Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening is the 16th installment in Koei’s venerable strategy series (which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year), and the most accessible yet. It’s still complex by comparison to other strategy titles of this magnitude, but it shines with love and devotion to Japan’s iconic Sengoku period and the great figures who inhabited it.
The game is played on a huge and detailed map of Japan with historical starting points from 1545 to 1614. This was a chaotic period of civil war (known as) in Japanese history. Sengoku period, or “Sengoku Jidai”), making it the perfect setting for an epic strategy game. Players are free to choose from dozens of historical samurai lords and write their own records. This includes legendary figures such as Shingen Takeda, Masamune Date, Ieyasu Tokugawa (ultimate historical victors), and Japan’s first great unifier, the Demon King, who remain famous five centuries later. Oda Nobunaga himself.
What happens next is up to the player. A competent AI can suggest a historical goal to guide you, or you can try to rewrite history with the idea of doing something even Nobunaga failed to achieve: uniting the divided warring factions of feudal Japan under one banner.
This is achieved primarily through the application of brute force, with thousands of ashigaru troops trapped in huge engagements. Everything in “Awakening” revolves around a colorful character from the era who acts as an officer, with his more than 2,000 unique historical figures leading faceless infantry into battle.
Japan is divided into dozens of regions, each with roads and trails on land and sea. It is through these passages that troops march and where the bulk of the fighting takes place. Flanking attacks are very powerful in Nobunaga’s Ambition, and in certain situations military roads can be built to allow unexpected means of attack.
All this happens in real time, but you can also pause and command the action if you want. The PS5’s control scheme feels very good, but this is mostly due to the fact that the officers work themselves out most of the time. Things can get a little messy at times, and it takes a while to learn, but after an hour or so, we had a keen eye for managing the land, handing out sovereignty to officials to give chocolates to our children.
Officers improve over time, earn honours, rise in rank, and have their own, often fantastic, character artwork that is a hallmark of the series (and Fertile soil for meme template). They also have their own unique trait that activates in the right circumstances, adding a surprising amount of drama to the incident with their dramatic battle roars.
How many officers you have depends on the clan you choose, and tracking down, hiring, poaching, subjugating, or beheading Japan’s finest samurai becomes a metagame in itself. As a daimyo, you can only manage your territory and you have to pay to improve it, so you would want better officers. Developing your land will allow you to grow more crops, increase your population and recruit more people, increase your trade and other factors.
In classic feudal fashion, if another province happens to be under your control, you can give the land to the appropriate minions, who will develop it as they see fit and divide it among their minions. Not only do they pay for the privilege themselves (which in turn increases the overall strength of the kingdom as a whole), your viziers have an honorable duty to raise their own regiments in your name and respond to any call to arms.
The engagement itself is a sprawling event that can be spread out across the map or concentrated in one of Japan’s many claustrophobic mountain passes. Each officer leads a unit as a unit towards a pre-planned objective, capturing territory on the move and fighting enemy units encountered, all the while consuming valuable supplies.
Series purists may hesitate to streamline systems and automate mechanics, but we found the game to be a smoother experience. No more delegating the details, I was able to let the computer do the heavy lifting and issue instructions and focus on the action.
An aspect that may surprise some is the visual novel element, the verbosity of which is quite shocking. The era has been romanticized for hundreds of years, and the era’s famous betrayals, triumphs and friendships are all portrayed in lovingly detailed, long-form, page-long text. When certain milestones are reached or dates pass, these events pop up and can have dramatic effects on the game if you choose to (e.g. certain warlords die or switch sides). Players can ignore them or turn them off entirely if they wish, but the gorgeous vignettes prove to be a welcome relief from constantly staring at the map, and some of the real-world developments of the Sengoku period are truly amazing.
A compelling experience, Awakening isn’t perfect and has major issues with its UI. While informative, the sheer volume of information displayed can make it difficult to find specific details as your eyes are glued to the stream of text on the screen. Plus, the camera feels jarring, and using DualSense to control the equivalent of a cursor on a PC feels inelegant, so you’ll end up spending more time pausing the action than you might expect.
Still, fans of samurai fiction will appreciate the attention to detail. It may not convert the mainstream public, but fans of historical epic strategy games can have another great time with Awakening.
Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening streamlines many of the complex systems and mechanics the series has built up over its 40-year history, refining it into a more approachable, better strategy experience. UI elements and precise control issues can be frustrating at times, but Awakening is a great sandbox for samurai enthusiasts.