For strategy players who want a top-notch historical simulation, Kessen is a first-generation PS2 title that’s heavy on tactics but is still fun and accessible.
Based on seventeenth century conflicts in Japan between Ieyasu Tokugawa and Mitsunari Ishida, Kessen’s story is engaging and peppered with rivalries, betrayal and the obligatory dash of romance. Backstories and exposition come fast early in the game, so grasping every general’s history will take some time and replay.
Before each battle, a cutscene explains the circumstances leading to the conflict. Well-voiced and illustrated, the game can feel like a documentary. Making a good historical video game is familiar territory to Koei; from “Uncharted Waters” for the SNES to the current Dynasty Warriors series, historical games have been a Koei staple.
Actual gameplay comes in several stages. First is the preparation for battle, which takes place at night. The player must review enemy generals and pick ones to try to either defect or stall, determined by a loyalty meter that shows leanings to one side or the other. After looking at enemy forces, the gamer must examine his own generals and units, weighing their loyalties, units and formations.
On the morning of each battle, Tokugawa’s generals show the positions of both sides. Here, the player can either use the default plan or modify orders to his or her liking. After this phase of planning, the actual conflict begins.
Battles are highly tactical, yet engaging and easy to pick up. Each general commands a number of soldiers, typically 3,000 to 10,000. Troops can be directed to attack or move to specific locations, and will automatically engage enemy forces if they come too close. All generals have a Zeal meter, and at 80% or higher, Special Maneuvers can be executed. A few boost friendly units, but most are offensive. Depending on each general’s forces, different attacks can be carried out; Riflemen can use Barrage or Triple Barrage attacks, while female cavalry carry out Flying Fusillades.
Zeal is a crucial element in Kessen’s gameplay, and is affected in a few ways. Wiping out an enemy unit will raise the player’s entire army’s Zeal and vice versa. Rally and Drum Call actions boost Zeal, as well.
When opposing units clash, a nice feature is the ability to zoom in on the actual fighting. While the player has no direct control over individual units, this adds to the game’s excitement, but gamers will have little time to sit and watch forces kill each other; they must stay abreast of developments in the entire battle.
Graphically, Kessen is impressive despite its age. Elaborate costumes, while largely fictional, are stunning and well-crafted. Up to a hundred units appear on the screen at any time. Animations for Special Maneuvers, while riveting at first, soon become repetitive and players will often find themselves skipping them. Landscapes are detailed and vast, giving the battles a feeling of enormity and realism.
Though sometimes forced, the voices are generally well done. Shouting in the midst of battle is convincing and adds to the atmosphere both in the overview and zoomed in. Some generals sound nasal and wimpy, while others (Tokugawa especially) sound tough and intimidating.
So while no button-mashing frenzy of action, Kessen is an excellent strategic simulation that’s both intellectual and accessible.