At the time when it was released, the PS2 was probably the most technically advanced and powerful video game console to hit the market. Thus, it would make sense that developers would be entranced by the potential of this newfound power and would try to exploit it as much as possible by taking console games into areas previously unexplored. Enter Kessen, a strategy game for the PS2 released near the beginning of the PS2's life cycle. Kessen was technically a launch title for the PS2 in Japan, but it took a bit longer for the title to be localized and arrive in the states on November 13, 2000. Why they hoped this game would sell well in the states is beyond me since it was neither a mainstream genre nor a mainstream subject matter for the time. But then again, there are thousands of Japanophiles out there…Whatever the case, the specimen of interest here is the game itself. Strategy games on the home console are nothing, but what was unique about Kessen for the time was unparalleled cinematic presentation. Due to the hardware limitations of past console, the scope of mass scale Total War-style warfare could never be realized effectively on a console until now. Being the first DVD-crafted PS2 game to appear in the states, Kessen is chalked with cinematic sequences—from a deluge of prerendered CGI scenes to tons of prerendered in-game animations depicting carnage on the battlefield. While this was spectacular for the time, the game's main selling point betrays its greatest weakness: the experience feels more like a movie than a proper video game. Once all the glamour and pizzazz of the visual presentation has passed over, then it becomes clear that Kessen is lacking the same substance that makes great strategy games, well, GREAT.
Kessen takes place during the Warring States period in Japan, a slice of history that gets explored endlessly in Japanese pop culture. Obviously video games fall into this same trap too and indeed, we've seen the Warring States period presented before everything in Kessen is stylized to a certain degree. While weaving a tale that is historically accurate, the props, costumes and players have all been pumped up to be more fantastic and stylish in appearance. Women roam the battlefield in revealing skimpy suits of armor; the helmets of commander are ridiculously large and adorned with several different accessories. Still, the game insists upon presenting its story in a grounded fashion. Unlike Devil Kings, it firmly pushes forward the fact that its subject matter is based in history and not fantasy. The narrator of the game sounds like one of those hosts from a historical documentary on PBS. Overall, Kessen falls into the realm of historical fantasy more than historical fiction.
Still, you can't blame the developers for not trying to create an epic out of their creation. I am quite impressed with the sheer number of cutscenes that the game presents. The quality of animation in these computer generated dramatic sequences is actually very high for a first generation PS2 title, and they're quite interesting to watch. All the characters presented here are based on historical figures and all the situations that they engage in are based on historical events—truly, the inventors did not skimp out on their research. Although I'm not sure if the personalities of these characters are true to their real life counterparts, their ambitions certainly are. Whatever the case, despite the narrator forcing historical tidbits into the player, we have to remember that this Koei's original creation. It may have been inspired from history, but it ultimately becomes its own independent universe with its own rules.
What's really funny is that this is actually Koei's SECOND launch title for the PS2, released less than a month after their first game, Dynasty Warriors 2. Although the Kessen series would go on to sell moderately well in Japan, it is the Dynasty Warriors for which Koei is now popular for. All I can figure is that their development houses must have been working overtime. I personally don't own a copy of Dynasty Warriors 2, but I'm glad to have found Kessen since the North American public considers the game to be a relatively uninteresting oddity and loves to overlook it. For $5, I say it's quite an interesting experience.
Then there's the gameplay…well, sort of. It's a typical Real Time Tactics setup where the player has control over a number of different squads, and his job is to control these squads on the battlefield and have them conquer the squads of the opposing team. Battles move in real-time, although you wouldn't know this from a lot of the gameplay footage given that so much of the player's time is spent reading messages and acknowledging orders (in which time, the game speed is frozen). When the game is moving, little squads scurry across the map to wherever the player directed them to. Once they encounter an enemy squad, they begin a battle. Once they start fighting, the player doesn't have any control over them. However he can order them to perform Special Techniques—which are undoubtedly the highlight of the combat. Special maneuvers are various types of large scale attacks designed to really hurt the enemy in one way or another and are accompanied by these really cool looking cinematic sequences. The player has to decide when and where to employ these super attacks, but he'll find that he'll be using them quite often (slowing the game down even more with all this cinematic bravado). Once the player's army successfully destroys the enemy leader's squad, then the battle is won! From here, the player gets to experience another plethora of cutscenes (which isn't a bad thing) and then he moves onto preparations for the next battle. Here the player can control the initial layout of his units across the map as well as what officers to bring along and which officers on the enemy's side to attempt to subvert. Then begins the next battle, and the aforementioned procedure takes over again.
While there is seemingly a lot of potential for micromanaging and complex gameplay, a lot of the "complexity" is really superficial. As mentioned before, the problem with Kessen is that it seems to want to be a movie first and a game second. Thus, the aspects to the game, while seemingly complex and expansive at first, actually play second fiddle to the cinematic sequences. Take for example the first level in the game: the player has to watch this long introductory video learning all the basics of the game as opposed to engaging in an interactive tutorial like most games would provide. When the player does finally begin to play, the game immediately asks him if he would like his officers to take over command for him during the course of this first mission. This means that the player doesn't even have to PLAY the first mission at all; all he has to do is sit back and watch the computer do it for him. And that's only one example. During the actual battles themselves, the main map presents a very generic view of the action. And since the player only controls units while on the main map, that means the only time the player has true control is when he sees his squads as tiny little colored pockets of indistinguished pixels lay out across a map. When he orders a special maneuver, orders a unit to move or anything like that; THEN the game switches to a cinematic to illustrate the unit responding to the player's orders. These cinematics are non-interactive, which means the player can't really do anything here except watch. While they are the graphical highlight of the game, the fact that they are prerendered becomes increasingly annoying as they always play out the same each time. Even Final Fantasy VIII, which was made about 2.5 years before this, had interactive cinematic sequences where the player had to rapidly press a button or do something to help change the outcome of some super attack or technique. Kessen have none of these innovations. And while the cinematics look fantastic, they are ultimately purely for show and have no effect on the outcome whatsoever.
These shortcomings would be more forgiveable if the actual strategy part of the game was more involving and challenging, but even here, Kessen doesn't want to really show off too much. Notice that I beat the entire game without dying a single time during the course of my playthrough. I don't even know what the "Defeat!" screen looks like! The problem is that the game's just too damn easy on the default difficulty setting. The AI…doesn't really put up a fight at all. And even if it does, it's not much of a concern because the player is endowed with tons and tons of squads to back up whoever's on the bad end of the stick. With a little bit of ingenuity and persistence (keep using those special maneuvers!), the player basically has the opposing army pegged for the entire level. The enemy commander's squad is always absurdly easy to take down, even if it supposedly has been fortified against enemy attack! The game does have a difficulty setting, but it only appears after both campaigns have been played through once. This basically means that unlocking a proper challenge means actually getting through meandering non-challenging portions of the game, and the player is rewarded with challenge! How bizarre…but I suppose it makes sense in some ways (remember the "second worlds" of so many old Nintendo platformers?). Still the initial lack of difficulty on the default difficulty setting just goes to show that the developers were not terribly interested in the game itself as much as they were with its presentation.
Visually, the game is marvelous at least for the cinematics. Since 80% of the game revolves around cinematic sequences, these movies look appropriately fantastic in their own right. The image of hundreds of animated soldiers clashing with the th enemy soldiers is a sight to behold from a distance. Unfortunately, when you zoom in closer, you notice that the models used for these individual units are not all that detailed in themselves (kind of like high resolution Playstation graphics). However, this is totally acceptable as the screen has to handle a lot of detail in the first place. The cutscenes and cinematic sequences however, are a completely different story. Apparently, the developers used motion capture for all the commanding officers and they definitely move with a high-resolution grace that looks fantastic for a first generation PS2 title (even today, I'm still very impressed the fluidity of their movements). The animators even attempted to make their lips move in a somewhat natural fashion; something that many lower grade Playstation titles would rarely attempt. The other 20% of the game takes place in the map screen, and the player's not going to want to be looking at this too much because it's basically just a big prerendered, minimally detailed map with the squads being represented by these fuzzy collection of sprites. If you were to judge the graphics of the game by this area alone, you would swear the title was recycling technology from 1994. Overall, it's the cinematics that really stand out in this game and those who deprive themselves of them are truly missing out on an integral part of the experience.
The sound is also exceptional for the most part. The music is performed by, of all people, Reijiiro Kuroku. The maestro of Gojira (1984) returns! I practically memorized his soundtrack from that film. How is his soundtrack here for this video game? It's actually pretty wonderful, adding immensely to the epic scope of the game. Appropriately high energy John Williams-style motifs for the battles, smooth lyrical compositions for the quieter dialogue scenes, etc. It's all a very, very nice soundtrack, though personally I don't think it's as memorable as the orchestral one from Eternal Ring. The sound of combat is appropriately bombastic and satisfying, although you only get to hear it during the cinematics really. The only area where the audio really fails is the voice department. Given that this is a Japanese made game set in ancient Japan, you think the developers would have the generosity to include the Japanese vocal track, right? Nope…everyone's dubbed in corny sounding English, and it just as silly as you can imagine. Surprisingly enough, I recognize a lot of these actors from Saturday Morning Cartoons. Richard Newman, who played M. Bison in the Street Fighter animated series ("YESS!!") plays the role of a minor villain in this game. He does have a relatively deep and distinctive voice, unfortunately he doesn't have much "screen time" in this production. The voices eventually begin to grow on you the same way that the corny English performances from the Onimusha series begin to get stuck in your head. Overall, the sound is good, but the English voiceovers kind of ruin the dramatic impact the cinematics could have had.
Kessen is a weird game. It has all the production values of an A+ title, meaning that has the utmost ambition a video game can have. However, the overemphasis on cinematics and the superficial and simple gameplay mechanics really kill the title's reputation as a "game". The producer clearly wanted to make a movie (he even says so in a letter in the game's introduction) and that's what we got here: some sort of motion picture video game hybrid. It's an interesting experience the first time around, but I don't think it's a title that people will be playing for years to come. For now, the reigning cinematic video game hybrid is the Metal Gear Solid series; a franchise that succeeds (at least publicly) in both areas. Although personally I prefer the story in Kessen to the bloated narrative in Metal Gear Solid, but that's another matter entirely…