Total War: Shogun 2 is a relatively old Total War title, from 2011. While it does retain the very same structure as most of the other Total War games of the series, there are numerous changes that were made to accommodate the Japanese context. Note that I have not played the first Total War Shogun and I am therefore unable to compare what changed versus that episode.
There are two main scenarii to choose from in Total War Shogun 2: the main one from the 戦国時代 (the warring states period – approximately taken place between 1550 and 1600 AD) and the Fall of the Samurai (an expansion/DLC), taking place much later in Japan when it is forced to open up with the foreign powers in late 19th century. I did not play the expansion at all at this stage, so let me talk only about the base game.
Let’s not go in great depth as to how Total War works, since it’s about the same in every game in the series – this being said if you are unfamiliar with the overall concept, let’s say Total War is a mix of very high level strategy (mostly military with the preparation of large armies, with some pretty basic elements of civil aspects management), and battle tactics, where you can directly control soldiers and squads on a very detailed map. What has made Total War so popular in the past was the sheer amount of units it could display at the same time on the battlefield, making large battles look very impressive and convincing.
Now in 2017, it’s certainly not as impressive as it used to be, but it still works well to give a sense of scale and grandeur. In titles like Rome Total War you could also manage your family lineage literally over the span of centuries if my memory does not fail me – in Shogun 2, the time scale is much more restricted, and therefore the family management aspect is a lot more limited. At best, you can use the members of your family to conclude alliances (wedding your daughter with another clan’s son) or exchange hostages, but that’s about it.
You start the game when the Japan system, basically divided in provinces with local lords, is losing grasp as local lords start attacking each others to gain territories and influence. Before moving to the game itself, it’s useful to provide a little background from a historical standpoint. Japan’s government used to be only in the hands of the Emperors, for a very long time in the archipelago – the legend says the Emperors were direct descendants of the Sun goddess and absolute rulers over their people. Early on, Japan was far from being a unified country, and there were still many territories mainly in the north of Japan (above 仙台 Sendai, basically), completely under control of the Yezo people – that Japanese refer to under the “Ainu” name as well. Because there were ongoing conflicts between the two populations, progressively the Japanese empire had developed something very similar to a standing army, sent by the Emperor when needed to deal with the troublemakers.
As this military organization grew in power and the Emperor became more and more remote from the life of its citizens, the Japanese were actually living under two rulers: the Emperor, the supreme political ruler (in theory), and the shogun, responsible of all military matters, and progressively in control of a lot more aspects as the Emperors lost influence. There are numerous reasons why the Emperors lost influence in Japan, but noble families surrounding the Emperor had a vested interest in insuring the Emperor did not change anything and was not involved in governing the country, so that the court of advisors and agents from specific families could remain in control.
Such families also helped perpetuate the system that emperors would abdicate even in early adulthood to give power to child Emperors who were unable in effect to rule the country and who needed oversight from a regent carefully selected. The shogun benefited from this weak power to extend its influence over the country, so that in fact the shogun became the real ruler. At the time of the warring states period (starting around 1540~50 AD), the shogunate had fallen in a similar situation where the heir to the shogun was only a teenager and their power had eroded. On top of that, in the century before the warring state the power of the shogun has been progressively fading so that there was little deference from the local lords, known as the 大名 daimyo, towards the shogun. The daimyo realized that there were clear opportunities to gain territories without facing much resistance, and the whole country fell into many years of constant warfare before it reached stability again.
In Shogun 2 you take the control of one of the great families, and try to establish yourself as the new Shogun (you have to invade Kyoto for that purpose, and take the control of a specified set of regions depending on your family). You only have a limited amount of time to reach that objective.
Each turn of the game lets you decide how to spend your resources: you have ongoing revenues from taxes and trade, and you could consider improving the installations of the regions you control, expanding your army by recruiting more soldiers. You can further your influence on other clans by opening diplomatic channels with other families, and try to make alliances or at least opening trade with them. However, unlike Civilization where you can decide to remain peaceful as long as possible, here your goal is driven by conquest, and you basically need to secure enough funds to ensure you have at least one or several large armies you can count on to achieve your goals.
Large armies are powerful and make it easier to conquer other territories, but they consume a lot of resources and require that you have enough trade and industry to cover the costs. Another option to help financially is to conquer and loot every new region you can reach – this is not always recommended, since the conquered population will be much more likely to revolt afterwards. You could always make that region tax-free for a while and keep the standing army in the vicinity to cool things down, but then you are technically wasting time and resources that could be used somewhere else. The game is well designed in that it always forces you to make difficult decisions and trade-offs, and more than once odds will seem against you.
Shogun 2 brings the Japanese aspects on the theater of war, with a good mixture of archers, samurai, spearmen, and early units using rifles (actually matchlocks!). In the strategy phase, you can also hire spies and ninja to sabotage equipment, open gates of forts, or even assassinate enemy commanders (while the likelihood is pretty low).
The game also features a kind of tech/religious tree (that’s a little weird in the way it’s structured) that lets you unlock specific units, traits or features once you complete researching for such items. The family screen even provides some kind of RPG elements, with each male family member having a set of attributes that can increase and level up as they earn victories on the battlefield. Certain levels unlock personal agents you can attach to a general or a leader, to increase their influence or characteristics.
Shogun 2 seems at first well researched. The map of Japan, featuring the old names of provinces, is accurate, as well as the families involved in the conflict. It gets many things right (such as the fact there was no canons or any kind of artillery at that time), and there is no glaring issue in the way it describes things overall. The diplomatic options are faithful to the times: you can help relieving tensions between clans by arranging marriages, offering monetary gifts… weaker enemies can be turned into vassals (they stay autonomous but provide you with a monthly share of their income). You can exchange hostages to seal an otherwise difficult deal. It’s fairly elaborate and while hostile enemies are hard to convince anyway, you can ask your allies to join you in a war so that you do not fight in a specific region alone.
I was pretty impressed that Shogun 2 even tried to simulate the spread of Christianity in Japan. Once again they got this aspect very right – at the time of the events depicted in the game, the Christian faith was spreading progressively after the numerous exchanges between the Portuguese and the Japanese, and the arrival of Francois Xavier in 1549 in the southern part of Japan. Not too long after, there are historical accounts of a few lords becoming converts, and even forcing their own folks to adopt the faith and reject Buddhism. In the area of Nagasaki, the conversion was more natural, and commoners started to adopt the faith by themselves as they exchanged more and more with the foreign powers, so that Nagasaki became the first Christian city of Japan. It did not last too long, as a severe persecution and extermination of Christians took a heavy toll on its followers in the early 1600s till the late 19th century, so that Christianity completely disappeared.
The game gives you a couple of options towards that new religion, and provides ongoing information about the number of your citizens converting to that faith. You can also decide to convert your own family and embrace it fully. I did not go that far to see the full blown effects of such actions, but just the fact that they thought about modeling it is a very nice touch. If you play as southern lord (such as the Shimazu family), the direct contact with the foreign powers also brings some military advantages: the first rifles (matchlocks) to ever enter Japan. Such units are extremely effective at short range compared to archers, and it can make quite an impact when used again samurai or other infantry units.
Overall there’s a lot of attention to details that went in the game, especially in the overall context of the times. However when it comes to actual battles, the game makes strange assumptions.
Not a big deal, but fights start with a cutscene just before battles take place. It is voiced in Japanese with English subtitles. So far, so good. But during combat, voice-overs become in English, spoken with a strong Japanese accent. That’s a little disconcerting. Why mix both ? Either do everything in one style, or don’t, for consistency.
There are several issues as well with castle sieges. When you decide to take a castle, you can simply wait a certain number of turns, besieging the castle until the inhabitants either starve or decide to fight back. Or you can of course directly attack the castle by yourself. When you storm the place, the battle takes place directly around the castle (which is what you’d expect). However when the defendants decide to fight back, the castle is gone out of the view and the battle follows somewhere else in nature. It just does not make sense. In reality the castle garrison has to come out of their fortress, and that should be a very risky endeavor and already cost many lives.
Siege battles are also way too easy compared to what it was like in medieval Japan. In the game you see hordes of samurai climbing the walls of the castle, as if it were easy and normal. Well, newsflash: it’s not. It’s certainly not practical to climb such walls when you are wearing a heavy armor. You may wonder if there were indeed soldiers even climbing at all, and that is a good question. Yes, this is not a complete invention of the game, it did happen, but the game certainly takes it to a whole different level when it shows hundreds of armored men climbing at the same time. Castle walls in Japan tend to be pretty steep, and irregular (not like bricks) – there were measures to repel such intruders, such as holes in the wall to attack anyone going that path. It may have occurred in certain circumstances (at night, or behind the main front line) but it seems very unlikely that hordes of samurai would go and climb in groups.
Also, the way the castles are laid out in Shogun 2 seems very strange – just one large keep in the center, and empty space all around, and a fortification in square shape. That’s not really how castles were organized.
First, castles had multiple buildings within their circle: the samurai class almost exclusively lived in the living quarters inside the walls of the castle. Around the castle there should be the habitations of farmers, merchants, well everything that should be in any regular city of the time to sustain the local populace. Shogun 2 shows castles as being remote buildings with absolutely nothing around. That is a little weird as other titles in the series, as far as I can remember, did not make that kind of mistake.
Then, the layout of castles were usually not so simple. Not just rectangle or square-shaped: there used to feature multiple paths leading to the main keep, with towers overlooking them where archers could easily fire at enemies from multiple angles and levels. Add to that multiple large gates, traps, and the large elevated keep full of archers along the way and you would quickly understand that siege battles were very, very costly for the attacker, and not really worth it.
The fact that castles were built on top of hills made it almost impossible to use any siege equipment (unlike in the Roman era) to cross or defeat walls, so the preferred way of dealing with such cases was to lay siege and wait it out (and more often than not, negotiate with the local lord for their surrender – there are cases where both attackers and defenders would sit together, go through figures as to how long each of them would last with their own resources, and then decide if the confrontation was really worth it or not, without actually waiting for x months for nothing). There were dozens of castle sieges during the warring states period, and here’s what we find about a few of them:
Tottori castle: it could only start to be weakened when attackers found an abandoned secret passage leading to the castle, but even though they could not beat the castle defenders. The defenders finally gave up in the end because of mass desertion.
Iimoriyama castle siege: attackers laid siege multiple times in vain, but the castle was only defeated once the defendants surrendered by themselves.
Iwasaki castle: the sieging army tried 3 consecutive times to take the castle. Each time they were repelled by castle defendants. The main area of the fight was at the southern gates, and there was no story of a bunch of samurai climbing the walls… in the end after several family members of the lord were killed in battle, and as the castle garrison started leaving in droves, the castle was finally surrendered.
Takamatsu siege: Hideyoshi (famous general who ended up taking power after Nobunaga’s passing) commanding more than 30 000 troops, understood it was going to be a very difficult siege – the castle was surrounded by water, making the crossing by foot impossible. Instead of losing tons of soldiers with poor odds, he took a very different approach and decided to divert the river to flood the castle grounds themselves, thus incapacitating the enemy.
I am quoting this example since it so happened in-game that in the same area a castle was in a similar position (a couple of rivers flowing about it) and I expected the infantry to stop, but no! They crossed the rivers as if there was nothing. OK…
There are multiple historical accounts of why such siege battles being particularly hard to win, and it just seems that it’s far too easy in the game to take a castle. And on the opposite, it tends to be difficult to hold a fort – you comparatively need a lot of troops in order to repel attackers assaulting your walls – it’s ok to have less than your enemy’s, but if the margin is too large there is just no way you will hold it. Historical records account for small garrisons that could defeat large attacking forces, because of the castle defense designs. So… I was a little disappointed with what they did there. I understand Shogun 2 is not a simulation, yet it would have benefited from depicting things a little more accurately.
Trade is a very important of Shogun 2 since it will bring much needed revenues to help sustain your standing armies. It’s mostly automated if you build the right buildings and ships, but then it becomes really tedious when you enter war against another clan that happens to share the same trade routes: you will be faced with battles at sea between ships, and this is probably the
<em>worst aspect of the game </em>. Maybe it’s supposed to be like that, but all your ships move very slowly and react slowly to any order you issue – even when accelerating how fast time passes, it still feels clunky. And since there’s rarely more than a few ships involved in such battles, there’s not a lot of tactics to think about. Of course, you are never forced to proceed to the battle map – it’s always possible to let the software compute the outcome for you (while it may bring worse odds), which is what I end up doing. I’m not sure they should have taken the same approach as the land battles.
The UI of the Shogun 2 works well in most cases, but there are a couple of very annoying issues – for example, when you get a diplomatic event with a representative of a different clan requests of proposes something, you only see the name of that clan. There is no way to check where they are located on the map, how strong or prosperous they are – which are critical elements needed to make a decision. It’s fine when you know the game well, but it’s certainly throwing you off a little otherwise.
Despite such flaws, Total War: Shogun 2 is one of the better episodes of the series. The context is engaging, it remains a fascinating period of Japanese history, and the changes they did to the base game work well, for the most, to make for a very satisfying experience where every aspect (financial, diplomatic, military) matters a lot to reach victory ultimately. Because of the ongoing challenge, you may fall under the “one more turn” syndrome just like I did, leaving you playing for much longer than you expected.
Now let’s touch on the port itself from Feral. In my testing I did not suffer any crash or freeze so once again this is as stable as it gets. No graphical glitches either to report, and while the game uses OpenGL, performance is pretty good on my hardware in max settings (i5 3,4 Ghz, 8GB RAM, GTX970), running at 60 FPS in most situation as long as you remain at a high level. Once you start to zoom in to see individual units fighting, the frame rate can drop pretty heavily when there are hundreds of units fighting on screen.
I don’t have the Windows version to compare, but I would assume that the sheer number of draw calls needed to represent such battle scenes would also drive frame rates down regardless of the OS. This being said there is no particular reason to zoom in a the individual unit level – if your tactics are failing at large, you will see it anyway. There are also indicators on your army group icons showing how fast they are getting decimated – which is sufficient to know what’s occurring. In other words, such fluctuations in frame rate do not impact the gameplay much.
I spent my whole game on this game with the Steam controller in hands, sitting on the couch (using the configuration called “Gamepad Crazy”) and it worked perfectly to replace the keyboard and mouse, which is great for a game of such complexity. I can heartily recommend this kind of setup.
So there you have it. It’s now probably one of my favorite Total War games along with Rome Total War (still waiting for the second episode… who knows, one day?) – not perfect, but pretty fun and well balanced. I forgot to mention the amazing work of Roland the illustrator on that game who managed to recreate artwork in the style of 浮世絵 ukiyo-e which matches very well with the overall atmosphere of the game. Well worth a look !
Following this review, Total War: Shogun 2 enters our list of recommended games for Linux!
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