Where's Lord Toranaga when you need him?
The sixteenth century was an interesting time in Japan. The missionaries were running rampant, Portuguese traders were poxy bastards, and some guy named Anjin-san was causing a lot of trouble.
Okay, maybe that was just James Clavell's version of Japanese history, but it turns out that the real thing was just as exciting. Powerful Daimyo vied for seats of power in order to fulfill their own ambitions. A few men in particular would stand out from the rest and ultimately become known as the "three unifiers" of Japan - Oda Nobunaga, whom you may recall from the Nobunaga's Ambition games; Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the pitiful commoner turned powerful Taiko; and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who stars in the very first Playstation 2 strategy game.
That game is Kessen. Though not without its problems, this is a solid first effort.
At the start of the game, players take on the role of Tokugawa Ieyasu, supreme commander of Japan's eastern forces. Eventually, players will be able to take the Toyotomi side as Mitsunari Ishida, supreme commander of the western forces. With the tensions between the Tokugawa in the east and the Toyotomi in the west, the stage is set at Sekegahara for an all out battle to decide the fate of Japan.
Kessen is a real-time tactical strategy game in the most extreme sense of the word. There are no resources to manage and no missions to complete; it's just one army against another. Most RTS gamers are used to sending their units into battle on speedy wings to annihilate their enemies with a well-timed nuclear strike. This is definitely not the case with Kessen. The last time I checked, soldiers of the Warring States period had to run along without jet propulsion and would annihilate their enemies mainly with blades, not bombs.
With this in mind, Kessen plays the part of a very realistic RTS. Players issue commands to their officers, which will lead their units slowly but surely towards the objective. With thousands of men to command and move about a large battlefield, this process can sometimes take a while, just as in real life. And depending on your strategy, a single battle can last a couple of hours. Not a game for action fans whatsoever.
Your commanders also have their own personalities and will not just follow you blindly. They will initiate attacks against enemy units and will even perform special maneuvers of their own initiative (such as a charge or raid) from time to time. Sometimes, they will even challenge enemy officers to a duel. Winning one of these events can boost the morale (zeal) of that unit's troops. I wish these fights were to the death, though. It's amazing how the officers never die.
On the downside of command, officers will also protest orders they do not agree with and even refuse an order they think is just plain ludicrous. This can be frustrating, but it adds greatly to the realism of the game.
Kessen has three phases of gameplay, which gives the player almost total control over the battle plans. First up is the political phase. Here you meet with your most trusted advisors to review the enemy's forces. Subvert enemy plans and lure potential defects to your side. On the home front, choose which of your officers will accompany you on the next campaign. When all of this has been completed, it's on to the war council.
The war council is basically an exclusive party for a bunch of guys in funny hats. Generally speaking, the funnier the hat, the more important the head under it is. In meeting with your officers, you will plan out strategies for the battle at hand. How will you position your troops? What targets will they have? Will your army take an offensive or defensive stance? And most importantly, is your hat the biggest one around?
When all of the planning is done, it's time to go to war. Most of your time spent with Kessen will take place on the battlefield, so make sure your sword and your wits are sharp. Battles take place in real-time, only stopping as you issue orders. Your sole objective is simply to defeat the enemy commander's unit. This sounds pretty easy, but throw in tens of thousands of opposing soldiers and things get a bit'messy.
Real life war is indeed a messy thing, but battles in Kessen are just the opposite. While it take a little time to get used to the display, command in battles is a lot easier than it looks. Icons for each of your officers are onscreen and selecting them highlights their position on the map. This also brings up a list of available commands and voila - an order is given.
Surveying the battlefield is relatively easy with Kessen's player controlled camera. There's also a mini-battle map that will allow you to see the entire battlefield at once. On the other end of the scope, battles can be zoomed in to show the carnage up close and personal. Although this feature really puts you directly into the fighting, players really see Kessen's limitations.
Namely, no one dies.
This is truly odd. When you manually zoom down to the battlefield, you'll see hordes of soldiers locked in immortal combat. I've seen three horsemen thrashing a single foot soldier that absolutely refuses to die. At this level, the realism that Kessen strives so hard to achieve is demolished. The fact that there isn't any blood is one thing, but immortal soldiers? Where can I hire some of those guys? At least you'll see the mortality during special maneuvers. It's one thing to be able to withstand a sword cut and another to withstand a cannon blast.
And boy do those cannon blasts look good. In fact, the vast majority of the game looks great. Kessen pays close attention to graphical detail from the rising battlefield dust to the look on soldiers' faces. But if you think the game looks good, wait 'til you see the FMV. Kessen shows off the absolute best FMV for any of the Playstation 2's launch titles. It's almost like watching a movie as you see the story unfold.
The story also adds greatly to the feel of the game. Players can get involved with the intrigues and watch as the lord commanders manage their adversity.
To top it all off, Kessen's audio arrangement is awesome. Sound effects are spot-on and the score is handled brilliantly. Movie quality music draws players into the game's story better than a cold beer on a hot day.
If it's historic, realistic real-time strategy you're looking for, Kessen delivers. However, this is not a game for the impatient, and some gamers might find the slow pace and long battles to get a bit boring. But ruling all of Japan should take a while, right?