A lot of you probably hadn’t heard of Liu Bei or Nobunaga Oda until the debuts of the Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors franchises, respectively. Koei’s been up to their ancient Asian antics much longer than you know, dating back to the original iterations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition over a decade ago.
These two tales must be considered simultaneously since they’ve borrowed from each other so much in the past, including gameplay styles, visual presentations, the use of epic medieval stories, and sweeping musical scores. Where there was Dynasty Warriors now stands Samurai Warriors, and though Kessen and Kessen II were steeped in ancient Chinese lore, Kessen III moves the chaotic turmoil of the RTS genre to the Land of the Rising Sun – making enough gameplay changes in the process to feel like its own game.
Kessen II was a thing of beauty, and its follow-up has some big shoes to fill. While it doesn’t do some things quite as well – like the sheer size of the ROTK story and having cutscenes that are not quite as amazing – it accomplishes enough, well or better, to make it a worthy sequel. Twisting the Kessen formula into something fresh without losing the spirit in the process is certainly a commendable achievement.
Kessen II managed to push hundreds of units around the screen at a time by only rendering the closest ones in 3D, leaving the rest as stiffly animated 2D sprites. In Kessen III, there may be fewer units, but the speed, chaos, and flash of battle has been upped considerably. It’s rare to get an up-close glimpse at any given soldier but, in those rare instances, they still look pretty damn good. In terms of graphics, it’s not going to dethrone the likes of Metal Gear Solid 3, but it’s good considering everything that’s going on at once.
Spell effects start out humbly and are a little unimpressive at the beginning of the game, but that just punctuates the contrast when you first unleash Fate, Lightning, Whirlwind, or one of the other striking Ninjutsu (Ed: that’s how they spell it in the game) summons/spells on your unsuspecting foes. They are bad ass, that’s all there is to it. Spells like Lightning, Whirlwind, and Comet take their cues from Kessen II, but they look much better this time around.
Kessen II had an amazing soundtrack – one that’s worth importing. It was a tense moment booting up Kessen III to see if it lived up to its aural heritage, but fear not. Adding a distinctly Japanese flavor to the music, it still moves perfectly with the on-screen action, be it a tender moment between Nobunaga and his lady or an angry charge into furious battle. The Settings screen offers an Auditorium where you can listen to individual tracks as they’re unlocked throughout the game. Nice touch.
Battle effects layer weapon clashes on top of whooshing arrows along with stomping hooves of war horses, the falling rain, the bold shouts of warriors in heated conflict, and splashing water of a nearby river to great effect. Let it never be said that Kessen III is too quiet or uneventful to the player’s ear. Even the voice acting is above average. There are a few cheesy moments, but they seem like they were meant to be that way. The characters all have enough personality that players can get behind them in the Oda clan’s quest to unite the warring states of Japan and bring peace to the land. Go ahead and root for them.
It’s impressive that Koei managed to change so many little things in this game and still keep it feeling enough like before as not to alienate series veterans. Instead of having preset skills and spells and troop types for each General, they can all be customized by equipping new spell scrolls, buying new troop types – as well as earning them in battle – and skills can improve and evolve with more use. There are specific job types akin to Final Fantasy Tactics, but there are items that can change a character’s job temporarily so they can bone up on, or learn, a skill they might not otherwise be able to. There are also new armor, weapons, helmets, horses, scrolls, and troop types to be purchased between battles. Some of the specific groups can become really powerful if you pay a little extra attention to which troops use which skills the most effectively with certain generals. The ability to customize can get deep if you want it to, and works quite well.
Actual combat takes a pointer or two from Dynasty Warriors, being much more direct and action-oriented. Players lead their groups into battle, and can gang up on a single enemy group, or even retreat from an initial charge to lead their enemies into an ambush. Retreating lowers defense temporarily, but it’s often worth it when the enemy gets sandwiched between two much more powerful units, while the Priestess’s support unit heals your troops wounded in the retreat. The strategies that can be employed on the fly are exciting, and knowing your options as well as the terrain will offer a decided advantage. It’s often necessary to jump from one general to another to take hold of a situation gone awry, but most of the time they do a good job of staying alive and using the appropriate skills on their own. For instance, on one occasion an A.I. general summoned Fate only when his unit was about to be destroyed, saving himself, and turning the tide of battle. That’s a lot better than using it randomly and wasting a potent and costly resource on an undeserving situation. Switching generals on the fly to pile up spells and flanking attacks to pummel a particularly ruthless enemy generates quite a feeling of power.
The enemy sometimes lays booby traps to block your advance, ranging from mines to setting light to an oil-slicked river. There were perhaps a few more of these situational traps in Kessen II, but what’s on show here is certainly good enough.
There are a few minor quibbles, like some load times mid-battle when transitioning to and from a cutscene, and seeing the same intro scenes before every planning phase. However, the load times aren’t significant enough to deter playing, and if there’s a cutscene you don’t want to see, just press Start to skip it.
It would also have been a comparable plus to see a multiplayer mode included, or some element of online capabilities. Maybe next time. The single-player experience is plenty well worth your while, though.
Some refer to this series as ‘strategy light’, but it works fine on the whole. The battles require some thought and are a blast to execute, but can often still be completed in ten minutes or so – depending on the battle. It’s great for either a quick fix or killing an entire weekend if you want to complete everything and go back for more. The more you play, the cooler it gets, the more things open up, and the more you’ll want to play even more. Without making it as brain-bendingly complex as Dynasty Tactics or as button-mashingly simple as the Warriors games, Koei has made a worthy successor to the Kessen franchise, and that, in essence, indicates that some big shoes have been filled.