Oriental Empires is basically what you would get if Civilization was set in ancient China. There are several similarities between the two, enough so that I was able to just jump in without issue, but there are also some key differences. Oriental Empires really sets itself apart with its combat system, but the economic and unrest features are also worth noting.
The way the game manages economics. I love the way that finances are managed in Oriental Empires. Trade routes are automatically established with a given city once a bazaar is built. However, distance plays a huge role in trade, as cities are generally only able to trade with others within a 12-tile radius. This prompted me to place my cities in such a way as to have as many connections as possible, preferably next to resources on the map to give an extra boost to trade. There are several different buildings, each offering some different resource for trade, that can be constructed at each city. I ended up stacking these buildings in my trade centers, generating me a ton of money. In my first game I managed +3000 gold per turn at one point. It was refreshing to not have to micromanage economics, but still maintain a certain degree of control over that very aspect.
Peasant and noble unrest. While it can prove annoying at times, it is at least realistic in that a ruler must keep both the noble and peasant classes satisfied. There are numerous ways to both increase and decrease happiness for both classes, be that construction of shrines, overpopulation, or edicts (think Civilization social policies). If unrest rises to a certain point it may lead to revolution. This happened in my first game, with peasants taking over a few of my cities. I ended up getting them back, but it took some time and I learned my lesson! This area of the game was really well-executed overall.
Automation features. Later in the game when managing twenty or so cities is the norm, it can become quite tedious to build farms and such for each and every city. The game provides automation features to remedy this very issue, a welcome addition especially for a game of this scale. Want to automate farming, building construction, or even technology advancement? It can be done. I saved a whole lot of time by making use of the auto-farming.
In-game manual. Before playing the game I saw plenty of complaints about the lack of a tutorial mode. While there is no tutorial mode, I had no issues learning any of the game’s features as there is an in-game manual provided. Just press F1 and just about everything in the game is explained there. It was very useful during my first playthrough, although it probably also helps that I have played numerous 4X strategy games in the past.
Awkward Combat and movement. The combat system has several cool features, but it felt as if half of these features did not even matter. The player can change the formation of each army (two columns, three, etc.), the battle orders (support, ambush, etc.), and the direction that the army faces. These are all really cool mechanics on paper, but it felt as if they had little effect on the actual gameplay. For example, I would set up an army to have archers on both sides of a spearman unit, with additional spearman behind the center spearman. The spearman in front would be set to “charge”, the spearman behind them set to “attack” and both archers set to “outflank”. Ideally, the spearman would charge in with the archers wrapping both sides and raining down on the enemy, but half the time it seemed that the units would run in circles, run through each other, or just do nothing at all.
It felt like the battle orders had no effect at all and it really just came down to numbers and the type of unit used. A lot of the time I just ended up defaulting to the standard “attack” battle order, as it takes quite some time to set up individual orders and I cannot tell if they even have an effect on the battle’s outcome. On top of that, the battles simply take too long, especially when taking a city. Despite having a clear advantage, friendly units will still pull back after a short while and it takes several turns to actually defeat an enemy unit or take a city. This was probably done so the player can assess if they want to continue the battle, like if he/she did not expect so much resistance and did not want to lose any more units, but being able to tell units to fight to the death rather than withdraw would be great (I imagine that such a feature would break multiplayer though).
Additionally, the movement of units was awkward at times as well. Units cannot be directed onto any tile in the fog of war, so I had to keep sending them to the edge of the fog before moving forward. This was especially annoying in the late game, when small patches of the map remained unexplored. It only takes a small amount of the fog to reroute entire armies around it, rather then just walking through it.
Confusing UI. I found the UI to be quite bothersome at times, especially when trying to split stacked units into separate groups. The unit list becomes a mess when doing so. The whole battle orders and formation mechanic is very cool, but the clunky UI makes it a bit difficult to manage. It is only really bad when managing units, elsewhere the UI is okay, but could use some minor improvements. Dismissing notifications that pop up on the right would be a start, rather than just giving them a check mark. This was quite annoying later in the game when I had a large list of notifications to scroll through. The game would just be a lot better if the unit UI was easier to navigate.
Oriental Empires is definitely worth taking a look into if you are a fan of 4X strategy games or Eastern Asia in general (of which I am both!). Although the combat and UI can be confusing at times, there is a lot to this game, a lot that I still have to experience myself. The game is heavily military-focused, so be ready to spend a lot of time managing armies, taking out enemies, and expanding as much as possible!
You can buy Oriental Empires on Steam here.
I was provided a free review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.