Review: Oriental Empires

Ancient China really doesn’t get the attention it deserves in gaming. Stalwarts like Ancient Rome and Greece are depicted time and again by genre heavy weights like the Total War series. Meanwhile, Ancient China is often left out in the cold, its rich history of civil war, innovation and myth being watered down in Western portrayals into a single unified state.

Oriental Empires by Shining Pixel Studios goes a long way toward rectifying these oversights. With more than 2000 years of history to play with, from the various civilizations that ruled prior to China’s first unification to the invention of gunpowder and beyond, the result is a heady mixture of rich Chinese culture, angry (and playable!) steppe tribesmen and a sprinkling of Sun Tzu. A concoction let down only by its inflexible and opaque AI.

If Total War is a combination of Civilization and Age of Empires, then Oriental Empires takes that combination a step further. The game’s turn-based gameplay takes place over a single unified (and vast) hex map of China, where players found cities, build farms and infrastructure and direct armies. Turns take place using using the WEGO system where all players’ have their turns resolved simultaneously when a turn is ended.

Taken together, these features make for a smooth game with minimal downtime and is undoubtedly a step above current historical game design, where alternate turns and long loading times hurt immersion and flow. The approach gives Oriental Empires a lot of freedom to allow proper ambushes, flank attacks and the arrival of reinforcements. It’s an exciting new world where many of the artificial restraints placed upon would-be strategists are removed. It’s unfortunate that once battle is joined, Oriental Empires comes up short in the tactics department.

Coming from Total War where the player has godlike control over all their units all time, Oriental Empires can be a jarring experience. Battles take place during the simultaneous turn resolution. The player has no control over the course of the battle itself and must rely on the AI to command the battle. Theoretically, this is good: a ruler shouldn’t command in war, Sun Tzu was quite strong on that one. The player does have some control.

There are a good number of tactical stances for the player to choose from for each unit their army, ranging from full blooded charges, to withdrawals to harassment and outflanking maneuvers. These provide a tense planning element to each battle, where the player must decide, looking at the enemy’s and their own dispositions, how each battle is to be fought. However, without extremely careful handling by the player and considerable prescience about what where and how each unit will function on the battle, the player will spend much of their time tearing their hair out in frustration at the AI’s lack of competence in much of anything.

The crux of the matter appears to come down to the AI’s inflexibility and its slavish following of orders even when the battle situation (to human eyes) makes the player’s orders irrelevant. Thus units ordered to advance and attack in a battle line will remain in the battle line rather than coming to a friendly unit’s aid when it is clear that they are unthreatened. Archers ordered to advance will often close into close combat rather than continue firing.

Many of these issues come down to the game communicating precisely what each order will do and I have yet to obviously lose a battle to the AI’s inflexibility. Yet it remains that learning how to game the system to ensure that my units perform precisely as ordered makes for an uninspiring experience. Matters are not improved by the unnatural manner that the AI handles its troops, with units stopping and starting like the worst moments of a Total War: Rome II AI bugs video. It is reasonable to have a certain amount of “FUBAR” included in your battle AI, but it must be immersive FUBAR. Oriental Empires‘ AI is not immersive.

Whilst combat is nothing to write home about, strategy and empire management are something else entirely. Unlike games like Civilization, where expansion and warfare are heavily penalized and discouraged, Oriental Empires encourages both. It’s a satisfying change of pace. Technologies are handled through four different themed research trees. Unlike other games, the player is able to research a technology in each tree simultaneously, meaning that the player isn’t forced to ignore one tree for another, resulting in thoroughly immersion breaking situations where a civilization has impressive technology in tree, but remains in the Stone Age in another. Edicts are well fleshed out and add period flavour, with many edicts having both positive and negative consequences.

Cities have only a limited number of slots for buildings and as many buildings combine with others, careful planning is necessary to reach some of the more powerful units. Farms and road are built by the city and are tied directly to a player’s population level. Burn enough farms and the enemy’s cities might begin turning against them.

Unit variety, always a concern in a setting that, to Western eyes, might appear tediously homogenous, is handled well. There are a large variety of units differentiated not only by how they are equipped but how they are raised, each with their own advantages. A cash strapped state will find the cheapness and flexibility of levy troops appealing, whilst a rich state will find standing armies valuable for their professionalism and loyalty. These are supplemented by a glorious array of siege weapons ranging from the standard catapult to rocket(!) artillery.

The campaign isn’t flawless, with several curious bugs resulting in my entire profits being wiped out for no obvious reason, leading to many turns being wasted whilst I pulled my state out of debt. Despite this, the game was stable and the transition from the Civilization style god’s eye view of the map to a first person view is almost seamless, with only a few frames lost on my aging system. My one concern regarding campaign gameplay is the potential for the campaign to become homogenous, with every playthrough essentially the same series of building up your cities and empire the same way.

Like the battle AI, the campaign AI is problematic. Whilst at times cunning and resourceful and willing to see when it is beaten unlike so many other AIs, it suffers from the same issues that Oriental Empires‘ competitors have gone some way toward solving, namely that of AI transparency. It is impossible to tell or understand what makes this AI tick. Did I build a city in the wrong place or declare war on the wrong person? I shall never know. All I know is that they seem to delight in declaring war on me. Upon meeting them for the first time, they are invariably hostile. To make matters worse, the UI doesn’t always make it clear that they’ve declared war on me in the first place. When I look at their armies, their ranks are usually filled with the bog standard levy spearmen, rather than the archers, halberdiers and artillery that I have available. Needless to say, the AI doesn’t make for exciting wars. Hopelessly outmatched by my elite infantry and often outnumbered, the AI can present little challenge. Whilst cunning and usually quite reasonable compared to the inflexibly homicidal AI of other games, I honestly wish Oriental Empires’ AI would, if not play better, at least play with a bit more variety.

Ultimately, you really must make up your own mind about Oriental Empires. Despite taking it to task for many things, this reviewer has thoroughly enjoyed its history and its innovative mechanics. But if you are looking for a tactical wargame where you must out think their opponent, perhaps look elsewhere. The AI in this simply isn’t good enough to handle the expectations of a human commander. If you are looking for a grand strategy game, Oriental Empires is well worth your consideration. The innovations in Oriental Empires are a breath of fresh air in a genre whose big names seldom innovate in any meaningful fashion. For those looking for a change of pace, Oriental Empires, imperfect as it might be; is well worth your time.