Fans of games like Civilization and Total War have a new empire management and strategy game to try out in the form of Oriental Empires. Set in the warring states era of China (long before the Three Kingdoms), it finds you in control of one of the many clans intent on controlling the land. Historically, the Han Dynasty set up shop during this time and ruled for the next few hundred years, but it's possible to change history if you can be a great leader in a challenging world.
Managing your burgeoning empire can be a bit tricky. Each city is its own little microcosm with only so much available space (until you upgrade). Farms are required to ensure a constant supply of food for positive growth, while you need citizens available to actually build farms and new buildings. All the while, you have to manage the unrest of both the noble and peasant populations. Too much unrest on either in either of those groups can lead to open rebellion and rioting, costing you control of your populace and city. Maintaining a high authority rating, either through tech advancements, buildings, or character traits, as well as shifting priorities in the town are the best ways to maintain a happy population. However, losing your faction leaders consistently or forcing too much work upon the peasants will swiftly cause you issues. Somewhere around turn 90, I happened to lose three major faction leaders in a row during a nasty war; I quickly found myself down two cities and facing massive rebel armies in my own backyard.
The empire management aspect can be quite overwhelming early on since the game has a steep learning curve at first. Using the game's hints, tooltips, and auto-manage system helps combat this some. This is even more important when you find yourself faced with managing 10+ settlements or you're in the middle of a massive war. My only issue with the auto-manage system is how depending on what you've set it to the game will make what it sees as the best decision to do with your gold. I was rapidly looking forward to building some much-needed trade generating buildings, but before I had a chance to turn around, I found the game had decided to build a bowyer in another town. It's not a terrible thing, but just be mindful if you set to use the game's auto-management.
Combat within the game is a bit more in-depth than games like Civilization, but it still falls a bit short of something like Total War. Rather than having battles take place on another screen or a quick "units run at each other," movement and battling takes place on the overworld map. It's possible to zoom in and see your army units rush in or perform flanking attacks and more. It's fun to watch the battles early on, but they (the soldiers) simply rush the armies into a spot (or set of spots) with some animated hacking and slashing. You never really see the battle play out to its end since most times one army will rout and run in fear. Squashing an enemy's army can take multiple attempts with you chasing them down. After a while, I found myself just hitting the fast-forward button to speed through the army movements or battle phase. Another mild annoyance is attempting to utilize the different commands you can provide your armies - it's possible to set them to defend, ambush, outflank, support, or simply charge in. Honestly, I don't think I ever saw any difference in the different tactics; it was generally a matter of who had more, better-trained troops. Peasants couldn't hold up against nobles or trained army units, etc.
The other side of combat is diplomacy, something I did my best to partake in. This being the warring states era of China, political intrigue, broken alliances, and more should be the norm. Establishing trade is relatively easy and is done by having certain buildings in your cities; developing an actual partnership or alliance with another clan seems to be much more challenging. While I only ever seemed to meet usually about five clans around me, two or three of those at any given point would be at war with me from the start. Even the ones I wasn't at war with could randomly walk into my territories and pillage my land without warning. Once I managed to establish an alliance with one group, we traded information on our enemies before I accidentally made myself a vassal to them in the Diplomacy's poor UI menu.
One aspect I thoroughly enjoy in any empire strategy game is the technological research. Unlocking new bonuses or skills are just a blast for me. Oriental Empires splits the tech trees into four distinct categories separated by different "periods" of time. New techs allow for new units, buildings, or even edicts. Issuing an edict can provide boosts for your empire or faction leader, but they can also come with their own adverse effects, like increased unrest among populations. Most are permanent and can cost money, so weigh their use appropriately. However, one edict is required to move onto the next segment of tech research, so you can't avoid issuing at least one.
Oriental Empires is a solidly built empire strategy game, but I feel it falls short in some key categories. It never really gives you a chance to establish yourself in the midst of the other warring clans nearby, plus keeping on top of your noble and peasant populations can become a chore. Overreach yourself, and you'll be in a predicament I found myself in - faced with enemies on multiple sides with two rebellious cities of my own in the middle. You're required to maintain a strong army to keep your external enemies at bay, but paying unit upkeep costs while needing to expand your cities to provide more proves to be an annoying challenge, especially later in the game.
Note: The Oriental Empires review is based on a digital PC copy of the game, provided by the publisher.