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Review: Oriental Empires (Steam)

“Just one more turn and then another, until I’m nearly done.” That’s what we’ll all say, when playing a strategy game we’re only starting to understand and enjoy. Few turn based strategies still have this effect on me though and I’m talking about the pure TBS genre, more like the Civilization series and less like the Total War hybrid. Oriental Empires reminded me of the first Shogun Total War even if it has surpassed that game in all regards. I know, comparing Feudal Japan with Ancient China, isn’t doing me any service since I’m a self-proclaimed, history buff. What do you want me to compare it to, the fairy tales from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series? Oriental Empires has no anime-style images and it is anything but romanticizing reality, so I was playing exactly what I was expecting. A stellar Steam debut from developer Shining Pixel Studios!

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Indeed the topics of China’s humble beginnings and its rapid blossoming into a great civilization, are rarely touched in general, not just in video games. I have fond memories with Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, a city builder that’s not on Steam (but can be purchased from GOG presently), which focused on a similar time frame as Oriental Empires, albeit from a 2D isometric perspective. What’s important to understand about the game I’m reviewing today is that it makes very few concessions in regards to any inaccuracy about its historic simulation. One such compromise is the time compression, so to speak. It’s a TBS with 4 turns per “year”, but you’d be better off considering them as 4 seasons since climate change is noticeable. Can’t really say if it’s also related to story progression, but changing 5 emperors in 200 turns (shall we say 50 years?) seems closer to the Roman Empire’s instability than its Chinese counterparts. And glancing over my well developed (and overcrowded) 22 cities, it’s obviously not an achievement reachable in less than an in-game century.

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Even if the passing of time may not be accurately simulated, pretty much every other aspect in Oriental Empires has some historic meaning and potential for discovering new facts about Ancient China. There is no conventional story, not even a themed campaign following the exploits of Qin Shi Huang (the man who unified China as an empire, for the first time) and that is a missed opportunity, but not one on which to dwell since the scenarios presented in-game, compensate for the lack of a plotline. Both in singleplayer and multiplayer, Oriental Empires gives you the option to either develop a Chinese clan/kingdom in the Grand Campaign (spanning over 3000 years, from the Early Bronze Age to Imperial China), The Warring States (475 BC – 221 BC) or Custom Game, which provides players with some very creative maps that enhance MP matches and potential alliances.

One very interesting aspect that I hope more TBS games would use, is the option to set the total number of turns you wish to play before starting the game. They count towards the Victory Points you may accumulate during the scenario and you’re free to choose any number of turns from 1 to 9999. I suggest you pick at least 300 turns, if you wish to unlock the entire Tech Tree and still have time to put those upgrades to good use. By allowing players to set their own limits in regards to both the play style and expansion, Oriental Empires delves into an open-ended territory which has been thoroughly tested (and perhaps inaugurated) by the Civilization series.

Of course, you’re free to pick from some pre-existing Chinese clans and fulfill their ambitions until they’ve gone from a single, defenseless settlement, to a true continental empire. Or a trade empire, if you wish. I went down that route of non-aggression and I found the gameplay to be just as intriguing in that manner. The Shu faction, protected and nurtured by the Sichuan Basin, will be a perfect start for new and veteran players alike. Rather than facing enemies from all sides, you have natural barriers in the form of mountains which shelter your farming-oriented faction from the aggressive horse riders/herders until you can develop your own military capabilities.

I had to dig through the game’s files since it’s not mentioned at the start, but this is definitely a highly modified Unity Engine project which shows once again, what can be achieved with the “indie/mobile gaming engine”, provided that it reaches skilled hands. With multiple levels of zoom, allowing you to see both the peasants working the fields and then planning your next settlement foundation or conquest from a top-down view that will make your empire stand out in the form of connections. A true network based on mutual trade, culture and urban development. The hexagonal map pattern can be disabled from the options, but you’ll still see its structural legacy when planning new farms, roads or troop deployment.

It looks beautiful, with detailed towns and cities that show incremental improvements which go beyond “this wall is now sturdier than the previous one”. Depending on what buildings you erect (since you may steer the settlements towards economic progress, military encampment or a mix of both), the cities will differ from one another. You can of course rename them, and you’re given a free hand in how you design the infrastructure and agricultural endeavors. It’s not a button for “build farms/roads” since you’ll need to pay close attention to terrain type and climate. Rice paddies and terrace farming will allow you to take full advantage of adjacent hills, once irrigable flatlands have occupied their designated space. City development and population growth is logically tied to to the efficiency of the trade, crafting (mainly silk and porcelain) and last but not least, harvesting.

I wanted to emphasize the complexity which is not that common in strategy games. Even Victoria II had a railway development mechanic that seemed far more automated when compared to the free reign offered by Oriental Empires. And you can automate some of the development processes in this game too, but I suggest you take an active role in your empire, since the learning curve isn’t very steep. Armies and individual troops are less detailed than the buildings and crops, yet they still look more than decent. I only had one issue with the graphics since the User Interface stutters and my otherwise stable 60fps on a 4K resolution, begins to drop close to 30fps. Only during the scrolling up or down on the Show Settlements tab from HUD’s left side. I’m sure that a patch can fix this. It’s only a matter of optimization since I noticed that many more players were complaining about the stuttering.

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Though it’s lacking in voice acting, Oriental Empires compensates by offering a most relaxing soundtrack which is comprised of instrumentals. Chinese folklore, no doubt, even if I’m by no means an expert in the field. I played enough Shogun 1 and 2 over the years, so at least I can testify that it sounded different than their OSTs. Some audio cues and spoken instructions from the game’s advisor would have been welcome, but I’m no stranger to reading either, so it didn’t bother me much. Also, there are no cinematics at all. Just the publisher’s logo when booting the game up. There needs to be some. A game of this production value fully deserves them.

From primitive bartering to oppressive feudalism and finally a clockwork empire run by a meritocratic bureaucracy. That is a good summary for the technological and cultural advances which are closely tied to one another. It won’t be just the historically accurate discovery of the crossbow, paper or gunpowder. I’m sure you’re aware that the Chinese invented those, among many other practical things. Some of which tried to heal and rally people, instead of killing them (in the right context, paper currency can be just as deadly as bolts and bullets, right?). I’m talking about Chinese philosophy, of course! Confucianism, Taoism and Legalism helped shape the future Chinese Empires and their ruling dynasties, as much as an army of paper-pushers was hindering it at times. Corruption and cruel laws are a sad by-product of rapid regime change, enforced upon a people that took conservatism quite seriously.

As Emperor, the lives of your subjects hang by a loose thread which you may cut or strengthen, give the circumstances. Rebellion and civil wars also draw a weird symmetry to the late Roman Empire. That must be the fate of all superpowers eventually. Rise and fall. Rapid advancement followed by an even more abrupt decline. Keeping the people happy, is out of the question. You’ll just have to convince them that killing each other, is not in their best interest. The peasants, craftsmen, traders, soldiers and nobles within your growing Empire, all need proof of authority. In other words, oppression under its many guises. Some Imperial Edicts will force your hand into banning books, weapons and even land ownership. You may avoid some of these decisions, but not all of them, since there will be many who will question your rule from within. Before you can tackle the rival clans, tribes and petty kingdoms, you must ensure that your subjects won’t stab you in the back.

A rebellion is hard to quell once it has been set in motion. Your best bet is to avoid that point of no return, from which violence is demanding a equal response. One key aspect which is once again deeply embedded into historic accuracy, is that laborers hate being press-ganged into any sort of project, never mind if it’s for the greater good or not. A farmer who’s building a road or a new summer palace for the Emperor, is a starving man who’d sooner take up arms than slave away for his “masters”. So, it is wise to pause certain building or infrastructure projects until the unrest level has lowered itself in a few turns of “inactivity”. Sometimes the best course of action, is inaction. Once unrest passes a certain threshold, bandit groups become organized enough until they pose a direct threat instead of being just target practice.

Capturing a well defended city, isn’t a matter of having a full stack. It’s a numbers game, but not like Crusader Kings’ definition of strategy. Land battles are straightforward, but Oriental Empires begin to shine during sieges or its less common naval battles. It is a pity that players have so little control of the armies during the actual combat phase. You’ll be able to pick the army composition, its tactics and unit formations but during the battle, you simply watch the opposing forces clash in a fully automated sequence that is far too random for my liking. A full stack of peasant militiamen shouldn’t be able to defeat a slightly smaller but far better trained and equipped group of professional soldiers. Troop morale should be better simulated.

You get far more than just a regular TBS with an Asian skin slapped over it. Juggling between politics, diplomacy, trade, exploration and ultimately warfare, the attention to details is as obvious as the emphasis on the educational value of the whole package. Each new technological advancement is explained and not just shown as a bonus or malus system. Not all changes will be beneficial in the short term, but they will be necessary for the Empire’s survival and future prosperity that is sure to follow, if you’re willing to compromise at the right place and time. This is a game in which I have yet to see or experience all it has to offer, but that won’t stop me from looking and playing more. If you’re willing to learn and you are patient, Oriental Empires will not disappoint. It’s so far, the best video game representation of Chinese history and culture. I can only hope that its sequel or DLCs might focus on other Asian civilizations as well.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.

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