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Kengo: Master of Bushido (PlayStation 2) artwork

Kengo: Master of Bushido (PlayStation 2) review


"Kengo is a 3D sword-fighting game that takes place in the war-torn 16th-17th century era of Japan's history -- ripe ground for the blooming of close quarters combat. It presumes to deliver a reality based approach to the Japanese sword duel, in the same vein as Bushido Blade; however, many were disappointed that it did not include the one-hit kill system that made the BB series such a cult-hit, and I imagine even more players were turned off by its sparse approach to game design. It's my underst..."



Kengo is a 3D sword-fighting game that takes place in the war-torn 16th-17th century era of Japan's history -- ripe ground for the blooming of close quarters combat. It presumes to deliver a reality based approach to the Japanese sword duel, in the same vein as Bushido Blade; however, many were disappointed that it did not include the one-hit kill system that made the BB series such a cult-hit, and I imagine even more players were turned off by its sparse approach to game design. It's my understanding that the game didn't sell too well, and the vastly improved sequel didn't see an American release (though it was released in Europe!) If you do find this game in stores, I can assure you it won't be over ten bucks, and it's well worth a look if you're interested in seeing what a weapons based fighting sim might look like.

In the main story-mode (the other modes being your typical one or two player versus affair), you're given a brief intro that exhorts you to carve your own path in the way of the sword. You then choose one of three disenfranchised samurai to play as, and a "ryu" (combat lineage) to learn your skills from. The difference in styles are both dramatic and subtle; the Muja-ryu is fast, and to the point; the Muni-ryu emphazies one-handed slashes -- and my favorite -- the Kyoshin-ryu, uses a combination of graceful movement and unorthodox, non-linear sword strikes to take the opponent out of his game. You use (often tedious) mini-games to train up your swordsman's specific point capacities (strength, agility, insight, spirit, etc.) and you challenge and defeat other swordsmen to increase them; this is all reflected in the stat screen in your "home" area, but the results are immediately evident in battle. If you slack off in your training, the experience points will cap off, and you'll end up with your ass beaten more often than not. You must stand under a freezing water-fall to increase your spirit, meditate in a zen temple to increase your insight, and cut a helmet in half to increase the speed of your slash -- these, of course, are mostly all button mashes and not much fun at all.

The game doesn't really start until, after beating your fellow students and the head disciple of your chosen school, you inherit the dojo's familial blade, and with that, its lethal secret technique. Now! You're finally ready to participate in that old martial arts cliche of going from dojo to dojo and defeating its masters -- taking their dojo's sacred katana and even stealing a few moves for your own personal kata; this is pretty fun to mess with. The combat system is fluid and precise, but unfortunately, the AI is often defeated by simply parrying their attacks and wailing on their exposed back, either that, or just get in position to use your sword's special attack -- this doesn't work all the time and to even do this much you'd need a measure of skill. I wish I could say how this game plays two-player, because I feel it'd be a very different and a generally more immersive experience, but I haven't had the opportunity.

The animation is authentically motion-captured and looks excellent. The swordsmen circle and stalk each other with the finely honed efficiency you'd expect from a warrior with a decade of kenjutsu in his bones. Background graphics are simple and clean, nothing extraneous, and the character models look very good for their time (Kengo didn't come out long after the PS2 was first released.) Though, I'd have to say, outside of the animation, Kengo's true aesthetic achievement is in its sound design. There is no music to speak of, but the sound effects appear to be pain-stakingly recorded; you feel the shuffle of feet in sand, the thump-thump-thump of running on the polished, hard-wood floor of a dojo. In the out-door levels, you'll hear crows caw and dogs bark in the night. Death-cries are vigorous and legitimately frightening, which is fitting, seeing as how you're either beating your opponent into paralysis with a pointy wooden club (bokken) or hacking him apart with a yard-long razor blade.

Did I mention this game is really violent? It is, but with a level of sophistication that makes it slightly more horrifying than your average gore-fest. While there are no instant kills, if you land a critical strike, you can cause your opponent to spray blood out of his arms or torso, and he'll gradually lose health. The death animations are slow and painful -- no one goes quickly; your fallen adversary will methodically crumple to the ground, curl up and die.

Yoji Yamada, director of the movie "The Twilight Samurai", in an interview, remarked about how inaccurately he felt duels in samurai movies were often portrayed. He said that a sword duel was not ended in a single slash, but that the two swordsman would cut eachother until one of them bled to death or became incapacitated. This attitude is clearly reflected in Kengo, where a duel might not even end with a sword slash -- a swordsman, whose life is being depleted by a mortal wound, might pass out mid-run, and roll to the ground as a limp corpse with blood sputtering out of his body. Bushido Blade, which was hailed for its "realism", was more like your typical "chambara" flick; the sort of movie where the enemy's mortal light is snuffed out in a single, poignant slash. The real thing just isn't pretty like that. And don't think Kengo is any less tense for foregoing instant kills! The truth is, you start to get pretty desperate when your opponent sends you stumbling back with a slash that leaves you bleeding, totally unguarded, and half your health-bar cut off. I'm not saying Kengo is as real as it gets, but as far as artifice goes: you're not going to find many other examples that convey the "duel to the death" attitude like this game. Kengo is the first true attempt I've ever seen at something like a sword-fighting sim.

Rating: 8/10

maru's avatar
Community review by maru (September 20, 2006)

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I've dumped 60+ hours into this game and have come to the sobering conclusion that it is indeed under developed crap. It took 60+ hours of shitty gameplay to undo all the goodwill and anticipation I had from playing the original title.

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