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Kessen (PlayStation 2) artwork

Kessen (PlayStation 2) review

"Fear my tonbogiri!"

Really more a tech demo to tout its unbridled POWER, Kessen for the PS2 conveys the history of feudal Japan as an East meets West conflict starring rival factions vying for control of the land, one led by House Toyotomi and one led by House Tokugawa. This is such a guilty pleasure. Bask in the PS2’s impressive ability to render life-like detail through state of the art cinematics and breathtaking imagery! Behold the power at your fingertips as you control armies numbering in the tens of thousands by issuing commands as your obedient forces march across the map! Kessen is history. Kessen is cinema. Kessen is art.

Dude, get a grip.

If you know anything about the PS2’s launch back in the weird days of late 2000, then you certainly know that all the hype behind the system was what it could do, not so much what it was doing at that point in time, which was basically being really hard to find in stores near you and offering a rather lackluster collection of launch titles. Kessen was one of those titles, and it likely saw far greater sales and media exposure because it was either get excited about this or get excited about that fireworks game (or something equally trivial).

As an American, Eastern societies are amplified in their portrayal as exotic cultures and Kessen’s big selling point, aside from its polished cutscenes, is that it tells the saga from start to finish on how the Tokugawa Shogunate unified the warring states of feudal Japan over a decade and a half of constant warfare. The fact that you can go through its campaign mode as the losing side in a bid to rewrite history and prevent the Tokugawa Shogunate from controlling Japan only adds an additional element of mystique.

You play — really more like watch — Kessen and if you enjoy history and glitzy in-game portrayals, then you’re probably going to get some sort of value here. The game peaks at “level 2,” the Battle of Sekigahara, which is conveyed as the most important battle in Japan’s history if not the world’s. Well, it’s definitely interesting seeing the two factions plot their greater ambitions against the undertone of petty squabbles and political intrigue bubbling in the lower lords’ circles. Will Kobayakawa defect to the West? Will Hosakawa avenge the martyrdom of his Christian wife? Will Shima end Tokugawa’s ambitions through assassination, or will Tokugawa lop off the head of his hated rival, Ishida? Meanwhile, Kuroda the Younger fears that Kuroda the Elder will seize control in the relative unrest prevailing across the land and some other dude dresses as a leper and plays a flute.

The cinematics are given a certain panache of detail with great voice acting and sweeping orchestrations to help heighten the tension. Then the actual battle begins and any sense of tension that the cinematics so adroitly created are mostly squandered as you’re offered a 10,000 foot angle of the action down below, lackadaisically scrolling through menus and issuing commands to your units such as attack, rest, and retreat.

The best part of Kessen’s actual game design is that, from time to time, you can command your army units to perform special techniques, such as cannonades or arrow volleys or cavalry charges. I particularly enjoy the cannonades, which tend to wipe out THOUSANDS of the opposition’s individual units with each assault. All these special abilities are dependent on having enough AP, called zeal, and being within range of a foe. The actual portrayal of these attacks is kind of neat, at least the first 24 times you watch them methodically unfold, seeing individually rendered men fly up in the air as explosions unfurl at their feet or their bodies lazily slump over as musket fire pierces their armor.

Unfortunately – and this is a big letdown – you can’t control your army units in any greater detail than just described. So if you’re looking for Dynasty Warriors style combat, another Koei franchise that found huge success starting on the PS2, you’re not going to find it here. It really makes an already brief campaign even more shallow as far as its design goes. As interesting as it may be to unify feudal Japan by playing the role of chess master, it would have been more intriguing to actually, you know, control one of those fancily dressed daimyo gamboling across the screen, fulfilling thy lord’s bidding in a violent tempest of steel and blood.

Hell, I’d even settle for at least a little bit of closure, as the game does a lot to build up the personalities of both sides’ many generals, but typically forgets about them as the war progresses. The vile Mitsunari Ishida (yes, the game uses Western naming conventions), who is loathed by Ieyasu Tokugawa, doesn’t even get an on-screen death, but rather his passing is briefly noted by a messenger. Why try to build a world through cinematics if you’re only going to go half way?

I guess that’s why Kessen has two sequels, also on the PS2, that introduce newfangled concepts like actually allowing you to play the game.

I’ve never played those two sequels, and I really see no reason to considering I’ve played more than enough of the original Kessen to see both end-game scenarios and all the sub-scenarios that branch off when your side happens to lose a battle, which is actually quite a task to achieve. So if Kessen were a history book, and we were to accept its outcome as lessons learned, I think they would be that graphics never make up for a lack in gameplay, retelling history can be very interesting provided you give the player something meaningful to do, and branching campaigns are only worth investigating when they are worth exploring.

Kessen is probably not worth your time. But apparently I like to play it every so often so I can bask in all of its Y2K glory and write reviews like this for adoring readers like you. Swoon.

Fiddlesticks's avatar
Community review by Fiddlesticks (February 04, 2018)

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