The Total War series contains a vocal community that cherishes the historical time periods, political intrigue, and unit micromanagement. There is a lot more to brag about too, be it the alarmingly aggressive AI, miniscule armor details, literal 2,000-men armies, four-versus-four multiplayer, or the vitalness of map control. Total War Battles: Shogun scales down the depth of the core releases to coincide with iOS platforms and their touch controls, though this watercolor rendering of feudal Japan still shows impressive strategic promise. And yet, the developers dismissed fundamental changes for the PC version, as the gameplay exhibits flaws in building construction, difficulty, and the user interface.
The heart of the game consists of 23 story missions built around protecting your encampments, assassinating rival daimyos, gathering war materials, or destroying particular enemy defenses. The reason being, strife exists as heavily in this side-scrolling RTS as it did during Japan’s Sengoku period. You assume command of the Crane clan after your father dies at hands of the Takeda. As such, you stop at nothing to put down this betrayal and return peace to the valley. Yet tensions escalate as your clan’s power grows, painting bullseyes on its members' heads and setting the course for your claim to the title of shogun.
You will oversee this mutiny firsthand. Normally players assemble edifices on the world map to fund the production of their militaries and keep the populace content, but Total War Battles features the series’ first instance of constructing buildings on the actual battlefield. To gain resources, players link each structure’s hexagonal tiles together, but certain dwellings cannot be placed next to another. For example, trading posts cannot be connected to shrines because the noise interrupts the monks’ meditation. This adds tactical consideration to the lane-based skirmishes as you arrange your settlement around trees, boulders, ponds, and other natural formations. These landmarks also grant bonus incomes: Lumber yards harvest more wood when founded near forests, and blacksmiths smelt spare ore from adjacent mountains of stone.
The red flags determine the boundaries of your potential headquarters.
But this system needs one major tweak: selling deployed structures. Although you may erase that dojo, blacksmith, or monastery when it waits in your queue, you cannot demolish buildings once they have been set on the field. Careful thought needs to be taken when laying out a future fortress (the map does not highlight hexagons already in use) for fear of impeding movements of existing units or blocking the sites of later lodgings. The fact that every building occupies a different area of tiles puts more pressure on you as general when the enemies start besieging your headquarters.
It’s always you that must do the attacking, too. Sometimes you’ll defend your position, yet the rival factions’ spamming of archers demeans the experience with an element of luck. You may finally perfect your camp’s setup only for the opponent’s longbows to burn your wooden settlements to the ground. The computer intelligently hides ranged classes behind contingents of samurai or yari (spearmen). At five tiles or more, bows and matchlocks engage and eliminate advancing melee fighters in single volleys. Similar strategies work on the CPU as well, though the enemy possesses, at times, limitless funds while you never seem to accrue resources fast enough.
If Creative Assembly created a dedicated run button to hasten your swordsmen's march, perhaps the CPU’s luck would waver. Units crawl forward under piercing arrow volleys, but several seconds pass before reinforcements commit to urgent orders. The slower combat works in favor of the iPad, giving players time to scroll back and forth on the battlefield and train new recruits to lead the assault. However, this leaves a lot of downtime on the PC version as you wait for the clans to clash swords. Total War Battles even requires players to click on touchscreen buttons during their advance.
The five commands you see mark the only orders you'll issue to your soldiers: stop, advance, move one lane up, move one land down, and disband.
Hostile bowmen erected a roadblock around mission nine. I could not train units as quick as the enemy would destroy them. 90 minutes of retries gave me two options: quit, or buy experience through microtransactions. Once my wallet felt ten dollars lighter, I obtained 30,000 points to invest in faster structure income and quicker recruitment times. This method of pay-to-win should not be necessary, no matter the circumstance, but the difficulty seems keen on goading loose change from players’ pockets as a tribute to the progression.
And yet the gameplay only evolved past the narrative’s slow pace after I purchased the experience bundle and steamrolled through the remaining missions. Pay my superpowered Crane clan no heed, though. The rock-paper-scissors gameplay still takes part in this iOS port. Samurai trounce yari, yari skewer cavalry, and cavalry trample samurai. As you deploy your troops in lanes, they advance forward, engaging adjacent opposition and burning structures automatically. Archers and riflemen suppress adversaries in their own lanes and hesitate to draw swords for melee encounters. However, the ingrained morale system vital to other Total Wars deserts this small-scale representation, and units cannot move backwards. Armies that saunter around your forward lines can only be stopped by summoning fresh meat to block their paths.
This PC port even loses local multiplayer from its days on the App Store. Since Rome: Total War, online confrontations have been a staple of the franchise and a selling point for subsequent releases. The iPad version supported friendly duels on the same device, but Total War Battles PC skimps on the competition wholesale. Instead, the sole consolation we receive is a set of six skirmish maps – not nearly enough to justify the markup in price.
First players must hire their preferred troops, then summon them from the queue.
Contrary to the gameplay, I never tired of the watercolor art. The foliage moves as if the artist was painting the brush strokes in real time, and the frozen mountain paths, dense, foggy swamps, and warm coastal inlets offer a sizable amount of environment variety. On the field of engagement, units perish in comical fashion. Gunmen grip their chests as yari impale them on spears, horses eject their riders as they fade from the battlefield, and samurai parry incoming arrows in time to catch the next volley square in the heart.
Total War Battles: Shogun stands as a fine portable strategy title. On Apple’s iPad, I struggled to keep pace with the lethargic combat, though I breathed a single sigh of relief after each quelled ambush before I was beset by another raid of armored cavalry and seasoned bow monks. But these compliments do not deserve reiterating on a dull PC port that stains the main series’ otherwise heralded pedigree.
Developer: Creative Assembly
Release Date: August 29, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), iOS, Mac, Android