In this PS2 line-up of
questionable quality, two of the best have come from the little know (in America) company
called Koei. Dynasty Warriors 2 took you arcade-style across and straight through the
battlefields of China. Kessen takes you to the fields of Japans greatest battles.
Fought in real time, Kessen differs from traditional RTS because there is no resource
management and no troop production.
Each battle is entered with
an army of predetermined strength, although you do have some flexibility in deciding which
officers you want to accompany you into battle. Troops can also be outfitted before the
battle, and formations can also be chosen, which affect everything from how fast troops
move, to how effective their rifle squads are. While the cinematic cut scenes are exciting
and the pre-battle strategy meetings are entertaining, the focus of each battle is simple
and clear: destroy the enemy commander. Sometimes this has to be done with a defensive
stand, sometimes with a stall tactic while waiting for reinforcements, and sometimes with
an offensive storm.
Once the battle begins, commands can be sent to either the entire army or to
individual commanders. The army commands are too broad and so imprecise to be used
terribly often. You very rarely need to order the entire army to retreat or attack.
Instead, by commanding each unit toward a specific task the enemy can be vanquished with
relative ease. While billed as a strategy game, Kessen is far more tactical. As the battle
unfolds before you, units can enter into melee combat, and each troop type can also
perform special maneuvers. For example, calvary can be directed to charge the flanks of
your opponent, rifle squads ordered to unleash a barrage, or spearmen to erect a spear
wall. Learning when and where to unleash these attacks is of the utmost importance.
Watching the battles closely is even more important because enemy units can be isolated
and surrounded for an easy victory, but if you get caught out in the open against a bigger
force youre toast.
The battlefields of Kessen are historical, and in general the troop types and
strategies are designed to reflect the warring armies of pre-Tokugawa Japan. With the rise
of gunpowder, rifle squads dominate the bowman. Calvary is very effective at hit and run
tactics, especially when carrying rifles. A well-timed charge can take you through the
enemy, which is of course a tactical bonus. Spearmen, while rather mundane, are well
prepared for stopping mounted assaults, and they drag cannons around with them to boot.
The devastating power of the cannon shreds enemy units, and a well placed squad of cannons
can devastate an enemy squad before they even get to fire back. The only thing more
devastating than a cannon barrage is facing the wrath of an army of female ninjas. While
not the most durable of troops, the female ninjas unleash smoke bomb tossing, throat
slicing, weapon throwing, ass-whipping special attacks. Having seen a lot of anime, I can
verify that this is basically historical.
During the course of a battle, troops become fatigued and may request time to
rest. Tired troops dont fight as well, but fortunately they rest quickly. Zeal is
also measured, and special maneuvers cost various amounts of zeal to perform. Zeal is
constantly rising, but routing enemies or receiving a command they requested or really
liked hearing can raze zeal significantly.
There are a few things I dont really understand about Kessen, such as
when an army disengages from combat and executes an organized retreat they cant be
engaged in combat. This makes the retreat of the utmost importance because it provides
your troops with temporary invulnerability, although on the downside they will not accept
commands while retreating. Im not sure what this is intended to represent, and so
can only assume that commanders are abiding by a code of ethics requiring them to allow
their opponents to retreat and reform their troops. I guess this sounds honorable and all,
but there are times when all you really want to do is butcher the evil bastard who killed
your ninjas. In any event the invulnerability phenomenon could have been better explained.
Conversely, when an enemy force breaks and just flees from battle they can be persued and
massacred to the last troop, and it is particularly cool to watch your mounted troops ride
down the fleeing enemy army.
Beautiful cut scenes are engaged whenever a special maneuver is preformed by
one of your generals. These add both excitement and flavor to the battle scene as, for
example, hundreds of rifle men line up, fire, and drop swaths of baddies. The problem is
that there is only one animation sequence for each special maneuver. As a result, after
playing for about an hour I was skipping the cut scene for all the troops except the
cannon and the previously mentioned and thoroughly rad female ninjas.
Once the original mission branch of Kessen is completed and you have led the
Tokugawa forces to victory, the alternate side is unlocked. You can then attempt to
rewrite the history of Japan by leading Mitsunari Ishida to victory. I found the Ishida
forces to be more interesting than those of Tokugawa, but both have a lot to offer. After
both mission branches are completed, a freeplay mode is unlocked. In addition to the
historical battle sites, various other battles can be fought if you lose certain battles.
Other than the repetitive cut scenes, my only real complaint with Kessen is its
lack of difficulty. The learning curve represents the first real challenge, but an
excellent tutorial puts you in the action right away. Once I got the hang of things, there
were only a few battles that posed a real challenge. There were lots of tense moments, but
as a general rule I won most battles by huge margins, and would have appreciated more
Kessen isnt for those with short attention spans, but strategy fans and
history buffs should have a blast. More to the point, gamers who dont fall into
either of those categories but are hungry for some variety in their games should give
Kessen a try. You dont see games like this very often, especially on consoles, and
this kind of creativity is one of Kessen's strongest points. That, and the fact that you
get to be a Samurai Shogun, which is pretty much reason enough to buy any game.