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Game Info:

Oriental Empires
Developed By: Shining Pixel Studios
Published By: Iceberg Interactive
Released: September 14, 2017
Available On: Windows
Genre: Strategy, Simulation
ESRB Rating: None
Number of Players: 1
Price: $29.99
(Humble Store Link)

Thank you Iceberg Interactive for sending us this game for review!

Historically based video games are a unique bunch. On the negative side, games with this particular label invite extra helpings of scrutiny for itself. People inspect its accuracy with a microscope, and the second common pitfall is for the game to shove so many facts in the player’s face that it outright murders the fun. However, should an edu-tainment game hit that sweet spot between education and play, it can be one of the most effective learning tools known to man. With their strategy game, Oriental Empires, the creative minds at Shiny Pixel Studios decided to rewind the clock by a few thousand years and place focus on the Far East. Published by Iceberg Interactive, Oriental Empires opens a window into ancient China.

This game starts you somewhere between the Autumn and Spring Period and the Warring States Period. For those of you who don’t know, this era directly precedes China’s official founding. Here, you act as a ruler, and you get to pick one among several kingdom states that will one day compose China. Your first goal is to stabilize your selected kingdom so that it can provide for its peoples’ needs, happiness, and protection. As for your second goal, you aim to unite all city states under your banner as the first emperor. The game’s structure is set up like a turn based strategy RPG. You take your time administering orders, organizing armies, passing edicts, and whatnot before sounding a gong on the bottom corner of your screen. Once the gong is struck, you end your turn. Then you can sit back and watch the populace do their stuff. This start and stop dance will thus continue in an endless cycle. There’s no rush in your decisions (and there will be a lot of decisions), and it’s nice to have the option to just watch your people do as they’re told. To me, this procedural method feels very natural and easy-going, which is great considering how dense Oriental Empires is.

Following strategy game norms, Oriental Empires is structured around management. Like I’ve said, the main things you oversee are the funds, city development, and overall maintenance. As you found your settlements, you need to consider what needs development most. Nearly every decision of yours costs money, and some decisions carry maintenance fees to boot. Believe me, you can suck your treasury dry in two licks if you’re not careful, and trying to fix one problem can cause a whole conga line of consequences. To demonstrate what I mean: the fast-lane solution to the ‘bankrupt bank blues’ is to establish a functioning economy. Commissioning shops and mines can thusly spurn money-making trade. However, if your people are starving, they’d sooner rebel than be productive. Planting farms would then be the solution, but then you’d need to wait for them to be completed. Not to mention you can’t build squat if your workers are too few. Even then, if they’re overworked, they might rebel anyway, which leads to another batch of headaches. (Frankly, the whole ‘satisfying the people’ thing is probably the most annoying element. I mean it. Very few things don’t rock your whine-prone population’s boat, and having either peasant unrest or noble unrest is bad news.) Then there are what could be called skill trees that you use to determine which upgrades your kingdom gets in what order. There’s a power branch, a craft branch, a technology branch, and a religion branch that must be enhanced to further progression. Exhausted with this list yet? It’s not over. Not even close. There’s diplomacy, where you can host or be called to meetings with other kingdoms. There’s edicts you can pass, which can change up the way the game runs (each with their own sets of pros and cons), and then there’s the occasional disaster to deal with too. *Pant* *Pant* *Pant* Well, you’ve gotta hand it to the developers. They really have thought of everything.

Oriental Empires
Highlights:

Strong Points: Impressive historical portrayal, Ultimately rewarding gameplay
Weak Points: Oversaturated text, Hostile learning curve, A minor bug
Moral Warnings: Ancient Chinese philosophy/religion

On that note, the first thing about Oriental Empires that impressed me is the massive amount of historical research. Sure, you picking a kingdom to be victorious with means the game isn’t strictly following the factual timeline (*The Qin kingdom won*), but the sociology side of it is pretty spot on. Inventions, arts, clans, customs; no matter if it has gameplay relevance or not, if you can click it, there’s an informative textbox for it. I daresay the game’s intel reaches encyclopedic levels. Forget the library. Play Oriental Empires, and you’ll become an honorary expert. Unfortunately, all this info can cause a significant problem after the first minute of play. First and foremost, a game must remember that it’s a game, not an encyclopedia. For the most part, Oriental Empires handles its info just fine. That’s really saying a lot, but there is one main place where the facts get in the way: their in-game manual. It’s not consistent in clearly describing how to perform certain actions. Now at times, it does explain matters well, but whenever it wastes time talking about what something is rather than how it should work in the game’s context, it becomes less helpful. I’d like to say this was a minor offense, but in this game’s case, it grew a little bigger than that.

To elaborate, this game feels overwhelming. Very overwhelming. I yapped about the gameplay’s complexity earlier, but once you get into the mechanics side of it, complex turns into oversaturated. As stated, the broadstroke rundown is that you’ve got to establish trade, organize some kind of security, and ensure your citizens are fed and happy. However, once you zero in on any single factor, you’ll discover a pile of mechanics dense enough to merit its own game. Take army management for example. You can recruit a certain number of citizens in your current population to take up arms. Drafting a faction costs both an initial fee and a maintenance fee for every turn that faction exists. There are multiple types of soldiers to choose from, but your main draftees are divided into two camps: nobles and peasants. High cost nobles are better skilled but not as mobile, and peasants, while cheaper and agile, aren’t as strong. You have to weigh out what you can afford versus what’s best for your situation. Then, after you’ve recruited your faction(s), there’s a whole command pool to learn just so you can tell who to go where and what to do when. You also have to mind their strength and stamina. Use your faction(s) too constantly and they’ll tire out, losing their effectiveness. Sounds like a mouthful, yes? And that was just a drop in the vast pool of Oriental Empire’s gameplay. I hadn’t even bothered splitting hairs about all that goes on in order to do the construction, trade circulation, or ambassadorship, ‘cause frankly this paragraph is long enough as it is. The fact that the manual isn’t clear enough at times on how to handle these things doesn’t help. Doesn’t help at all.

Now, I know I just made Oriental Empires sound unforgivably convoluted, and younger me (as in one-month-ago me) would have agreed. I spun my tires for an hour, straining to keep everything straight or even how to give the most basic of commands. Needless to say, this game has a horrible first impression, and it put a nasty taste in my mouth. However, after a while, I got accustomed to its groove, and found myself enjoying it far more than I expected to. That’s what genuinely surprised me. To watch your seed of a town branch into a thriving empire is an addictive joy. I subconsciously continued turn after turn from a genuine desire to keep improving my people’s lives. In a way, the game is like a sculpture. It begins as a boring block but will gain meaningful form under loving hands willing to shape it. It’s just the fact that its learning curve is such a complete turn off is plain tragic. However, if a person is willing to stick it out, the struggle becomes quite the satisfying reward. I’d also like to add that there are some atou-build and auto-spend options that you can toggle to handle some of your funds for you. However, I would caution you to watch your towns like a hawk should you have one on. Structures you may not want might end up built, and it’s an oversight that can cost you thousands from your struggling treasury. At first, I thought this auto-build thing was a bug, but once I figured it all out, my silly builders finally, finally stopped trying to construct that same do-dang shrine. Like I said, keep an eye on those switches then be ready for any consequences.

Oriental Empires
Score Breakdown:
Higher is better
(10/10 is perfect)

Game Score - 88%
Gameplay - 16/20
Graphics - 10/10
Sound - 10/10
Stability - 4/5
Controls - 4/5

Morality Score - 88%
Violence - 7/10
Language - 10/10
Sexual Content - 10/10
Occult/Supernatural - 7/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 10/10

The world map in Oriental Empires offers quite a view. Your field of vision is limited in the beginning, but it expands the further you venture off the map edge. I was awestruck by the landscape. It’s so pristine and well rendered. The rivers glisten from every angle, and the entire country side even changes seasons after every turn. Now, in my opinion, the whole area looks its best at a distance. Thankfully though, it’s not too shabby up close either. Zooming in to the ground level lets you see people and animals. Their models aren’t stellar. They don’t do much either, but they don’t look bad. Battles in between turns are also slightly more exciting magnified than far away, even if the animation is largely unimpressive. As for music, I‘ve always had a weakness for the oriental faire, so I might be a little biased in my assessment. But I loved their score in an instant. It had great quality, the orchestration was pleasant to listen to, and not once did it annoy me.

I compliment Oriental Empire for achieving fairly reliable functionality. Large games are not easy to sustain, especially considering the strings upon strings of code it takes to run. Notice, though, that I said, ‘fairly’ reliable. I came across a couple bugs that slipped through the cracks. My army factions would shuffle around on occasion. These occurrences were unprompted and happened before I rang the gong. It was more funny than obstructive really - kind of like watching action figures doing musical chairs. I also recall having the game freeze on me once, but that was only once. It wasn’t a recurring issue. I’d also like to point out that there is a multiplayer mode in Oriental Empires. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to test it, due to the lack of opposing players. There’s just no one to play against.

A careful reader likely noticed the word ‘shrine’ in my earlier paragraph. When it comes to Biblical teachings, it shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that a deep dive into ancient Chinese culture would include some contrary belief systems. Just about every oriental philosophy under the sun is mentioned from Daoism to Confucianism. Additionally, the option to build shrines and pagodas is available but not required. Now, in Oriental Empire’s defense, you could argue that this makes for a well rounded study. You can’t fully understand a culture if you don’t understand what they believed. However, parents should know that the religion upgrade tiles ask players to promote false lines of thought in order to get their upgrades. Not only that, but your in-game bid to become emperor is also a claim to divinity as the ‘son of heaven’. Some might say that’s taking things a little too far, and they might be right. When in China, you shouldn’t have to play monkey see, monkey do. However, the ultimate decision lies with you. Is this just a thoroughly explorative game? Or a yin-yang glorifier? Pray and take your pick.

As I finish this review, might I add that I’ve had interest in Chinese history since I was kid. Thus, you can imagine I highly appreciated the developers’ efforts in Oriental Empires’ portrayal. On the positive side, my inner historian was stunned, but on the negative side, my inner gamer groaned for the first hour or two. Now, whether a good game should be simple or complex has become a popular debate in recent years. It’s easy to see why. Simple games are a great change of pace in our hectic lives, but there’s a certain beauty to complex games too. Just think. A group of people toiled long hours to get systematic juggernauts like this running. That’s hard not to admire, and as Oriental Empires demonstrated, they can have plenty to offer in the long run. However, complex games shouldn’t have to be complex to learn. That’s Oriental Empires’ primary deterrent, but if you’re willing to learn and aren’t turned off by heavy doses of Chinese philosophies, then I can imagine Oriental Empires being worth your time. You’ll like it. That is unless games like Civilization aren’t your style. There’s that too.

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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