Ritual suicide may be the only way for Real Time Conflict: Shogun Empires to make up for its great dishonor. This strategy game for the Nintendo DS has a strong premise that pits two sibling warlords against each other in an effort to take control of feudal Japan by any means necessary. But so many aspects of gameplay are simplistic, buggy, or clearly unfinished that the end result is really disappointing.
The setup for the nationwide samurai warfare is that the Shogun is dying and challenges his two brothers to fight for succession. Whoever is the one to unite Japan under his banner will learn the Shogun's dying secret: the location of a mystical, all-powerful sword. One of the brothers is Takashi, a noble leader and capable diplomat. The other is Kenshin, a seasoned and temperamental warrior. You can play as either character in the game, and the other automatically becomes your rival. In addition, you'll find provinces occupied by either bandits or ronin, and these neutral provinces typically won't turn over to your side without a fight. You start off with several provinces flying your colors, and then take turns moving your armies across Japan, claiming land as you go. When you run into an occupied province, you generally must fight for it, at which time Shogun Empires puts you into a real-time strategy battle or one of several minigames. This all sounds good in theory--in fact, it sounds kind of like the strategy classic Shogun: Total War.
Unfortunately, things quickly start to come apart at the seams as you play. The real-time strategy battles that are supposedly at the heart of this game are practically a joke. You've got just three types of units on the battlefield: archers, swordsmen, and spearmen, though once per battle you can also summon your warlord, who will magically show up on his horse and cut down several enemies before going away. That's all right, but the problem is you can't do anything with your units except throw them at their enemies. Even if you did have more tactical options, you wouldn't need them to overcome the game's completely brain-dead artificial intelligence. Enemy units will just kind of mosey around, sometimes rushing to certain death, other times just standing there under a rain of your archers' arrows. What's more, the battles are completely unmanageable unless you play them while zoomed out to where you can see the area around your units--but at that point, you can't even distinguish your units from each other. So you just throw your blob of guys into the enemy blob of guys, and then you win. Over and over again. For some reason, you also always seem to start out with the same exact number of soldiers, so there's no concept of having to replenish your armies or wear down the enemy or anything like that. There's really nothing strategic about this game.
But wait, what about the diplomacy portion? There's nothing to that, either. When you get to a neutral province, you have a "diplomacy" menu option, which you might as well try before you attack. There you have two choices: "negotiate" or "strong arm." Pick either option and you'll get some text telling you whether you were successful or not. Succeed and the province is yours; fail and your only option is battle. It comes across like a random roll of the dice. Ridiculously enough, we had much more success with diplomacy as the warrior-brother Kenshin than as the supposedly diplomatic Takashi. In case you were wondering, both brothers are completely identical to play as in practice, despite the supposed differences in their skills and dispositions. By the way, the artificial intelligence during the turn-based map portion of the game isn't any better than in battle. When playing against the cunning warlord Kenshin, we were amazed when early on in our campaign, he got all of his armies killed by bandits and ronin (the computer's battles are automatically resolved, but the results seem completely random). We proceeded to claim the remaining provinces one after another, while Kenshin could do nothing. Things only got easier as we earned "honor points," with which we quickly upgraded our soldiers' speed, making the battles blissfully shorter.
What remains of Shogun Empires are a handful of simple, silly minigames and some crash bugs. We had the game freeze on us no fewer than three times while playing through the campaigns, further suggesting that Shogun Empires isn't ready for prime time. At least the game prompts you to save your progress between turns. As for the minigames, there are a few different ones that all will get tedious within a couple of hours if not a few minutes--certainly by the time you've finished a campaign. Castle sieges and ship-to-ship battles require you to use the touch screen to aim ballistae against enemy archers. You just draw with the stylus until a big arrow points to the enemy archers, and watch them get gunned down. Horse pursuits often initiate after the real-time strategy battles. From a first-person perspective, you fire away with your bow while the enemy general fires back, trying to escape. Simply pressing the shoulder buttons over and over to shoot is literally enough to win in these cases. There's also the ninja duel, since you can occasionally recruit ninjas to take out the leadership of a province. Here you just walk back and forth, wildly swinging your sword and hoping you kill the other guy before he kills you. The animations are laughably bad in this rarest of Shogun Empires' minigames.
Amazingly enough, all these bad parts somehow congeal into something that's mildly compelling for a little while. You'll naturally want to see all that the game has to offer, and you might initially mistake a complete lack of depth for your misunderstanding of subtle nuances that, apparently, just aren't there. This means you might have fun with Shogun Empires for a little while, but you'll probably feel cheated at the end of it. A versus multiplayer mode is there, but should you inflict this experience onto a friend of yours, the animosity that'll erupt between the two of you will probably make Takashi and Kenshin's pale by comparison.
The presentation in Shogun Empires is decent at times, but mostly feels rough and unfinished like the rest of the game. Some decent battle sounds can be heard while your swordsmen and archers clash, but you'll hear the clamor of battle as soon as you select a target for your soldiers, rather than when your forces actually start fighting. The goofy death screams are at least amusing, and a few nice bits of music are in there, in the menus and such. Some of the minigames also look decent--at least, the first few times you see them. The map screen also looks good, though the interface for checking and moving between provinces is clunky.
Of course, the graphics and sound effects in Shogun Empires are the least of the game's problems. It's basically got some good ideas, from the premise to the actual mechanics that mostly involve using the touch screen, but they're purely conceptual and far from being fleshed out into a reasonably entertaining strategy game.