Players: | Release Date: 11/13/00 | Genre: Action
In a launch that was loaded with sequels, one of the most original PS2 titles turns out to be Kessen, a real-time strategy game that puts players in control of a huge army during the greatest battle in Japanese history.
Set in the end of the 16th Century, Kessen was designed to play like a movie that you can control, and its many cinematic sequences and beautifully rendered cut-scenes are truly something to behold. Unfortunately, the story is a little hard to follow, the battles unfold too slowly to keep casual gamers and action fans entertained, and the gameplay gets repetitive after you've tested your mettle in combat time and time again.
On the other hand, if you happen to be a patient gamer, a Japanese history buff, or someone who seriously enjoys a strategic challenge, then Kessen has a whole lot to offer. Its complexity begins to become clear as soon as you immerse yourself in the lengthy Tutorial, which explains the controls and the gameplay essentials. Players who are easily intimidated may not get any further than this, but those who stick with it will eventually be rewarded with their first glorious glimpse of battle.
The battle screen shows a scaled-down view of the battlefield, including troop positions and variations in terrain. Your forces (the eastern army) are shown in blue, while your western enemies are shown in red. The left and right thumb sticks can be used to adjust the camera position, angle and zoom, and you can quickly switch between your different units using the shoulder buttons. The battle screen is where you issue all of your commands, and then the game engine takes over as you watch the results of your life-or-death decisions unfold up-close and personal. Once you issue your orders, the fighting is out of your hands.
However, that's not to say that you don't have quite a variety of tactics at your disposal. In fact, the decisions you make are crucial to the outcome of the battle, which is largely based on the number of casualties each side sustains. In order for your troops to be the most effective, you must carefully manage their morale and zeal. You can rally your troops to increase their zeal, and order them to hold their position to let them rest and recover morale. Your officers also can duel with enemy officers, and the outcome will raise or lower your troops' zeal.
Whenever a unit's zeal exceeds 80, that force can exercise a variety of special maneuvers, including Charges and Raids on horseback, Volleys of arrows, Barrages of bullets, powerful Cannonade attacks, impenetrable Spear Walls, and much more. You also can Pursue and decimate fleeing enemies, or order an entire Army Attack to try to tilt the odds back in your favor.
All of the information you need to make smart decisions can be accessed via simple menus, and there's even a Game Dictionary that explains important terms, shows family charts, lists the full names of the Japanese officers, and provides other helpful information. The control interface is well organized and pretty easy to learn with a bit of practice, but some players may still feel overwhelmed at times, especially when you have to act fast in the heat of battle.
Visually, Kessen is something of a mixed bag. For the most part, the graphics are pretty spectacular - especially the beautifully detailed and extremely colorful character models. The cinematic sequences are also exceptional, especially when you see hundreds or even thousands of soldiers fighting at once. Still, there are a few shortcomings. The most notable one is the bland-looking terrain, which is awash in soft, dull textures. There's also a slight shimmering that you sometimes notice, but these issues really don't detract too much from the overall experience.
Otherwise, the music is suitably dramatic, the sound effects during battle are superb and the voice acting is also convincing - but your officers' remarks do become repetitive after a while. Even more of a concern is that the gameplay also becomes repetitive, especially when you see the same battle sequences (as amazing as they are) repeatedly. Even the cool cannonade attack gets monotonous when you've seen it for the umpteenth time, and there's no way to skip the lengthy attack sequences. The gameplay also could have been better if the terrain played more of a role in the combat. As it is, the lay of the land doesn't seem to make any difference.
Kessen comes across kind of like a cinematic Japanese history lesson, and some players - especially casual gamers - will find it pretty hard to get into. Still, Koei deserves kudos for trying something new and showcasing the power of the PS2. The game's stunning characters and spectacular cut-scenes are simply breathtaking, and the battle scenes unfold in epic fashion. RTS buffs will enjoy the gameplay, but it will definitely seem slow and repetitive to action fans and almost everybody else.