For well over a decade, KOEI has been renown for developing detailed historical simulation games, most notably the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga's Ambition series. Unfortunately, the extensive foreign history and complexity present in these games has kept them in the obscurity of cult fandom. With Kessen, KOEI has taken those stock elements, streamlined them, and added some of the most impressive visual and aural presentation to ever grace a videogame. The result is the most accessable and playable of their games to date.
 Haute couture, Japanese style
Femme fatale

    Kessen is based on real Japanese history, following the Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods in the 15th and 16th centuries. Hideyoshi Toyotomi was a peasant of ignoble roots who rose through the military ranks and became a general for Nobunaga Oda (Nobunaga's Ambition), who successfully united Japan in the latter half of the 16th century. After Nobunaga's assasination, Hideyoshi took the reigns of power and defeated all other clans to became lord of all Japan. Kessen, translated as "Decisive Battle," begins as the country is thrust into turmoil again upon Hideyoshi's death. Two clans arise to vie for power, the Tokugawa and Toyotomi. You play the role of Ieyasu Tokugawa, one of the preeminent generals who opposes Hideyoshi's son. Your goal is to unite Japan under your command, and once that is accomplished, players will get the opportunity to play the game as the antagonist, Ishida Mitsunari. Mitsunari leads the Toyotomi clan, as Hideyoshi's son is a mere babe. Luckily, KOEI uses cinema scenes and voiceovers well to keep this winding storyline from overwhelming the player.

    To reach a wider audience, KOEI has opted to simplify their usual famously detailed gameplay. Gone is the micromanaging of cities, people, food, politics and diplomacy; instead this title focuses on the battlefield almost exlcusively. Kessen's massive battle sequences begin with traditional deployment and troop management; choose your generals, soldiers, then finally your battle outline. Battles then proceed in real time.

Spectacular visuals spice up the action

    At first glance, the battle map isn't particularly awe-inspiring, but it's quite effective thanks to easily used navigation and command systems. With the battle underway, you can zoom in to soldier level and watch the chaos unfold first hand. The AI is quite realistic, as troop maneuvers evolve and shift based on unfolding events. Your enemy will rely on a hodgepodge of attacks, from war stratagems to calling reinforcements. As in other KOEI titles, war options have four main commands: movement, attack, special attack, and defense.

 Uninspired overmap
Zoom in!

    Despite the obvious masses of soldiers, battles are often won or lost on subtle tactical nuances. Each general is endowed with strengths and weaknesses, even personal allegiances. Some generals are more adept at leading than others, some could switch sides as a traitor or flee in the heat of battle. From time to time generals will duel each other, mano a mano, or even charge a number of soldiers all by oneself. Unit morale is a key element in strategy, as it largely determines how well or poorly your army will perform in combat. Morale can be raised in a variety of ways, from issuing drum calls or resting your units after a battle. Increased morale also increases the explosiveness of special attacks, attack rows, and weaponry.

    Though the strategy may not break new ground, Kessen's fantastic 3D visuals set a new standard for the genre. Photorealistic landscapes coupled with detailed and lifelike character models add greatly to the game's realism. But to truly appreciate the game, one must see it in motion, especially when zooming down to ground level in the middle of a large melee. Kessen's soundtrack is also wondrous, boasting some of the best orchestral pieces ever written for a videogame. Performed by Moscow International Symphonic Orchestra, the music captures the atmosphere of the game perfectly and does well in urging the player to arms. Fans of classical or gaming music should definitely consider importing this soundtrack.

More spectacular visuals
A warrior's day is never over

    Kessen stumbles only in a few places, the first being that the simplified gameplay may leave strategy veterans - especially those of past KOEI titles - a bit unsatisfied. Those with shorter attention spans may find the game monotonous due to the cyclical nature of the gameplay. Lastly, while Electronic Arts did a decent job with the English text and voice acting, it doesn't achieve nearly the level of drama inherent in its Japanese counterpart.

    Despite these shortcomings, Kessen is a standout game. KOEI and EA should be applauded for releasing this game in North America, as the streamlined gameplay is still immersed in a wealth of Japanese history. KOEI's rich tradition of story and gameplay is finally supplemented here by a sharp presentation, quality visuals, and an enchanting soundtrack. While history buffs and fans of strategy and simulation titles will undoubtedly rush to buy the game, there is no better title to introduce newcomers to the depths of KOEI's historical strategy.

Review by Jeff Davis, GIA.
Developer KOEI
Publisher Electronic Arts
Genre Strategy
Medium DVD (1)
Platform PlayStation 2
Release Date  03.04.00
Kessen confirmed as launch title
U.S. Trailer
21 character renders
North American box art