Review – Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening

Nobunaga’s Ambition was one of the first NES games that I came across that truly baffled me as a child. For the most part, I associated my time with video games to be one of relaxation, stimulation and excitement in a variety of fields. To be able to run and jump along platforms, to shoot things endlessly as they appeared on screen, and even to move around a bunch of pixels I pretended was Larry Bird. Yet here was a title asking eight year old me to read an astonishing amount of text, grasp ideas of strategy and cunning and then to execute it all without a lick of understanding in political intrigue or Japanese history. Needless to say, the return trip to FuncoLand was a fast one and the salesperson was entirely understanding as I swapped it out for The Uncanny X-Men (an excellent trade).

Yet me not liking one game before I hit double digits didn’t spell the end of my curiosity or the franchise. While I went on to eventually discover Civilization and the like, Nobunaga’s Ambition continued to move forward, redefining itself and finding new vectors to try and make the fanbase happy. The game went through multiple flavors and iterations, with the crossover title Pokémon Conquest grabbing my attention and bringing me back into the world. With the focus being more on battling familiar monsters through a turn based approach, I could enjoy and relax a bit while still being invested in the overall Sengoku-era ideology, even if it was filtered through the lens of Pikachu and crew. It was fun, and I recommend the title to anyone even remotely intrigued by the concept. 

Now, with Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening, this is my first foray into the series in any capacity in about ten years and my first “real” attempt since I was a wee lad. The song remains the same, which is something notable about the game series. In spite of multiple versions, you’re always reenacting historic moments of Japan’s tumultuous past with a bit of a spin on how the timeline plays out. In every scenario, there’s a chance for you to ostensibly change the course of history and achieve the ultimate goal – unifying Japan under one ruler – from multiple points. You can take the helm as Nobunaga himself, or you can be any of the forty some-odd additional feudal lords that were in charge of different territories across the divided country. 

Nobunaga's Ambition: Awakening scenarios

Please choose which historic event you’ll be bumbling into and ruining through your own ineptitude.

This is an incredibly odd position to be in, because, having missed several iterations of the game (namely almost all of them), I don’t have the perspective to appreciate what is different, unique, new or bizarre about the release of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening. A brief overview tells me that each game brings a new approach to how the interface and detailing work, which accounts for fans to have a different game they feel is superior between the releases. I suppose that’s the nice part about having your strategy game firmly locked on a specific period in history: as technology evolves, certain expectations can change and advance, but the core background will never shift. This also means I am Koei Tecmo’s ideal player: a new fan who doesn’t have the laundry list of grievances about what is or isn’t included in this release.

To its credit, Awakening is a visually gorgeous game, and I am impressed by the limits to which the Nintendo Switch is pushed. The landmass of Japan is detailed exquisitely, and keeping the camera tight on specific areas allows for draw distance and overall detail to not overwhelm the processor or the screen. Each portrait feels unique, with more than two thousand characters having individual names, ranks, roles and even personalities. From what I can gather, everyone mentioned is a real person from history, and I have to admire that kind of dedication in creating a game world that also operates as a historic set piece.

Nobunaga's Ambition: Awakening cutscenes

Rockin’ that Feudal Japan DRIP.

Additionally, the Nintendo Switch feels like the ideal place for this iteration of the game series to have landed. Most of the menu options and toggles are completely accessible with either buttons or touchscreen, perfect for hybrid gameplay and moving your campaign with you on the go. Yes, the screen is a bit cramped, but it’s certainly not the worst offender in terms of visibility. Having tried both Disco Elysium and Knights of the Old Republic on the Switch, I’m no stranger to a deluge of words on an index-card sized display. Players who aren’t willing to focus entirely on button navigation should invest in a good stylus in order to better utilize the game’s interface. The way time works allows this to be a viable option, which brings us to the gameplay itself.

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening understands that players outside of Japan haven’t seen a Nobunaga game in years, and this is also the first one on the Switch. As a result, there is a very detailed, very considerate tutorial to bring the players in from the drop. You quickly understand the core ideals of the game: you have to build up your own dominion to make it prosperous and lucrative, establish communications and alliances with neighboring realms/lords, and prepare for a shift in the air as history unfolds in real time. As much as you can plan for peace and friendship, there are literally dozens of other leaders all working at the same time, concocting their own plans that will interfere with your own. Additionally, there will be real-life historic moments that interrupt even the best laid plans, and you’ll hear all about them.

Nobunaga's Ambition: Awakening takeda

Takeda-san will reflect many, many times on the missteps he takes throughout the game.

Sadly, you’ll be hearing about everything through text only, as the baffling choice to remove the Japanese voices from Awakening’s Western release shocks me to the core. Not only is there no Japanese voicework, there’s incredibly generic and apropos English voices shot through, giving this the same vibe as a PS1-era localization with the limitations of an SNES sound chip. You have these larger-than-life figures that capture the public’s fascination with the past espousing ultra utilitarian lines like “I’m ready to serve!” or “I will bring honor to the clan!” Like, this is some Warcraft level simplicity, and I ended up just playing with the sound off. The music isn’t terrible, but the quippy nature of shogun and samurai sounding like grunts for the Horde made my head hurt.

It’s a fascinating game from an observer’s standpoint, and watching the way that even the most innocuous sounding events (like a feudal lord changing their name) have greater impact on the overall scope of history is exceedingly cool. These scenes are rendered with portraits and static backgrounds, with the occasional massive event having some excellent animation. Most of the great animation comes from pivotal combat encounters, which are a bit of a unicorn to achieve. Not that there isn’t a tremendous amount of fighting (it IS the Sengoku era), but getting to those moments and being a part of them means one of three things: you’re a fantastic player with a keen eye for strategy and guile; you quickly skimmed the Wikipedia on famous events and chose to be a key player; or you edited your character to survive as long as possible because that’s how we roll these days.

Nobunaga's Ambition: Awakening conditions

Unlike Civilization, at least you don’t need to worry about Kagoshima developing nukes.

I have no idea if that’s a standard for Nobunaga’s Ambition, but I was shocked when I checked the menu and saw that you could just upgrade everything and fill your coffers at any point. I understand no one HAS to do that, but for it to be an option was baffling. If the point of the game is to overcome difficult situations and have a cunning mind, isn’t that undercut by the available option to IDKFA at any point in the game? If a feudal lord can snap his fingers and suddenly the treasury is bursting and every province has a full set of amenities, what’s to keep the stakes high and allow players to stay engaged? Sure, I’m struggling to keep my head above water, but maybe a life vest instead of a speedboat?

Nobunaga's Ambition: Awakening coffers

I could work on my strategy and gameplay….or I could click this button. Decisions…

It was about this time that I realized: Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening doesn’t seem to care if you’re playing it or not. You’re already balancing multiple vectors of concentration and planning that you can sequence and execute but still need to think about. You have couriers telling you all the hot gossip across the country. You’re seeing seasons change and watching literal years pass as you try to amass your forces. But this is all set in stone, in a way. Even if you choose something anachronistic like being the Oshima leader (southern Hokkaido) and then dominate the country, nothing changes about the game. You get a victory screen, but it’s not like it alters the overall experience or history itself. It’s still Nobunaga’s game, and he’s supposed to be the big winner.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get completely, utterly and fully drawn into the game. There’s so many details about assignments, roles and assessing risks/rewards that I am stunned that longtime fans feel that Awakening has been “dumbed down” to make it more accessible to newcomers. I can’t possibly imagine the game being more complicated, and it’s rare for me to find a title where I say, unironically, you need to put at least ten hours in before things start to pick up.

There’s a very good chance that, without altering your clan through the menu, that you’ll be bored to tears on the gentle, gradual progress that comes from trying to make anyone besides a key figure in a historic event worthwhile. If you load up The Battle of Mikatagahara and you choose anyone besides Takeda Shingen or Tokugawa Ieyasu you’ll eventually start scrapping, but it will take a while.

Nobunaga's Ambition: Awakening

I still lost so many battles even with cheats turned on. I’m apparently a terrible general.

Overall, I view Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening as trying to take part in a Civil War reenactment. You’ve got a bunch of people who are deadly serious about roleplaying someone in history, regardless of how small the part, and the idea is to try and capture key moments perfectly. If you’re someone who’s going off script, people will work around you to try and get the boat back on course, and a select few will actively try and murder you for riffing instead of just falling off the bridge like you’re supposed to. Clearly, as a video game, it’s nowhere near that rigid, but it’s that same sensation of “am I doing this right? I don’t want to upset anyone.”

I personally wouldn’t return to this game in the future, even if they do manage to bring over the Japanese audio so it doesn’t sound like a 70s martial arts dub. The amount of detail is intense, the campaigns are especially long, and the exceptional animated sequences are few and far between from simply staring at a small map and even smaller menus to do a multitude of tasks. This game is definitely for someone, and, if you’re even remotely interested in Japanese history, this is an incredible feat of a title. But it’s too big of an ask for too little of a reward. I’ll let history stay history.

Graphics: 6.0

Robust design in animated sequences and highly detailed character portraits, the forced limitation of the real estate prevents players from fully enjoying the view, but that may also help improve performance.

Gameplay: 6.0

Make a ton of decisions about fund allocation, unit movements, upgrades, trades, negotiations and more, then unpause the game and see how everything plays out. A brutal amount of choices that thankfully can be made without the crushing advance of time.

Sound: 2.0

Bestial how they treated this game. English voice actors sound like they were given vague ideas about “fighting in Asia” and nothing more. Zero voiced lines, just sound bites injected where plot should go. Shameful.

Fun Factor: 6.0

Once you really get the ball rolling, you can get fully entrenched in a campaign and spend hours watching it all unfold, almost more interested in everyone else than your own fate. Once the ride stops, though, it’s hard to muster the courage to get back on.

Final Verdict: 5.5

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening is available now on PS4, PS5, PC and Switch.

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

A copy of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Awakening was provided by the publisher.