The Boston Tea Party. Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride. Lexington, Concord, Yorktown, and all points between. Washington crossing the Delaware. Yes, the American Revolution has achieved a mythic quality to it over the years (at least in America),, but yet, it somehow took almost 220 years for someone to turn this momentous piece of history into a video game (and it was the Japanese, at that!) Someone was seriously slacking off, methinks.
We’ve covered a Koei game earlier, but that was an example of Koei creating a game that was wildly uncharacteristic for them. Today, we tackle something a little more in their wheelhouse: Liberty or Death for Super Nintendo. Oh, make no mistake, this is pure strategy here, and true to form, chock-full of mind-numbing micromanagement that you’ll either find fascinating or ungodly annoying. Either way, the level of detail will give you a better understanding of what kind of mammoth clusterfuck conducting actual military operations can be.
You start by picking a side, and sorting out a few options like difficulty level and whether you want to watch battles you’re not actively controlling, and then, you get dropped into a meeting of your government (the Continental Congress or the House of Commons), where they basically cut you a check for the next three months of game time, and ask you how you want to divvy it up between your officers, your navy, the districts you control, and in the case of the British, the hiring of mercenaries. In the early going, America gets bupkiss and the British are swimming in cash, but this is subject to change as the game goes along and you win and lose districts and approval. Also, there is one thing I need to point out before going further: the real American Revolution was a triumph of raw volunteers, farmers, and hunters over a massive professional army. The fact that the American colonists weren’t annihilated, let alone won, shocked the world. In this game, however, even on the easiest difficulty level, it is a cast-iron sumbitch to win with the British, for reasons I will get into a bit later.
After that, you’re dropped onto the main map, split up into 60 districts ranging from Canada to Florida and helpfully color-coded based on possession (Red for British, Blue for American, Green for Continental Militia, and a red checkerboard pattern for British Loyalist). Over the course of your turn, which represents a week, you’ll stop at each district you control. Here, you can train soldiers, parade them to drum up popular support, buy supplies, send a depleted regiment away for a couple months to be re-formed, and of course, attack. Under normal circumstances, you can only attack an adjacent district, but if your navy has transport capabilities, armies in coastal districts can attack other coastal districts.
When it’s time to launch an attack, first you select which regiments you want to set off for battle. There are four types of regiments: infantry, artillery/engineers, cavalry, and guerrillas. Each regiment is led by an officer, with different ratings in categories like leadership, discipline, and tactics, which have a big impact on how well their troops fare in battle. Generally speaking, American officers tend to range from “pretty good” to “George Washington’s death machine”, and British officers…well…they suck. Out loud. How bad? Washington’s stats are all in the high 80s and 90s. Thomas Gage, the British commander-in-chief, has stats in the 20s and 30s. Given that you can lose the entire game if your C-in-C is killed in battle or captured, British commanders would be well-advised to hide Thomas Gage as far away as possible. After you pick which units you want, you then have to decide how much to supply them. The game will suggest how many rations you need to fight for 15 days (the maximum length for a battle), but not how much powder or gold to bring along (pretty good rule of thumb is to bring twice as much powder as you have troops).
When it comes to actual combat, if you’ve played other Koei games or any hexwar type of game, you should have no problems here. All units get a certain amount of “combat points” per turn, and moving across hilly or otherwise rough terrain takes more points than flat land. Only cavalry and guerrillas can go through forests, and only guerrillas can go through mountains. If cavalry or guerrillas can get into one of those areas without an enemy nearby, their icon will turn white and they are hidden, allowing them to launch ambush attacks for huge damage. Regular infantry can fire muskets or charge with bayonets to try to drive an enemy off a hill. Artillery can fire from two spaces away, which spares them from return fire, but not all artillery units actually start with cannons, so if you don’t have them, artillery units basically serve to build bridges and as musket fodder.
Also complicating things are forts which provide defensive bonuses for defenders and the presence of ships, which can and will bombard troops with alacrity. There is a random chance that officers will be wounded or killed during attacks, which is somewhat higher during guerrilla ambushes or cavalry charges. If a unit is getting beaten, they have the option to retreat (if there’s an allied or empty district adjacent), but there’s a chance that the officer leading the unit will be captured trying to retreat. After the battle, captured officers can be ransomed back to the other side or imprisoned, which takes them off the field entirely, and is a pretty good idea if you captured a skilled officer (catch two or three of the British ones early and you can REALLY cripple them).
You may also be wondering how well Koei integrated actual historical events during the Revolutionary War. The answer is pretty well, considering the medium they were working with. If the Americans turn the tide heavily against the British, the French and Spanish may decide to join the war on the American side and will start donating supplies and sending their own troops to assist. Benedict Arnold is in the game, and if his morale drops low enough, he will, in fact, switch over to the British side. The Declaration of Independence will be written if the Americans push the British out of everywhere except Canada and Florida (although this probably means the game is close to over anyway, as that only comprises 6 of the 60 districts). Nathan Hale makes an appearance as an officer, and if he is captured, he will be executed instead of imprisoned, but he gives a speech that makes public support rise for the Americans.
Visually, Liberty or Death is unimpressive. I suppose it’s to be expected considering roughly 80% of the game is navigating menus, but it’s still not great. Officers’ portraits are big and bold, if not terribly accurate at times. In battle, units appear as small icons, and have a little animation when firing on the enemy or building bridges and such, but it mostly looks like chess pieces being moved around a weird-shaped board. Sound isn’t terribly strong either; the same song plays on loop for each part of the game, musket fire sounds like cap guns, and actions like ambushes have weird little skitchy noises behind them. You can definitely get the impression Koei was going for a “form follows function” approach here.
All in all, this isn’t a bad little strategy game. It is pretty cool to see a Revolutionary War sim, and the subject matter is far more graspable to most gamers than Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Nobunaga’s Ambition. It’s also a lot easier to pick up and figure out than either of those two series. It even handles fairly well for a PC game that was ported to a console. If you like history or strategy, this one’s worth checking out, just be warned that there is a lot of reading involved and much like the real American Revolution, it takes some serious time and effort.
Pretty innovative concept, a lot less mired in meaningless details than other Koei games.
Graphics and sound are mediocre at best, again, it is EXTREMELY hard to win as Britain.