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Score: 91%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: EA Games
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Real-Time Strategy

Graphics & Sound:
There probably wasn't a better game at launch than KOEI's Kessen if you wanted beautiful computer graphics and cinematic camera work. Game fans had something else to be excited about here, since music credits include the Moscow International Symphonic Orchestra. The visuals are wonderful, with human faces that show real emotion and incredible details like strands of hair moving in the wind or images of a thousand soldiers awaiting the call to battle. Usually, strategy games offer a top-down perspective and cut-scenes to illustrate the story between battles. Kessen comes off as more ambitious in trying to give the player any and all perspectives on the battle. The map-view and top-down outlook on battle will be where you spend most of your efforts, but it's possible to zoom in on a battle to monitor progress. You can even select one unit within a larger force to determine if match-ups are going in your favor. The special directives you dictate are followed by short animations that really look cool the first few times, but in the many hours required to 'beat' Kessen you'll find the animations are a distraction, and it's possible to cut them short to return to battle. What music there is really stands out, but I was disappointed to hear short symphonic samples played over and over again during battle. The same music gets old, and I can't imagine why longer segments weren't chosen. This is DVD, after all.

As the first true Real Time Strategy (RTS) game for PlayStation 2, Kessen has a lot to live up to. As a fan of RTS games on PC, I really had my hopes up for Kessen and although it stands as an excellent first effort, the complete package is still lacking compared to most RTS on PC.

Kessen is set at the beginning of a period in Japan comparable to the Renaissance that produced most of Western culture. Many aspects of 'classical' Japanese life we know in the West came from over 200 years of peace following the great battle of Sekegehara. Kessen begins with the events leading up to and following Sekegehara, putting you in charge of the armies of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Tokugawa, or Edo Period, was one that saw the samurai class replace war and violence with spirituality and philosophy, and saw arts and culture flourish in a Japan sheltered from the outside world. When the West finally crept in, over 200 years had passed since Sekegehara, but the average Japanese person could still tell you all the details of how Tokugawa won out over Toyotomi that day in 1600.

Kessen paints a vivid historical picture both during the battles and in the preparation or aftermath. As Tokugawa Ieyasu, you're surrounded by actual generals and military leaders of the time, and opposed by the forces of Western Japan loyal to Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Kessen is very much a game built on commanding troops in battle, and doesn't involve any building of troops or resources. You're given the chance to choose the makeup of your forces before going into battle, and can select initial strategy depending on the army you're facing off against. After you decide the force you'll be commanding, it's into the heat of battle. Each army is made up of a combination of foot soldiers and cavalry. The soldiers carry a mix of spears, lances, arrows and guns. There are cannons on the ground, and it's possible to mount riflemen on horseback for - you guessed it - the Mounted Barrage. Special attacks like the Mounted Barrage depend on many elements and make the largest difference between winning and losing in Kessen. Sure, there's the idea that soldiers on foot don't always make the best attack force for the front lines or against heavy firepower, and it's important to learn how to strategically deploy your troops. But, without mastery of the special maneuvers, you're not going very far. Army units must keep good morale, and sending them into a one-sided battle, giving poor orders or ignoring requests for retreat or rest during battle causes dissent. As long as morale is high, formation of a single unit determines in part what maneuvers they'll have available. Distance from the enemy plays a part in this, since cannons and rifles can reach further than bows and spears. Learning the enemy units will help keep you from falling prey to special maneuvers, and the rest is like a game of chess. Landscape is important in these battles, and you also get reinforcements or subvert enemy generals over to your side.

Thanks to a good tutorial that comes up during key moments in battle or planning, Kessen isn't too hard to grasp. Mastery, especially in the higher difficulty levels, is something different. The tutorial can be turned off at any time, but all the fine details are tough to grasp the first time around. It's almost a shame that Sekegehara comes so soon in the game, since you spend most of the battle just learning the controls and trying to figure out how to play. Later battles find you in better control, but I wish the manual was a better resource. Some of the best information is on EA's website, but it's not really fair to expect everyone to track down info that should really be packed with the game.

Game Mechanics:
Kessen suffers for the same reason that other RTS games have on console, and that's lack of a keyboard. I honestly think KOEI did the best they could with the PS2 controller, but keeping track of the action during battle just becomes way too awkward without the kind of keymaps possible in a PC world. Commanding a single unit is simple enough, and choosing options is done with a menu system that comes up when you select any unit from the field. You can look at stats on enemy or friendly forces and zoom in on battle, but what I miss most is the ability to use single keys to manage forces, change views and issue commands. Normally this isn't too hard, but the controller takes serious getting used to. I also think the constant battle animations break the flow; even though you can opt out of animations once they start, it would have been nice for advanced players to turn them off altogether. Don't get me wrong; the animations are incredible, but like the summoning spells from some RPGs, they're tedious after the 100th time.

Another area that kept RTS from being bigger on console was processor overhead and storage requirements, which gives the PS2 no problem at all. There's a great deal of customization possible. Everything from changing formation of units to modifying troop-type and special maneuvers is possible, but the battles tend to be more about who gets the most large attacks in, which dilutes strategy. Also, unit commanders tend to be very finicky. You learn the rules by playing, since the manual covers almost nothing you need to know. Luckily, Kessen lets you save anywhere during battle, and prompts a save after completion of a skirmish or just before battle. Apart from save/load, the in-game menu lets you walk through an extensive listing of game elements not covered in the manual. This help system is a good alternative to a heavy manual, but not a full replacement. You can even look at family lines of famous Japanese figures profiled in the game. Who said PlayStation isn't a learning tool?

Strategy fans from the console world will be thrilled by Kessen as PS2's first example of big-budget RTS, but PC people know the difference. I mean, there's a reason why the PC market has a tight hold on the this genre... Getting through Kessen is well worth your time, but it somehow feels like trying to play an import game with a less-than-adequate understanding of kanji. The idea and execution of Kessen is brilliant, but the interface leaves something to be desired. As someone who's been starving for quality RTS on console, I had fun, but this beautiful package comes with a few reservations.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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