As the kingdom of Zhou burned to ashes around me on the map, I took a moment to reflect on what had been a bad year. A peasants revolt, a devastating war, cities lost to disease and fire, and an incurable case of bandits. Oriental Empires seems to have everything I want in a game – disaster, bad decisions and angry serfs. So why did I only get as far as the second X in this 4X strategy before I turned away, frustrated and fed up? Perhaps it's because - as terrible as my year has been - I’ve lived it all before.
Diving into the campaign, you’ll recognise the influences quickly. It’s mostly Civ with a very light sprinkling of Total War and a teeny tiny garnish that smells like it might be Crusader Kings II. Exploring the vast countryside of China, you have to establish settlements, build roads, monopolise resources, research technology and – if it comes to it – wage war against your neighbours. Settler units are used to grab strategic bits of hex-based land where wild game roam or gold can be mined, or places where silk or pottery can be produced with extra value. Build your settlements near these resources, overlapping them on the grid, and you will gain the benefits. But there’s a long cooldown period between getting new settlers and you will compete with the AI for all the best geographical treats.
As ought to be expected, sometimes a piece of land is not as juicy as it appears. I built a city, randomly yet appropriately named ‘Bin’, in a mountain pass close to copper deposits, a pottery shack and a herd of rhinos – everything a growing boy needs. But the mountainous terrain meant that when it came to building roads later on I couldn’t reach the city. And since connecting cities by roads is one of the ways to get trade flowing, there was no way to funnel all that valuable gear back to my capital for a trade profit. You can also build quays and use the map’s abundant rivers to ferry goods, but the nearest river to Bin was about 15 or 20 hexes away. We lost Bin to the western dynasties during the Bad Year. I was not that upset.
An angry military stomp across the land isn’t the only route to victory. You can win a cultural victory by building more shrines, temples, or palaces than other dynasties and spreading your influence through cultural technology. Or you can become recognised as the emperor by more than 75% of the other dynasties. Or you can simply win “on points” which is sort of a mix of everything. All this is as staple to the genre as rice is to your citizens.
There are no big surprises on the tech tree side of things either – you have four categories to research and each can be researched concurrently. The 'Power' tab offers stuff like military units – ballista, chariots and (later on) siege rockets and bombs – but also the odd infrastructure project like road-building and wells. 'Craft' unlocks ship-building, armour, better weapons, paper and so on. 'Thought' unlocks new temples for spreading your culture or legalism for creating new edicts – one-off laws that can benefit you in different ways and anger or soothe your populus. Meanwhile, 'Knowledge' grants you medicinal benefits that reduce casualties on the battlefield or during disease outbreaks, while also feeling like a bit of a dumping ground for other tech that, for some reason, doesn’t fit into the other categories.
While it’s nice to see all of Chinese history represented here in a tree of mahjong pieces, each offering some nugget of knowledge and history, there’s nothing really that game-changing hidden in the branches of this tree. And each category ultimately has the same mix of benefits – increase your authority level, increase your culture level, increase your income, increase your military damage. What’s more, each faction has the same things available. I’m not sure if this is going to change, but when you compare this to something like Galactic Civilization III’s tech trees, which has specialisations for each group and categories which are far more focused, it seems a little barren. Not barren of items – there’s plenty of things to click your way through during a long 300-turn game. But barren of ideas.
In fairness, the dynasties aren't exactly identical. They all have different strengths and weaknesses, which will influence where you go on the research tree. The Shu have their total trade value increased as well as being the best at research in ‘craft’. But they also have a penalty to ‘thought’ research, for example. The Han get damage bonuses with crossbowmen and have a happier peasant class by default - a cultural quirk the Zhou were not blessed with. Instead, we had a bonus damage with chariots and leaders with a higher virtue, an attribute which makes peasantry happier and armies braver when that character is garrisoned in a city or on the field of battle.
And that brings us to another element – leader characters. These are special units that travel with a bodyguard and can be stationed in cities or sent into a fight with the men to boost morale. Your own faction leader is one of them, along with an heir and any generals or other unusual folk who might pop up as the result of one of the map’s ‘encounters’ (these are little icons you can send your leader to visit and which prompt a decision, which in my experience were all: “buy this bonus to X for X gold”).
When your faction’s leader dies his heir inherits power and your people become a little rowdier. You have an ‘authority’ level which limits how many settlements you can rule before the nobles start getting cranky. This also takes a hit when your heir comes to power. All this seems to be channeling CKII’s moments of panic when a king or queen dies and you have to immediately rethink everything. Quick, sue for peace with the Saxons! Release the prisoners! Give everybody gold! But without the attendant concern, personal events, family ties and long, characterful relationships built up over years of graft, this mechanic in Oriental Empires feels more like a nuisance than anything else. A random hit to your numbers.
At one point, things started to go wrong for me. And this is often the moment a strategy game becomes enjoyable – when something challenges you. Up until then, all the AI dynasties had been daft peaceniks, happy to let me stroll around nabbing the best turf. Which I did, building wonderful towns with flourishing bazaars and trade routes, with the exception of Bin, the isolated mountain city that makes wonderful pots that nobody buys. I passed an edict to better manage the floodplains. The peasants, for some reason, hated this. They rose up in my most wealthy settlement and took the city, calling themselves the Red Eyebrows. I sent a vast army to take it back, thinking it would be a cinch. But no, the entire army marched up to the gates, paused there for a turn and then joined the rebel's cause, switching from white to red.
These dogs subsequently invaded the next settlement to the south. That’s when the dirty, opportunistic Qin dynasty crushed them and stole the town that was once mine. I had to raise another army of chariots and noblemen headed by my faction’s leader and roll right past my old settlement on the way to deal with the remaining rebels, unable to attack the Qin because we had made a non-aggression pact. A helpful tip popped up saying: “it’s good to know your men won’t switch sides while you are at the head of the army” - yes, yes that IS good to know, thanks game.
Eventually the pact expired and I went - ill-advisedly - to war with the Qin. It ended with my leader dying, my lands destabilised, more towns in open rebellion, my capital being beseiged for years, and my treasury going bankrupt. I am now in debt by 2500 gold coins, I can't leave the capital and the enemy has most of my cities. The Qin are in Bin.
All this sounds great – strife, warfare, challenge. But every step of the way I was irritated by the randomness of it all. My leader died of pestilence, the peasants would be agitated by eclipses and other “local factors” about which I could do nothing. Bandits would appear out of nowhere and harass my armies, getting in the way of the battles I actually wanted to fight. Losing can be fun, I just usually like to know why I'm losing. It's not that I think there aren't cogs underneath all this, determining things correctly. It's just that the game currently does a poor job of showing them to you.
The battles, let’s look at those. The game boasts that you can zoom in to the hexy map and see the battles taking place right there, Total War style. It’s not a military strategy game, though. You direct the men by choosing their tactics from a range of icons – defensive, charge, attack, harass at a distance, etc – not through any direct clicking and pulling of geometric patterns until they smash against each other. That’s fine, I don’t want Total War anyway. But these battles are nonetheless an irritation. It takes several battles to defeat an army, meaning you have to chase them multiple times to eliminate them and it's unclear which units are best used against others. There's a bunch of numbers underneath each unit - undoubtedly very clever, but never fully explained.
Likewise, the zoom-in function seems cool until you realise that the battles aren’t interesting to look at. They are wonky, lopsided affairs with men mostly standing around doing nothing. You can fast forward but the fast forward button only applies to this battle. So if you have multiple battles going on at once over the course of a single turn, you have to press fast-forward again and again, all the time thinking “I just want to get to my next turn.” That sounds nitpicky but it messes with the flow of the turns, creating this annoying staccato war movie where all the characters are dumb AI.
The bugs (yes still early access yada-yada-yada) certainly didn’t help matters. One recurrent bug makes it impossible to click on your capital’s banner to open its building menus. You click and nothing happens, forcing you to click around menus and other settlements until the bug goes away. Thank the ancestors you can get to the city’s build screen another way, or the game would just be plain broken in its current form.
Becoming invested in all the units involved and the opaque code of numbers listed beneath them would undoubtedly help me in my military career but there’s no tutorial for any of that yet and I just can’t bring myself to care about the men when what I am doing outside the battles is so plain – colouring the map my colour and getting the numbers up.
And that’s a feeling that runs through the whole game, I found. While many will be happy that it hasn’t strayed too far from the genre tropes that make pressing the ‘next turn’ button in a 4X so compelling, I just didn’t see anything that distinguishes it from Civ or GalCiv. The only thing that feels different throughout is the flavour text, offering tidbits of knowledge about Chinese history and culture. And, to be brutal, I can get just as broad an understanding of that by falling into a wiki-hole for an hour or two.
I suspect Oriental Empires will satisfy many fans of the 4X as it marches through its early access. Its theme and setting is fresh enough to those of us raised on European conquests and sci-fi silliness, and I should be fair and say it looks very handsome. The land around the rivers become swollen with floodwaters in the rainy season, the whole map changes to a snowy white in winter, making your troops less efficient. It also mashes in a few ideas from other games. Sadly, none of them are new and none done better than the original. If it can only manage to introduce some of its own character and exterminate those nits - better AI, a more interesting tech tree, turns that don’t feel like your VCR is malfunctioning – then maybe I would return to recapture Bin. But right now, I’m happy to let the enemy keep it.
These impressions are based on build 1350345. Oriental Empires is available on Steam for £22.99/$29.99.