Kessen is back! The original Kessen was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the PS2 launch library. For the time, it featured unbelievable motion captured cinematic sequences combined with epic, though very simple, RTS strategy gameplay. Okay, in reality it was built more to showcase the technical prowess of the PS2 rather than to provide and deep and complex "game playing" experience, but it did that really well and became a great showcase of things to come for the system. But the bar for technical prowess on the PS2 has been raised considerably since when Kessen was released back in 2000. In just under a year, we've seen titles like ICO and Silent Hill 2 really put that PS2's power to good use and push the power of the hardware even farther than what Kessen could achieve, as well as providing deep and involving gameplaying experiences. Right on the heels of these two behemoth franchises (both released on September 24) comes Kessen II, released on September 26, 2001. Does this next entry in the franchise reclaim the throne of technological powerhouse that its predecessor had or is it a has-been, been there, done that, too late, relic in an overcrowded market?
The story centers around the Chinese general Liu Bei (yeah, we've moved away from Japan to China now) and his long struggle with the forces of the megalomaniac general Cao Cao. Cao Cao and Liu Bei were once allies, but both men possessed incredibly contradictory personalities. Eventually, Cao Cao received a prophecy that he would be ruler of the world. Thus, he kidnaps kidnapped Liu Bei's girlfriend and declared war on the stunned young general. So begins Liu Bei's quest to get her back…and he's bringing his whole army along for the ride. The plot takes a lot of twists and turns and definitely feels like a soap opera of sorts.
Fortunately the story is pretty interesting in a stylized, comic book way (as these games tend to be) and has a lot of cool and memorable characters. The commanders of both Liu Bei's and Cao Cao's armies each have distinct personalities and you will know almost each of them intimately before the game is over. There's obviously Liu Bei, young romantic hero; Zhang Fei, his lovable overly eager commander; Guan Yu, his cunning bad-ass brother with a long beard; Zhuge Liang, a master war strategist who's also a sorcerer; Mei Sanniang, the woman warrior, and Zhao Yun, the noble imperial officer unbested in combat. On Cao Cao's side, there's the ruthless tyrant himself; his androgynous commander Yu Jin; Hu Zhi, a overly masculine female commander (who's basically an ogress); Xun Yu, his female right-hand commander; Himiko, a sorceress he imported from Japan, and an assortment of other crazy, bad ass goofballs and stereotypes.
All these characters are obviously pulled from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms epic, although they've obviously been fantasized to an enormous degree and mixed with elements of J-pop media. For instance, Zhuge Liang was originally just an old war strategist, but in this game, he's been transformed into a powerful sorcerer with incredible mystical abilities. And of course there's this big dramatic twist near the end of the game revealing Cao Cao and Liu Bei as long lost brothers; meaning that Kessen II joins the ranks with thousands of other action games in portraying the fraternal struggle on an epic scale. Seriously though, I think such a dramatic twist is poetically appropriate even if it has practically nothing to do with history or the original ROTK story. Cao Cao and Liu Bei are men with conflicting ideals, conflicting personalities, and seem inevitably fated to clash with each other…why wouldn't they be brothers from a metaphorical standpoint? I do like how the second campaign of the game (Cao Cao's) attempts to present the ruthless warlord in a more sympathetic light, even going so far as to portray his cadre of circus freak commanders as personalities with internal conflicts. I am also glad the creators chose China as the backdrop for the conflict instead of Feudal Japan (suffice to say, at the time of writing, I was getting tired of Feudal Japan).
The game starts the player off as Liu Bei commanding his forces. When the player beats the game with Liu Bei, he switches to Cao Cao's side, just like the original Kessen. Unlike the original Kessen, the AI and respective challenge of these campaigns is a major step up and helps alleviate some of the difficulties of the game being overly cinematic, which I will discuss next.
Like its predecessor, Kessen II is damn heavy on the cinematics. From the very opening, the player is greeted with not one, but TWO big budget FMV sequences introducing him to the characters and the epic conflict ahead. In fact, heavy might be an understatement. It seems like in every level, the player can't play for two minutes without being bombarded by another FMV. Once again, it's apparent that the director, Kou Shibusawa, was interested in making a movie first. But since he never got the funding for that, he had to settle for making a video game. Likewise Kessen II feels like a light strategy game shoved into a CGI rendered historical fantasy film. Like Metal Gear Solid, the player spends just as much (if not more) time watching cutscenes than he does actually playing the game. On the one hand this is fine because it gives you more time to kick back and relax. On the other hand, it's disconcerting because you're not aware if the game is expecting you to simply play out scripted events or think for yourself. Like the original Kessen, battle strategies and unit objectives are determined before the beginning of each mission. This means that there are only a few select points during each mission where the player really has to think strategically and command his units. For the most part, the player just kind of watches as events unfold and units go about doing their assigned objectives. Determining when you need to intervene and be strategic and when you should just kick back and let the units take care of themselves is difficult as the game doesn't make the distinction clear. Sometimes units will just stop in the middle of nowhere and you'll think you need to move them…only to realize they were SUPPOSED to stop at that point in order to intercept an incoming enemy unit! The game simply doesn't let the player know if he should be watching or playing, so figuring that out is part of the challenge.
Fortunately for specific gameplay mechanics though, much has been changed and improved from the original Kessen. The original Kessen was basically a simple RTS game with a lot of pausing to allow for these hi-quality FMV sequences to play. Koei realized it was mainly a technical showcasing title and delivered it as such. However, times have changed since then. Shortly after Kessen's release, Koei found a more successful money maker in the form of their Dynasty Warriors series. This brainless hack and slash extravaganza had the player taking on the role of one warrior in the middle of a battlefield and chewing all the enemy soldiers to bits. It brought a personal, visceral focus to the cinematic battles which Kessen lacked. So fortunately, Koei got smart and realized that Kessen needed a little bit of Dynasty Warriors to make its battles more exciting! So in Kessen II, whenever regiments of units get into combat, the action zooms down to the level of the commander. Here the player can control the commander individually and have him walk around the battlefield, fight off enemy units with his spear, or charge them down with a "summon allied soldiers and attack" command. It's an ingenious innovation and is completely welcome into the franchise. Unfortunately, the commander's actions have nowhere near the variety as his Dynasty Warriors cousin's. His/her attack is a simple spear slash that usually only hits one enemy at a time. He has no special moves or acrobatics to complement his simple attack. The only other option for attacking is summoning nearby allied soldiers and simultaneously charging the enemy front with them. This is easily the more preferable solution, but it still feels limited and awkward. Ideally the commander would have all sorts of special fancy combination attacks and super moves ala Dynasty Warriors. Fortunately years later, this ideal would almost be realized in the form of the Kingdom under Fire series reboot for the Xbox.
With commanding a hero on the battlefield being a limited affair, attention naturally turns to other aspects of the combat. Thankfully things have also been improved here too. Most of the strategic options in the original Kessen have been preserved and much has been added. Special abilities can only be performed when a squad is in battle. Basically the commander that the player is controlling has to execute them. This greatly influences how these techniques are carried out. Whereas in the original Kessen, you would use a special technique like a cannon blast; the game would just play a little cutscene for you and the damage the technique caused would completely determined by a roll of the dice (as well as the commander's skill level and the type of technique). In this sense, the original Kessen was nothing more than a hi-tech version of Panzer General. In Kessen II, the player controls the area of effect for the technique. In order to maximize damage, he has to make sure he launches that special attack in the vicinity where there are the most enemy units present. For example, in the original game, using the ability "Raid" would result in a cutscene of the main officer running through the ranks of the enemy unit and cutting down foes left and right. In Kessen II, the process is interactive—the player controls the commander while he runs down his enemies. "Raid" makes the player's commander unit glow and able to knock down enemies left and right just by running into them. The player must try to knock out as many enemy units as possible with the glowing commander before the meter at the bottom runs out. The number of enemies knocked out within that timeframe determines the amount of damage the special technique has caused. Because the player can control the outcome of the special attacks now by determining where they are executed on the battlefield, the player's skill has more of an effect on the outcome.
But it's not all tactics and strategy—Kessen II is also an RPG! Depending on how well you perform each battle, your commanders and regiments will gain experience and power each level. The second time when I played through the game on Expert on Liu Bei's campaign, I took little notice of this and found myself getting beaten up badly every level. However when I did Cao Cao's campaign on Expert, I made sure to beat every enemy regiment on the battlefield to rack up my commanders' experience as much as possible. The result was an incredible difference—I barely lost a single battle during Cao Cao's campaign as my units were strong enough to contend with the overpowered CPU army. RPG mechanics such as these add an element of positive reinforcement to the experience that is refreshing, especially in an RTS game. In Kessen, such options were limited; but in Kessen II, they are determinant of victory.
However not everything has been tuned for the better. In order to compensate for the increased focus on action, some strategy elements had to be pared down even more. In the original Kessen, before each battle, the player had the option to manually determine the location of each of his units on the battlefield, basically making his own strategy for each level. This option has been removed in Kessen II. Instead the player is presented with two or three potential strategies for how to accomplish the mission and he has to choose one. Also Kessen II doesn't allow for the modification of individual regiments—what units a commander has are the units he's stuck with throughout the rest of the campaign.
Kessen II also doesn't take the range between groups of units into account anymore. If you want to perform any action on the battlefield, your regiment has to be in direct contact with the enemy commander's regiment. There is no area of effect around the map screen nor any long ranged attacks that can hit a regiment several yards away. Actually, that's not completely true. There are some special weapons the player can choose to build as the campaign progresses that allow him to hit the enemy from a long range. Only problem are you can only use these devices for one level and you can't control them—the computer decides when and where to use them. So yes, this is indicative of the game's attempts to simplify its mechanics by removing range as a factor on the battlefield. Regardless it goes to show that Kessen II is more about watching stuff blow up than careful tactical planning.
When the original Kessen was released back in 2000, it was also undisputably considered the highlight of the PS2 launch title lineup. Its graphics, featuring amazingly detailed, high resolution models with life-like motion captured animation must have been stunning for the time. But the bar for technical prowess has been raised a bit since then. Titles like ICO proved that you didn't exactly need to do motion capturing to create smooth, life-like animation. Also Silent Hill 2 combined nearly photorealistic detail with motion captured animation in the game itself (whereas most of Kessen's technical prowess came from it's prerendered cinematic sequences). Likewise Kessen II is a nice looking game, but it didn't break any technological boundaries like its predecessor. In fact, some instances of animation, such as the models used for the prerendered cinematics at the beginning; are pretty wretched and make the characters move with the grace of stiff marionettes. I mean, the animation was probably worse in Hitman, but it felt more appropriate there in a condescending way because the models were already more primitive. The meticulous, almost life-like detail of Kessen II's FMV intros make the primitive animation of the characters models really stand out as a glaring flaw. It might be me, but I seemed to notice the animation getting better as the game proceded along. The animation seemed more capable of making certain moments more dramatic, such as Zhuge Liang meditating on a problem while slowly fanning himself. But in the opening drama where the character's faces clumsily contort into visages of shock and desperation just looks pathetic from a technical standpoint Surprisingly the in-game animation, which was also motion captured, is far more tolerable than most of the FMV animation. The prerendered duels between the commanders, just like in the original game, are pretty slick and are executed with pizzazz and grace that even puts even some modern games to shame. It's rare when you see a game with better looking in game cutscenes than FMV's, but Kessen II seems to be that rare exception. So the in-game graphics are pretty top tier as far as PS2 titles go, but those FMV's need some work.
The other technical aspects of Kessen II are excellent though, especially the large scale battles presented in game. The art design is especially neat. Like the original, this is a highly stylized variation of a historical story, so all the characters look like they belong in comic books more than they do in historical textbooks. In regards to the battles, they've greatly increased the number of troops that can be shown on a battlefield on a given time, making for some very large scale conflicts. The sight of five hundred 3-D rendered soldiers marching in sync into a proportionally accurate green forest is awe inspiring, especially for a console title almost 10 years old! Unfortunately because 500 detailed 3-D rendered avatars would make even the mighty PS2 blow a fuse, some corners had to be cut. The soldiers that are in the player's immediate vision are rendered in 3-D while the soldiers in the foreground or the background are really primitive looking 2-D sprites. When the camera zooms closer to them, then they become 3-D units. It's a cop-out, but an understandable one and is handled carefully enough so you always know feel there are thousands of units on the battlefield. In the battles themselves, the spell effects are also beautifully rendered too. The sight of these powerful magicks hit hundreds of soldiers on the battlefield at once is a delightfully chaotic spectacle. I wish you could skip past these sequences on some occasions though, as they are time consuming. But like the summoned monster animations in a Final Fantasy game, they're so awesome to watch that you can sort of forgive their redundancy. Examples include enormous globes of fire bouncing through the battlefield setting an entire infantry unit aflame, and a meteor shower that shoots off explosive rocks in a circular arc completely obliterating any soldier in the vicinity. Fun stuff.
Even more high marks must go to the sound department, which really did their job here. Obviously all the characters have been dubbed with English voiceovers, but when you consider that the other option was Japanese and not CHINESE, the English voiceover is probably just as appropriate. Fortunately the performances in this game are pretty good. This might be because I was playing this title so long that I began to warm up to the characters, but overall you can tell the voicework here is ten steps above the performances of Silent Hill 2. Unfortunately it's not perfect—awkward pauses abound, some dialogue is nonsensical, and some inflections are off. Once again, the work is done by professionals. Unfortunately, one cast member who I'd hope to see return from the original installment is missing. Richard Newman himself—is nowhere to be found among the cast, which is nothing short of a shame. He didn't have a lot of "voicetime" in the original game, but I definitely picked up on him when his vocal cords resounded through the TV speakers. Some of the casting choices they did make I'm a little skeptical about though. The person who does Cao Cao's voice is okay, but sounds a little nasally and intentionally cheesy. Guan Yu is played by Steve "ARIEEESSSS!!!" Blum (yeah now he's another "god of war"), whose strained, crackled voice makes him a very awkward choice. Isn't Guan Yu the "god of war"? Shouldn't his voice be deep and rumbling instead of sounding like a disgruntled taxi driver? Aside from that, the rest of the cast is pretty good. As for the sound effects department, there are practically no complaints here. The clinking of armor, the pounding of hundreds of horse hooves, the explosions of magic spells are all delivered in very loud, hi-def ambiance. Such good sound design choices contributes greatly to the immersion factor.
The music is appropriately astounding. It was composed once again by Rejiro Kuroku, the maestro of Godzilla 1984, and is nothing short of evocative the way one would expect a big budget, orchestrated motion picture soundtrack to be. Personally though, I didn't find the soundtrack to be as effective as its predecessor's. There were some incredibly touching pieces of music in the previous game (such as the background music for the debriefing room) that none of the tracks in this game manage to properly imitate. All in all though, it's an excellent soundtrack and a testimony to the rest of the exceptional audio design.
Now, up till now, with all the games in my list, I've only been playing through them once. With Kessen II though, I broke the mold and went through the whole experience a second time. This was due to a few reasons. First, both Kessen game presented a ridiculously simple challenge the first time I went through them. The only way to face a more challenging AI would be to up the difficulty to "Expert". However I couldn't play the game on "Expert" until I had completed it on "Normal". Therefore I had to go through the game twice, once on "Normal" and once on "Expert." Second, Kessen II contained a few secret levels and endings that could only be accessed by completing the game on "Expert". Finally, the game was just so damn fun that I felt that playing through it again would not be a ponderous waste of time. Unfortunately it took a huge toll on my time spent on the game (almost over a month). Still, when I wasn't dozing off from the stress of a long day at work, I was enjoying it.
I don't have to disguise the fact that I really liked Kessen II. Why would I dare to go through the game twice if I didn't enjoy it? Sure it's gameplay is still rather simple for a strategy title and battlefield level action sequences are incredibly limited. But it's the sum of its parts that make it a memorable experience. Excellent cinematic presentation, cool spells and abilities, interesting strategic RTT gameplay, entertaining cutscenes, etc. all add up to a really fun experience. I would like to call Kessen II a great game, but because of its shortcomings I think it's more like a "good" game. Indeed, the gameplay doesn't feel fully developed yet. Yet it is more substantial over its predecessor to fully complement the weight of its ambitious cinematic presentation. These few additions to the game mechanics make its precursor feel like a tech demo by comparison (although it still was not as insultingly plain and simple as that misguided overbudgeted mess, The Bouncer). Although the gameplay formula for these action strategy hybrid games would be refined over time in the likes of games such as Kingdom under Fire: Crusaders, few of these successors would match the scope of Kessen II's illustrious cinematic presentation. Kessen II is a prophetic vision of the great heights the medium of video games would aim for-a fusion of genres that could only be executed with the latest advances in technology.