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
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
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.
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?