Developer: Shining Pixel Studios
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Rating: PEGI 16 (violence)
Set in ancient China, Oriental Empires allows you to take an individual Chinese faction and build it into a powerful dynasty. Spanning three periods of Chinese history, the game allows players to develop their economy, military, trade, and inter-faction relations. Anyone familiar with the Civilization series should feel right at home here.
Spiritual Content: There is a lot of Chinese mysticism within the “Thought” skill tree. Some examples include ancestor worship, shamanism, and divination. While these skills don’t directly translate into any gameplay elements (meaning you cannot actively divine the future or perform shamanistic rituals), they are still part of the game’s culture and worth noting.
Violence: Units clash on the battle field in bloodless violence. Players can see the combat in as much or as little detail as they like—zooming out makes the units look like little more than ants running clashing while zooming in will show individual soldiers jabbing at each other with swords, spears, and other forms of weaponry.
Positive Content: As a strategy game, Oriental Empires makes you think and plan your actions around limited resources, a skill that is always useful in real life and should be practiced as much as possible. Like the Civilization games, the game does not make it easy to be a world dominator, so forming peaceful relations with surrounding civilizations is preferred to constantly being at war. In that sense, the prevailing benefit of peace is a positive aspect for Christian gamers.
Oriental Empires can be played in either a single player campaign or in multiplayer online mode. The single player campaign starts by asking the player to choose one of several factions, some of which are not unlocked until at least 200 turns have been played in a different campaign. Each faction comes with a brief history and different strengths and weaknesses, which are derived from the clans’ characteristics. For example, a clan may have a history of manufacturing, which would give a bonus to technologies studied under the “craft” tree, meaning it would take less time to research these items, but they may be a more peaceable nation, meaning that items in their “power” tree could take longer to research. Using this knowledge, players will be able to pick a faction that meets their preferred strategy or to at least formulate a strategy for how to play early on.
Once the faction is chosen, the game will start. Unfortunately, the game does not follow a historical timeline like what you would see in the Total War series. Instead, as previously mentioned, it bears a close resemblance to Civilization, so once you get into the game you are free to develop and move about according to your own strategy. There are no missions or quests to be completed. Whether this is a positive, negative, or neutral factor will greatly depend on whether or not the player has a preference between the play styles. While having quests is a great way to mix up the gameplay, it can also distract from a player’s ability to pursue their chosen strategy, as the quest may require players to move in a different direction for completion.
Regardless of your faction, you will start with one city already founded and one settler unit. Settler units, as the name implies, are units used to settle new cities. The game will provide a tutorial explaining the best places to found cities and what different bonuses are available—for example, forming a city near rhinos increases income while forming a city near a herd of deer will increase food production. New settlers can be hired after a set number of turns, and each city you found will have its own cycle of producing settlers. Players have to consider the placement of cities, of course, along with their available monetary resources and the authority of their leader—a faction that develops a greater number cities than its leader has authority risks revolts. This is made even more challenging by the fact that leaders can die in battle (or from age), with an heir taking over, and the heir does not inherit their predecessor’s influence.
Other factors that players can govern are the advanced construction of their cities (walls, palaces, city expansions), construction of various buildings in their cities, and the forming of military units. Everything costs money to build and most things require a maintenance fee per turn, meaning that players have to keep a close eye on their income versus expenditures. This is actually one of my biggest complaints about the game—making money is hard, and there aren’t any tutorials that give an in-depth explanation of how to make money. Trading is mentioned, of course, and this is initiated by building a bazaar in each town. Once a town has a bazaar, it can begin trading with other towns in your control. The game also tells you that if one city produces something another city doesn’t, then trade value increases; for example, if one city has a silk weaver and another city has a jade manufacturer, then the value of trading increases because there are unique items in each city. Despite this, I never noticed a considerable increase in my income, and every time I constructed something new or hired a new military unit, I felt the hit to my finances. In addition, there is no way for the player to control trade with other factions. It is possible to have this type of trade going on, but it happens automatically, and isn’t guaranteed to happen with all of the factions with which you are friendly. It would be nice to control my own trade network and to negotiate trade values on my own terms, instead of having the game decide who I do and don’t get to trade with.
Money woes aside, the game also allows you to research various areas of expertise. There are four different categories—power, craft, thought, and knowledge—and players can research one item from each category at a time. This was a nice addition compared to what I’m used to, since I didn’t have to choose between researching a new military unit or a new craft production; I could have them going on simultaneously. Of course, some items in a category are dependent upon an item in another category. For example, you can’t research bowmen in power until you research bows in craft, so there is some planning involved when deciding which items you want to research at any given time.
With all that said, allow me to share one of my biggest complaints about the game: the menu system. While most of the menus are actually very convenient, some are downright frustrating. On the positive side, the menu on the right hand side of the screen gives you quick access to things like your relationships with other factions, your research, your statistics compared to other factions, and many other helpful factors. Likewise, the menu on the right hand side of the screen provides a quick way to check on events that have happened that turn—including construction progress and research progress—and a quick way to switch between your various cities. Well that all sounds positive, right? So what’s my gripe? Construction! In order to construct buildings or hire military units, you have to enter a completely different menu system, which is done by double-clicking on the city you want to build in. From here, you can toggle between buildings and military by clicking the appropriate tab at the top of the screen. It is simply frustrating to not be able to do all of this from the main screen—why not have a menu at the bottom of the screen that provides quick access to your construction options, a la Total War? On top of this, some cities will not have access to certain things, such as military units, but no explanation as to why seems to be given. This is also where players will be able to build farms, construct roads, and clear forests, all of which provide their own benefits.
Now that we’ve briefly looked at construction, let’s talk about the map and exploration. As previously stated, players will be able to recruit settler units to scout the land and settle new cities. Military units can also explore the land, and a unit with a leader can navigate to “encounter” tiles, where players may be able to meet influential people that can be recruited with various bonuses. A crafting master, for example, may offer his services for a fee, and from that point on the player may receive a bonus when researching items in the craft tree. Players can also encounter bandits who will rob them on these tiles. Opposing factions will also move around the map and through player territory. As these factions appear, players have the option to negotiate various agreements with them, including defensive alliances and peace treaties. Honestly, I felt that establishing defensive alliances was a little too easy. Every time I would encounter a new faction, I would offer to set up a defensive alliance and a peace treaty with them, in exchange for them revealing the location of their capital. Every once in a while I would receive a counter offer that asked for some money from me, but I never had my offer rejected. Granted, it is nice to not have to worry about conflict early on in the game, but establishing peace just felt too easy.
Of course, what would a strategy game be without war? Players can enter combat with bandit units as well as other factions. While combat is automated—meaning that when combat starts, the troops behave on their own instead of the player directing individual units. Instead, the player can set up behavioral strategies ahead of time that will dictate how particular units should act when they get into combat. Those seeking world domination can also attack and capture opposing cities to add to their own empire. While not much to look at from afar, players can zoom in on battling units to watch combat situations in great detail. For those not interested, combat can also be sped up to get it over with faster. I do not recall any blood actually being depicted in combat scenarios, so those who do not enjoy graphical depictions of blood and gore should be relieved.
Overall, Oriental Empires provides everything one would expect from a strategy game. While some factors are frustrating—namely earning money and navigating the menus—it is a solid game and should be enjoyable to anyone who likes the strategy game medium. As previously stated, those who have played Civilization 5 should especially feel at home here.