My first impression of Shogun 2: Total War was that it was just Empire: Total War wearing Japanese pants. Underneath all the kabuto, hakama and a very slow rendition of Sakura, the core mechanics seem very much the same as in its rather poorly-received predecessor. However, enough tweaks have been made to the design that what was a little awkward and confusing before is now an extremely streamlined and logical game.
Part of the design’s success comes through how the game teaches you its mechanics without actually saying anything. Whereas in Medieval II: Total War, the exact effects of a general’s traits or garrisoned troops on a settlement’s happiness were a matter of vague percentages, here it’s very straightforward: one unit gives one point of repression. It’s a small thing, but indicative of the larger design, in that when a problem arises, you immediately know why and what you need to do to fix it.
Sounds like the internet.
The diplomacy system is also vastly improved. Whereas in previous games I would just steamroll over anybody who looked at me cockeyed, in Shogun 2 that’s a short road to ruin. For the first time reputation really matters, so you’ll have to play nice if you don’t want to fight all of Japan before you have to. Break trade agreements, betray alliances, expand your territory too fast, even marry a daughter off to the wrong faction and somebody will get mad about it. You really need to be careful with who you choose as your allies and trade partners, so that you don’t end up having to pick between joining someone else’s war or being branded an unreliable ally.
While this sounds limiting, it gives you the opportunity to manipulate your rivals. Got a young heir you’re not using? Offer them as a hostage to cement a peace treaty, Theon Greyjoy style. Need support in a war? Pay another faction to join your valiant struggle. Want to appear more honourable? Show mercy by turning a conquered faction into a vassal—that will also pay you tribute and back you up in a fight. It’s a cold, underhanded dance that turns even the most decent of players into a conniving sociopath. Welcome to politics.
I too, stockpile my flatulence for use as a weapon.
Unfortunately, this all goes out the window once you hit Realm Divide. As your primary objective is to overthrow the current Shogun, he doesn’t take kindly to you getting too powerful. Seize enough territory and he’ll declare you an enemy of the state, compelling all of Japan to crush you into dust. This means that all of your diplomatic relations will deteriorate a little more every turn, until even your closest allies take up arms against you. While it’s possible to slow the effect by bribing your allies to like you more, you’ll need that money to fund your armies so you don’t lose everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve. A trade economy is almost impossible at this point, as even if you can secure your routes and keep your ports from being blockaded, eventually you’ll run out of friendly factions with which to trade. Perhaps most annoying of all is that Realm Divide doesn’t stop after you become Shogun, forcing you to dominate Japan with an iron fist, regardless of how cleverly you chose to play up until that point.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only way that Shogun 2 manipulates your playing style. The new additions of interrelated buildings and province specialisations mean that there are only a couple of “right” ways to build your settlements, and research technologies. Say you want to focus on archery. You’ll research and build an archery range to get the basics, a hunting lodge to improve their accuracy, a monastery to train warrior monk archers, a stable to train mounted archers and a siege engineer’s workshop to train fire bomb throwers who also benefit from the hunting lodge. To fit all these into one castle town, you’ll need to upgrade to a citadel which requires researching Epic Architecture and having access to stone. But that puts a strain on your food stores, so you’ll need to upgrade your farms as well, which requires even more research. Plus, researching advanced bow arts forces you to also research advanced cavalry arts, whether you care about using horses or not. It’s all so frustratingly interconnected, and you can spend dozens of turns building or researching things you don’t even want just to get access to the few you do.
Largest “Ring Around The Rosie” performance of all time.
Nonetheless, despite its flaws Shogun 2 is a beautiful experience that does its best to make you forget you’re playing a game at all. It gets in your head and devours the daylight, leaving you lying awake at night devising cunning new strategies for your ashigaru and metsuke. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be coming back to reconquer Japan over and over again.
The fun way to learn Japanese. Well, bits of it.