is claimed before you even start the game – something that doesn’t happen with the ROTK games – and most of your time is spent building your forces and supplies meticulously, but a lot of credit is due to the real-time nature of the game. Most of the time I stayed up late to play this game, it was because I was afraid I’d lose my place and not remember what I was doing at the time I saved and left the game. To the layman, this means I was completely immersed in the game, and while it wasn’t to the degree I’ve been immersed in past Koei titles, there’s a lot to be said for a game that can do that to me. In short, while I wasn’t rushing home to play Iron Triangle, I wasn’t in a rush to put it down, either.

Story/Modes: Mediocre
Graphics: Dreadful
Sound: Bad
Control and Gameplay: Mediocre
Replayability: Unparalleled
Balance: Poor
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Very Bad
Miscellaneous: Above Average

Short Attention Span Summary
Apparently, Koei’s given up on bringing in newcomers to their strategy games. Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle is so overloaded with information, so deep, and such a time drain that I cannot recommend it to anyone even remotely casual about the strategy genre. This basically leaves us with the same people that buy Koei’s strategy games anyway: the hopelessly hardcore when it comes to the genre, also known as the anal retentive tossers like me that breathlessly compare past versions of each game for things we like and dislike.

If your idea of the perfect Koei game is mindlessly mashing the Square button and mowing down thousands of enemy soldiers at a time, run as far away from this game, as fast as you can. Even trying to get into this game is likely to make your head spin.

With that said, if the name “Kou Shibusawa” is enough to set your heart aflutter, this might be the game you’ve been looking for; if you can get past the horrendous interface, there’s enough game here to ensure you have something to do for literally years, and Iron Triangle makes a nice apology for the stupendously bad Rise to Power. In short, hardcores only need apply, but those that do will be well satisfied.



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3 responses to “Review: Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle (PS2)”

  1. Andialan Avatar

    Rise to power is better then iron triangle.

  2. Christopher Bowen Avatar

    Care to say why you think that? I’m just curious.

  3. Tim Avatar

    I couldn’t disagree more with your assessment of Koei’s output. If anything, I find the roleplaying RTK games to be directionless, and I loved RoTK 9, probably the most playable RtK. (especially compared to 3 and 4) 11 has a steep learning curve, but is good. I hated 7, it seemed to have no clear direction at all. As for Nobunaga’s Ambition, this game is hard to learn, but it seems very polished in general, with probably the best game play I’ve ever seen in a Koei game. I guess it’s not for you, but rest assured it does have an audience..

    Agreed about Rise to Power (I didn’t like it), although it wasn’t difficult at all, more like a pushover, with too much pointless micro-managing, with dull combat.

    Overall, I find this game based on my current experience (I’ll admit, I’ve only spend about 10 hours playing it so far) with it to have taken the best aspects of RoTK 9 and 11 and made them better, (both of which I’ve played extensively) with a few small issues that are not a dealbreaker for me. The interface is a bit clunky, (especially when lots of units are stacked together) but the menus help bypass most of the issues. I’m looking forward on how to develop better fief conquering strategies… I also find that this game might be a better choice than most of Koei’s games due the provincial mode which allows for shorter, more manageable campaigns; I hate in RoTK games how most of the map is unconquered by default, it just results in a few really powerful kingdoms very quickly… (But that is a matter of the way each of the respective Kou Shibusawa franchises are executed…, you seem to prefer the RoTK way.)

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