Oriental Empires Review: A Grand Construction of Ancient China
Shining Pixel Studios released its debut game, Oriental Empires, back in mid-September. Having played the game back when it first entered its Alpha stage about a year ago, I was really interested in seeing how it had evolved in the most recent phase of its development cycle.
Now that I've spent a fair amount of time checking out what's new in this ancient Chinese 4X strategy game, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of depth it has to offer. But a few clunky features ultimately dampened my interest in exploring more of this civilization building experience.
Become the Emperor of Ancient China
Set in ancient China, Oriental Empires spans nearly three thousand years of history from 1500 BCE to 1500 AD. Using this setting, Shining Pixel attempts to realistically depict China's progression throughout the ages. From a simple farming village or a set of tribes that rely on animal husbandry, you will attempt to advance through the centuries and bring true cultural progress to your civilization.
There are a number of different Chinese cultures on display here -- including Han, Shang, Chu Shu, Wei, Qin, Wu, Xianbei, and many more. These cultures range from being distinctly Chinese to other cultures such as Mongolian, Tibetan, and even Siberian. These cultures sustain their populations via farming or herding animals, and the distinctions between them lead to markedly different gameplay depending on what your focus is.
In the northern cultures, for example, the game leans toward herding. Food production is based on the surrounding territory and its fertility or on farms that are earned from captured cities. These farms can then be expanded by using peasants to build on fertile ground, or in hilly rice terraces as your technology skills advance in-game.
Building Toward Cultural Advancement
The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.
You begin each campaign with a single town, a settler, and a leader. Your ultimate goal is to build your kingdom and become Emperor -- but this won't be easy or quick to achieve. Typically, you'll begin by expanding your farm land, exploring neighboring regions you may want to expand into, claim resources like copper/rhinoceros/mulberry trees/game/horses, and use those resources to get a variety of bonuses for your settlements.
The technologies that you can explore break down into 4 categories -- Power, Crafts, Thought, and Knowledge. Each of these categories is fairly distinct and demonstrates a lot of thought on the developer's part as to what factors play into the success of a civilization. Power-related technologies involve things like unit recruitment, settlement defense, and food production (because surplus food = power). Craft technologies include mining, pottery, bronze/steel production, and building improvements to mitigate damage from fire and other natural disasters. Thought technologies focus on increasing your faction's culture rating, authority, edicts, and adviser recruitment. Last but not least, knowledge handles technology involving bow craft, horsemanship, and the studies of astrology and health.
By exploring some of these technologies, you'll eventually unlock edicts -- which act as powerful proclamations that echo throughout your empire. From simple tax edits to powerful general degrees, each edict has a cost to enact in terms of both material wealth and other factors.
And just like you'd expect in any civilization builder worth its salt, your subjects will react in various ways to the edicts that you put in place. For example, peasants won't take too kindly to raising taxes on farms. But the nobles will get rowdy when you demand that a general be appointed. When you make such changes, there may be public order penalities as a result -- and these may be temporary or last as long as the edict does depending on the intensity of your public's response to your choices.
Combat & Warfare
Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors to go war first and then seek to win.
-- Sun Tzu
Warfare is a large part of ancient China's history, and Oriental Empires reflects that with its unit variety. A mixture of levied peasant militia, professional warriors, and nobles trained for battle from birth are all available for recruitment. From tribal spearmen and dagger-axemen chariots to horse archers and gunpowder riflers, you'll never lack a variety of units to pick from when you have the technological and structural requirements.
Combat in Oriental Empires is rather unlike most 4X or turn-based strategy games. You aren't taken to a loading screen, or given direct command of your units. The strategy element of which units do what is determined by you. You can order a unit to form a main line and charge, act as a ranged support, skirmish with the enemy or stay in the back line and defend. The tactics are handled automatically, and once you've given the orders, your units will attempt to follow them to the best of their abilities.
Similar to how it's been proven to work in real life, your armies will also function better with your faction leader, heir, or generals commanding them.
Once your turn has ended and you've issued the orders you need to, you can watch the battle play out before you. The zoom level for this spectator mode can be changed dynamically at any time from a high strategic vantage point to a ground level view of the terrain. And in most instances, watching your army form up and clash with the enemy line is pretty satisfying.
Constructing an Empire
It is not difficult to govern. All one has to do is not offend the noble families.
Building an Empire takes time, infrastructure and a capacity to keep the peace. As such, authority is one of the most important values within Oriental Empires. It helps determine the unrest of Nobles and Commoners alike -- and it also determines the number of cities you can govern within your faction without massive unrest penalties. If you have more cities than authority, you risk a revolt in the best case scenario (and a rebellion in the worst).
As your cities grow, it'll be important to connect them via roads or rivers so they may trade and quickly transport military units during war. Due to a limited number of structures that can be built in a city, you will have to specialize -- which forces you to think strategically about how you choose to expand. Perhaps a city near two other friendly cultures can work on promoting and crafting trade goods for income, while a city near a foreign foe on your border would better serve as a recruitment garrison.
Less Than Heavenly Issues
Diplomacy is a large part of dealing with other factions and cultures, but unfortunately it's handled poorly in Oriental Empires. The AI seems incapable of conducting any intelligent business, and other empires that you try to engage in diplomacy with will commonly break their own self-proposed treaties of Fraternal Harmony just as often as they offer them. In my time playing, it's been far easier to placate the AI momentarily until you beat them into submission and vassalize them.
Combat also leaves fair amount to be desired in spite of what it does right. The lack of direct control means many mistakes can only be chalked up to how AI is designed to engage and respond to your orders. For example, the Support order seems especially flawed. Any unit I've ever given this order to has just stood there and allowed themselves to get attacked. This order is supposed to form a back row that engages only when enemies get close, but it translates to units basically standing there and doing nothing.
It can be extremely frustrating to lose an entire army in a single turn simply because your units either didn't engage or let themselves get flanked while standing still. It's a shame, too, because the combat can be really enjoyable and engaging when it functions properly -- but it's got some issues that make it feel a lot clunkier than it should.
What aggravates me most about Oriental Empires, though, is how clunky and overpopulated the UI seems as turns progress. This was one of my biggest issues with the Alpha build of the game, and unfortunately it still persists here. By the time you've entered the Warring States era, your map will likely be cluttered with so many unit indicators, event messages, battle reports, encounters, diplomatic messages, and building construction reports that it becomes a terribly eyesore. The game lacks any capability to sort through, compile, or filter these reports -- so it quickly becomes an issue when you're leading a faction of 20 cities.
Verdict: A Little Rough, But Approachable
Despite Oriental Empires' flaws, it does achieve what it hopes to in creating a satisfying experience of growing and expanding a culture through various era of ancient China. For a 4X game, it's unique enough in its mechanics that you'll have to take some time to learn everything, which adds some romance to the early game.
I would recommend Oriental Empires for people with a passion for slightly more advanced strategy games. It's not quite like Civilization meets Total War, but it could be loosely described as such. Overall it's a solid game, and I look forward to checking out any possible expansions or major content updates as the game moves toward a full release.
If you want to check out Oriental Empires for yourself, you can do so on the official Steam Page for the game.
[Note: A code for Oriental Empires was provided by the developer for this review.]