Kessen II

    To many gamers, KOEI represents the kindly old developer with the ability to squeeze hundreds of years' worth of conflict and turmoil into an enjoyable little strategy game. Since the days of the NES, KOEI has been cranking these games out like so many Megaman titles in the form of the Nobunaga's Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms games. Those with a penchant for deep, intricately constructed war campaigns revere KOEI as a sort of modern day Mars, bringing them all the military and political drama of war for a fraction of the cost.

 Go right to the source and ask the horse, he'll give you the answer then kick your ass.
Mr. Ed jumps the gun.

    KOEI has proven that their primary genre, albeit in a trimmed down state, carries onto the PS2 rather well. Kessen took the elements of combat and strategy from the company's earlier games and expanded upon them, creating a system rich in these aspects and with little focus on political control by the player. Those who favored the military campaigns of Nobunaga and Romance but without the tedious rice-rationing found Kessen to be their cup of tea.

    While Kessen dealt with a souped-up retelling of Japanese history, Kessen II performs similarly using Chinese history as its basis for plot advancement. The tale opens with Diao Chan, lover of the warrior Liu Bei, being kidnapped by the nefarious Cao Cao, a red-clad devil with aspirations of world conquest. Liu Bei takes up arms in the hopes of rescuing his Diao Chan from Cao Cao, who has mysteriously been foretold as the victor by heaven. Liu Bei refuses to accept this fate and gathers as many warriors as he can to aid him in the battle. As with Kessen, the story is told through combat.

    Kessen II takes this emphasis on combat and elevates it further, plunging the player into the fray and giving him or her much more control than in Kessen. As before, your generals take charge of their units on a sprawling battlefield. Said battlefields are now much larger and with a greater variety of obstacles and foliage than previously, and sometimes the player must play around with the environments to get things accomplished. One mission, for example, requires your general's troops to be placed on top of a hill so that they might fly into the enemy's fortress from above. It's a shame that this type of unique strategy wasn't implemented more often in the game, as a good deal of the missions could've used something more inventive that simply defeating the enemy or fleeing safely.

The original redcoats.
How now Cao Cao?

    There are several spots, though, where moving your units across the battlefield can become a frustrating ordeal due to some narrow spaces and invisible walls. Combat taking place inside the walls of a fortress has the potential to lock your units into a wedge if you're not careful about who goes where and when. What's more, substituting one squad for another becomes a hassle when the engaged unit has no place to flee to. Other times, your troops are fenced in completely by an invisible force that bars entry and exit until the adjacent unit changes the angle it is currently facing. KOEI could have easily fixed this little annoyance and made traversing certain areas much easier on the player.

    As if the hilarious stag headpieces KOEI calls helmets weren't historically inaccurate enough, some handy new warriors made their way to China to debut on the field of battle. Kessen II introduces a couple of new units to command that add spice to an otherwise bland form of battle; hawkmen and elephant riders now make the rounds in addition to the standard foot soldiers, cavalry, and archers. The sizes of these squads have also been increased about fivefold since the original Kessen, resulting in some massive melee conflicts that push the PS2 to the point of near slowdown. It's never a major problem, but you'll catch a few instances of choppiness when things really get going.

    Unlike its predecessor, Kessen II's take on combat is heavily grounded in the realm of fantasy. Arguably the best addition to combat is the ability to summon the forces of nature to wipe out zones of enemy soldiers. Magic-using generals tend to pack several spells that can quickly and easily enable a squad of only a few thousand soldiers to take down forces of 10,000+ troops. The addition of magic spells to the Kessen system of combat makes for battles that are a bit more interesting than your standard soldier vs. soldier spectacle.

 Plate mail ain't gonna help ya, buddy.
It's raining men frigid javelins of pain.

    And if the addition of new troops and magic wasn't enough for the battle system, players are now given direct control of their general on the field of battle a la KOEI's Dynasty Warriors games. While this is an interesting feature for a strategy title, the melee combat engine suffers from some crippling problems. With Dynasty Warriors 3 making its debut in Japan, one would think that KOEI had gotten the hang of melee battle. Close quarters battle controls tend to be slow and unresponsive, often times resulting in frustrating bouts of running, turning, striking, and repeating. While most developers mastered the art of moving in eight directions on the NES, KOEI has decided to go with an inadequate system of clumsy movement greatly hindering what could have been a very enjoyable feature of the game. Fortunately for those who may lack the patience to deal with it, this aspect of combat is entirely optional.

    Issues of diplomacy and political policy are of little worth to the player of Kessen II. In fact, the only time spent at the royal table is used to formulate strategies for the upcoming battle, with suggestions offered by two or three of your top generals. Post-battle options include such tasks as "recruit troops," "train troops," and "kill man-eating tiger," while pre-battle decisions will secure a course of action for the battle yet to come. Will you lure the enemy into a pit on the north end of the battlefield or corral them into the minefields in the south? Of course, wily generals could also manually abort their chosen strategy and try to go for both.

    The soundtrack upholds the rich, orchestral feel put into place by the original game. Players command their units to the sounds of real instruments trumpeting the sounds of battle with an intensity unmatched by any synthesized piece of music. Kessen II does a great job of instilling emotion in the player, though after the first few battles you'll get the feeling KOEI is recycling the same two or three tracks. It's great stuff, there just needs to be more of it.

Give me something that will make my teeth bleed! DINOSAUR MEAT!
Guest appearance by General Tso.

    Graphically, Kessen II is a decent upgrade of the original Kessen's already beautiful graphics. Individual units are more detailed, and duels between generals are often very well choreographed and show KOEI's skill at manipulating a fairly large amount of polygons. Dialogue also synchs up somewhat well with the mouth animations, although this does nothing to improve the quality of the voice acting itself. While James Flinders does make a minor contribution, the rest of the game doesn't match the high standards set by Metal Gear Solid or Grandia II.

    If you can overlook its faults, Kessen II offers an excellent strategy experience that is more than worthy as a successor to the first Kessen. The sequel improves upon almost every aspect of the original while injecting a few new tricks into the genre to keep battles fresh and moving. With an unlockable second quest available upon completion of the game, strategy enthusiasts should get more than a good weekend out of Kessen II.

Review by Alex Fraioli, GIA.
Kessen II
Developer KOEI
Publisher KOEI
Genre Strategy
Medium DVD (1)
Platform PlayStation 2
Release Date  03.29.01
Interview with Kessen 2's director
E3: 10 screenshots
E3: 5 high-res character renders