Oriental Empires immediately captured my eye. I'm a big fan of looking back in time, and anyone who has studied Chinese history knows the "Warring States" period was one of the most politically fascinating eras in the Asian continent. This was the time that defined war for centuries, changing the face of China and the surrounding countries forever. The Qin (spoiler alert) conquered seven different dynasties in the effort of unifying the nation, which founded the area we know now as China, with little variation. This was the time when Art of War hit the metaphorical library shelves and when the crossbow was first introduced as an easy way to defeat noblemen in combat. This is when large-scale irrigation projects and enormous reforms in logistics allowed for the use of one million men in battle, an increase in warfare's scale never seen before on the continent. This is when the ideas of Confucianism and Taoism were first brought to the nation and when the idea of bureaucracy became a widespread means of managing vast empires.
Unfortunately, Oriental Empires does not manage to capture that feeling of immense political depth and twisting narrative. Oriental Empires tends to capture the complexities of the time period in much the same way the Civilization series captures the importance of the assembly line for the development of a modern army: it's a research point you unlock. Barring my disapproval of the simplicity, Oriental Empires appears to have done its own research. Many of the subjects spoken of in the research screens, the designs of the farms and the troops, the individual bonuses each dynasty can get all represent the culture fairly well. When you see your noblemen troops on the ground, you'll notice the use of bronze and silk as major forms of armor in battle. As technology progresses, you'll see the progression of iron, the use of crossbows, the increased importance of mass warfare.
This turn-based empire management 4X is very similar to Civilization in more than one way. Where it doesn't take exactly from Civilization and the Total War series, it fails to make any significant impact. You found cities with settlers, train up troops, build farms, grow your population, manage money, and every once in a while throw some gold coins in the direction of your neighbors to keep them from attacking you. The city interface is straightforward, showing you how much of your population is being used up for different tasks in a delightfully easy way. A series of colored shapes represent each population, and by building farms, a section will turn blue. The green ones will be farmers, and the gray ones are possibly sitting at home watching The Good Earth. You choose where your farms will be built, where roads will go, and where you'll place "external buildings", the few things that don't belong in a city because the resources they collect are outside of the city itself, such as a nearby quay or fishing spots.
You train troops by waiting for populations to be filled, at which point you can instantly transform them into noble troops or peasant troops. As you can expect, noble troops squadrons are smaller, more expensive, but better overall. Peasants appear to either fill in the role of meat shield or get in the way of your noble troops. Both train instantly at your cities, but there are less "charges" of population available at any given moment that can be turned into troops. For example, at your city, you may have 5 "charges" that can become peasant battalions, but only 2 noble population "charges". If this sounds extraordinarily simple, that's because it is.
Oriental Empires just lacks so much as to be worrying. I had to check a few times to make sure the copy I was using wasn't in Early Access, as I kept coming across symbols, references, and ideas that had no tutorial, no encyclopedia, and no tooltips to guide you. I still have no idea what many of the symbols and numbers next to some of the troop columns actually represent. The battles are fairly solid until you notice the awful pathfinding, where your troops will stand to the side and calmly watch other people fight because one corner of the flank is currently running into one of your own soldiers. The battles take place in real time in-between the normal turns. You choose where troops will go, what formation they have, which direction they face, and then if they happen to meet another army, they engage in a quick skirmish. Once that's finished, you return to normal decision making.
I tested battles in a variety of settings to determine what may change the outcome. I tried battles in winter to see if there were changes to morale or health, but it didn't appear that was so. I tried changing troop facings so they were actually backward when they were attacked by raiders. This did not appear to change how effective they were. The only thing I noticed that consistently changed the outcome of the battle between two equal forces is placement, which is often random chance. You can decide to set defensive formations, charges, and four other placements, but this didn't actually matter in battle. Troops often decided to make strange decisions on where they moved, which could have them running into each other, flanking their own friendlies, or otherwise bumbling around like a human centipede version of Mr. Magoo. You can calmly wait for your troops to eventually make it to the battle just in time for it to end.
Eventually, I got the hang of Oriental Empires and learned not how to fight battles as you might in real life, but how to fight battles within the twisted realm of the game rules. Tying up the enemy with a single peasant charge and then having enormous amounts of archers to fire into the battle was by far the best and least likely way any real skirmish would have gone, but it worked in my games. What usually happens in a skirmish is that one side or the other eventually loses their nerve or morale and ends up running away. The enemy usually allows them to retreat without actually giving chase, which I'm not particularly used to. The depth you might ask for in making a Parthenian retreat doesn't exist in Oriental Empires, and neither does any tactic based around hiding or maneuvering individual battalions into extremely useful positions.
Eventually, you may increase your ability to wage battle through the ability to research upgrades in four different areas. Each research tree can be pursued individually, and for the life of me, I'm still not entirely sure how Oriental Empires determines the speed this research is done. It's possible I missed some tiny clue, but the number next to each slate doesn't appear to change, which means all research, from the beginning, will take a certain amount of time depending on your faction, and there's no way to increase the speeds. Many types of research increase things like "influence" or "authority", but it takes a lot of work and flipping through the menus to finally find what that actually means. Trade abilities are increased through research as well, but you don't have significant control over how and where this trade is steered.
Diplomacy is similar to how the Civilization series handles it, but there's now a larger variety of treatises you can engage in. This doesn't feel like it actually makes the diplomatic actions interesting or complex, so much as make it difficult to remember which treatise did what, and who you made it with, and why they're sending you a huge amount of gold for no apparent reason. Overall, Oriental Empires feels like an even simpler version of Civilization V , which I wasn't even sure was possible.
The limited control, the straightforward choices in production, the simplified skirmish control system, all of these things leave you empty. I would call it a good starter game for the 4x genre, except the lack of transparency and the lack of anything close to a tutorial would make it a horrible starter game. I'm not sure which demographic they're attempting to reach, since the hardcore 4x players will find this limited and way too simple, while brand new players would find it frustratingly boring. The animations and textures look okay, but it fails to make any visually interesting elements outside of some slight model changes. The music is interesting at least, but the fast pace doesn't fit in with the incredibly slow moving battles. I was feeling the distinctly opposite feeling of "one more turn" syndrome, in that I wondered if the next turn might finally bring me something interesting to do.
When introducing such an emotional and narratively complex time in history, a game's mechanics, its art, its very essence should reflect that. You shouldn't feel as if you're playing some historical game, you should feel as if you're managing armies and cities. You should feel as if lives are in your hands, that the future of an entire nation is being forged by your every decision. The momentum you build, the troops you inspire, this should give birth to classic literature and schools of thought that are still followed two thousand years in the future. Oriental Empires never makes you feel like an emperor. It never makes you feel like a nobleman or a general or even the guy who invented a new way of measuring and distributing rice to peasants. It never makes you feel like you're actually there. It feels like an empty shadow, a vapid, basic reconstruction of one of the most glorious periods in history.
Our Oriental Empires review was conducted on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.
Oriental Empires lacks in content on all levels and thus removes the player's ability to experience and explore an interesting time period. If you enjoy the 4x genre, it's a possible interest, but it's otherwise uninspired.
- An Incredible Zoom Variable Level
- Excellent Music
- Uninspired, Stale Combat
- Overly Simplified and Boring City Management
- Frustrating Interface That Lacks in Guidance