Kessen II


Review by · October 31, 2001

How much can a man endure for the love of a single woman? How much brutality can a one inflict upon his enemies, his allies, and himself before he loses his soul? How far will heaven bend its favor for the will of the people and their champion? Can true love endure a conflict that would tear a kingdom in twain? These questions and more are asked in KOEI’s long-awaited sequel to one of the PlayStation 2’s most impressive launch titles.

Kessen II places the player into the role of one of two would-be rivals embroiled in a bitter war in mythical China. Released in Japan last year to numerous accolades and significant financial success, Kessen II has finally been localized for North America and released with little fanfare. Kessen II thrusts the player into a dynamic and cinematic experience that claims to surpass the original in every capacity. The original Kessen was criticized for being little more than an interactive drama, but KOEI promised a much more satisfying gaming experience with Kessen II.

Have these promises to the gaming public been fulfilled, and does Kessen II prove to be a worthwhile investment for your gaming dollars? Let’s take a more thorough look at KOEI’s latest wunderkind.

Storyline: 96%

Unlike its pre-Tokugawa predecessor, Kessen II’s storyline has been scripted into KOEI’s flagship Romance of the Three Kingdoms series. Those unfamiliar with the plethora of RotTK games released over the years will not be at a loss as Kessen II uses only the setting and themes of these classics.

The story begins, quite appropriately, on the battlefield. Initially, the player assumes the role Liu Bei, the lord of Xu province, fighting a losing battle as your capital is overrun by invaders. You are eventually saved by the army of Cao Cao (Got Milk?), who miraculously comes to your aid. Together you defeat the bandits and drive them from a slightly smoldering Xu Castle. Indebted to his newfound friend, Liu Bei holds a banquet in celebration of Cao Cao’s arrival. The two chat and make merry, learning of Cao Cao’s formidable ambition, and Liu Bei’s happy indulgence in the company of his lover: the dancer, Daio Chan.

On a whim, Liu Bei summons a foreign priestess, Himiko, to scry their future. Liu Bei’s fortune is grim, for the oracle predicts that a woman close to his heart will bring ruin to his kingdom and, ultimately, his downfall. Unexpectedly, Cao Cao’s fortune is quite the opposite: he has been blessed by the gods, fated to bear the Mandate of Heaven, granting him sovereignty over the land.

Unknown to Liu Bei, his gentle mistress, Diao Chan holds the key to the throne. Bequeathed to her by the child emperor, Dian Chan was charged to safe keep the Imperial Seal for a hero worthy of leading the people. This prophecy ignites Cao Cao’s ambition; his lust for power would now only be matched by his cruelty. Thanks to the now-smitten Himiko, Cao Cao learns of Dao Chan’s secret and promptly kidnaps her and sets Xu Castle ablaze. Liu Bei flees from his castle with his childhood friend, Mei Sanniang and sworn brothers, Zhang Fei & Guan Yu. Thus begins Liu Bei’s fantastical quest to save his love, against the wrath of heaven itself. Together they will travel the three kingdoms, gaining allies, making enemies, fighting in epic battles as they rush to the inevitable conclusion.

Upon completing Liu Bei’s adventure, the player may then begin another campaign, but this time as Cao Cao in his ultimate pursuit of power. Kessen II’s tale is that of personal struggle amid political and military duty. The story therein is not only well scripted, but intricate. The relationship of both protagonist/antagonist is unequivocally interconnected. These ties are so strong that the player MUST finish both quests to fully understand the storyline. Cao Cao’s campaign alone is filled with startling revelations that give weight to many nuances of Liu Bei’s quest.

The supporting characters are numerous and remarkably well integrated into the storyline, from the impressively well-endowed Mei Sanning, to the imposing exiled sorcerer: Zhuge Liang.

Kessen II tells an amazing tale through two invariably different but ultimately connected storylines, enriched with dozens of meaningful characters and the strong underlying themes of love, loss, betrayal and redemption.

Graphics: 90%

Constructed of polygons rendered in real-time, Kessen II is a visual and cinematic marvel. Those familiar with the already staggering graphic complexity of the original Kessen, will be pleasantly surprised as KOEI has developed an impressive programming route for the sequel; dubbed the “Cluster Control Engine,” which allows upwards of 500 soldiers to be displayed on screen at any single time. For the statistically inclined, that is five times more than the first Kessen.

Though each soldier is simple in design, constructed of several hundred polygons, the commanders are crafted in meticulous detail, with polygon counts in the thousands. These integral characters are blessed with excellent facial details, unique combat animations and flamboyantly intricate ceremonial armor. Both warlord and peon fight on foot, horseback, aboard ships, and even atop massive pachyderms. The equestrians are rendered with decent detail and are animated convincingly, the barges bob amidst the waves belching smoke as rickets are wont to do, while the elephants are just…huge. Each character in Kessen II was motion-captured for realistic movement, making skirmishes of 300+ soldiers not only intense, but convincingly savage.

The Cluster Control Engine converts some of the distant warriors to bitmaps in crowded combat to keep the frame rate smooth as more fighters enter the fray. This technique is effective, but painfully noticeable as your proud polygon pugilists become fuzzy static sprites, should they wander too far from your center of vision. This transition is not only abrupt, it’s ugly. Thankfully the intensity of combat will keep you from dwelling on this graphical hiccup.

The battlefields themselves display a respectable amount of variety, from the innards of a fortress during a siege to the high seas of naval strikes. The amount of detail in these areas is awe-inspiring, especially during castle sequences, but with such massive vistas, there is significant evidence of polygon fade-in. Another drawback to these vast open spaces is that, due to some of the more massive landmarks, polygon tearing rears its ugly head from time to time. Though it’s hardly intrusive, it is noticeable.

Discrepancies aside, the variety and detail intrinsic to these battlefields is impressive, making each skirmish unique.

The environmental spells are one of Kessen II’s most talked-about and thoroughly impressive graphical feats. Spanning the 4 elements, these uber-attacks are amazingly choreographed, gorgeously rendered, and mind-numbingly destructive. The earthquake spell even involves real-time deformation of landscape, adding to the further versatility of Kessen II’s arenas.

Though some of the mid-combat cinematics are displayed in real-time, the bulk of Kessen II’s storytelling is via FMV SGI sequences. Using the capacity of the DVD-ROM media, the video is crystal clear, full screen, and lengthy. These interludes are beautifully rendered, masterfully directed and simply breathtaking, further accentuating the cinematic grandeur of this Eastern epic.

Kessen II succeeds in being an aesthetically pleasing piece of eye-candy, filled with creativity and flair. The environments are vast and beautifully detailed; the characters imaginative and lusciously rendered. The SGI cinematics are plentiful, stylish, and so thoroughly engrossing that you may want a bag of popcorn at the ready. Though there are the occasional graphical pitfalls, these do very little to diminish what is an invariably gorgeous game.

Sound 92%

Kessen II is a culturally ethnocentric period piece and therefore rife with classically Eastern tunes. The orchestration is predominantly led by lilting wind instruments and the rolling tremor of heavy percussion. The occasional brevity of bells and brass are used for accentuation. Though there are only two main thematic scores, the gallant fight and the peaceful interlude, the entire organization of these two main pieces are identical to any orchestrated score: divided into sequences of various meter. Anyone who has enjoyed Kurasawa’s RAN (excluding the Noh melodies), or the television miniseries, SHOGUN, will instantly recognize influences. Though it may seem strange for a game set in China to have such Japanese inspiration, most Asian high culture of that period came originally from China.

History lesson aside, I’m happy to say that Kessen II somehow manages to elude the dearth of a predominantly repetitive soundtrack. Due to the sheer size of the orchestra, the variety of instruments, and the staggering length of each score, the acoustic enjoyment never ends. Further into the game, the battles lengthen, yet the music becomes more dynamic as each sequence flawlessly moves into another. The audio quality is consistently stellar, from FMV cinematic to the carnage of the front lines; the score is never down-sampled or noticeably recycles.

Though the audio is respectable on a standard television, I cannot recommend playing Kessen II on anything less than a Dolby Digital-ready home theater. The audio is remarkably important to the mood of the game and the cacophony of drums and hooves rumbling from a sizeable sub-woofer will make your jaw tremble. The sound effects are wonderful reproductions of cold steel against plated armor. The charge of the cavalry will bring a tear to any armchair admiral’s eye.

The voice acting throughout the DVD is impressive, sporting well over 4 hours of dialogue. The original Kessen was criticized for having sub-par vocal performances, and I’m happy to say that Kessen II does a remarkable job. Due to the Japanese flair in the almost sentai characters, some of the dialog is EXTREMELY goofy. The vocal performance in the Japanese version was impeccable due to the recruitment of many famous seiyuu (anime voice actors), and the American dub is quite respectable. Even though the overly flamboyant, and sometimes outlandish, nature of the characters require kitsch, the English actors do a very good job of keeping the storytelling convincing, though some of the lines are laughable.

Kessen II is an amazing experience that will thrill any audiophile with an interest in eastern music and big speakers. The vocal cast of characters is colorful and talented, though hampered at times by some fantastically amusing lines.

Gameplay: 85%

Kessen II is completely different than the traditional RTS game and completely unlike any Romance of The Three Kingdom’s saga. There is no significant political gambling, and resource management is non-existent. Kessen II is at its core: an action-oriented warfare simulation.

The gameplay is divided into six main processes. First is the Introduction Phase, which relates the flow of the war and power status of both armies. The Political Policy Phase immediately follows; in which certain decisions are made in regards to ally/enemy relations: this can vary widely, between training your troops to writing poetry for a speech. After this phase is concluded, the Drama Phase of the war unfolds in pristine CG cinematics. The player is then thrust into the phase known as the War Council, where your allies will suggest different strategies for your perusal, which may greatly affect the outcome of the coming battle.

After your strategic decisions have been made, you are then sent to engage the enemy in direct combat. The Battle Phase consists of controlling your allies and their troops in concert against your rivals. Once the conflict has concluded, the results are tallied in the Postwar Phase, and your army’s advancement is outlined based on your success or failure. If your army was victorious, you progress to the next sequence of events.

The Political Policy Phase offers some intriguing choices for your army: from the necessary recruitment of new generals to the bizarre option of fighting a wild tiger to show your bravery. There is no significant penalty for choosing some of the more esoteric routes, but there is little reason to be frivolous in your choices.

The War Council is more interesting, but again, the choices of combat strategy are rarely improper, as most selections will allow you to emerge victorious without much sacrifice. Strangely enough, Kessen II does not support the ability to change the troop composition as the original Kessen did. Each of your allied commanders come prêt a porter with an inflexible entourage. Want to create a unit that is only archers, tough luck if the commander is cavalry specific. Though this is only a minor gripe, it detracts from what would have otherwise been a very sound RTS game.

Combat is carried out in real-time as you give orders to your commanders and troops on the fly. You may even engage in hand-to-hand combat alongside your men amidst a battle of hundreds. The addition of an action element is a very nice way to becoming more involved in combat, but is not completely necessary to achieve success. In some instances, becoming directly occupied in melee can hinder your progress, as you are not surveying the battlefield as a whole and may miss opportunities to utilize your other computer-controlled allies.

Kessen II also introduces mysticism into combat in the form of spells: incantations that can devastate an army with proper placement. You may even engage enemy generals in single combat, though you are not permitted to control your champion as these battles are purely cinematic.

Victory is achieved by meeting preordained objectives, usually forcing the enemy General to flee or defending your ground for a specific amount of time. Though individual skirmishes can be won by depletion of all enemy troops, KOEI introduces the concept of a morale meter. As the enemy’s numbers are depleted, surrounded, or if an enemy commander is embarrassed in singular combat, the opposition’s zeal will falter. Once the enemy’s morale is extinguished, they lose the battle, regardless if their troops number in the tens or in the thousands.

Based upon your General and allied performance in combat, your troops will upgrade to heavier classes, new formations become available, and new spells will be gained while older spells will increase in graphical splendor, range and devastation.

The gameplay in Kessen II sports many refreshing features not present in more traditional RTS games, but loses a great deal of credibility in removing some intrinsic options inherent in all strategy games. The ability to fight alongside your troops is an exciting and welcome feature, but while not significantly necessary to complete the game, can hinder your overall control of the battle. Thankfully there are enough combat options at the player’s disposal to keep the gameplay fresh and exiting, even though the action element is poorly integrated.

Control: 73%

Kessen II is host to the usual plethora of RTS menus and options, but easily navigated with a GUI simplistic enough for the uninitiated to understand. Most players will have very little difficulty progressing through the Political Policy and War Council stages of the game. The actual control during combat can be frenetic, as the battles are dynamic, progressing with, or without, your commands. Thankfully the in-game tutorial offered during the first conflict is slow paced and remarkably well instructed.

The learning curve is minimal, though players not used to controlling more than one element simultaneously may feel overwhelmed. Strategic decisions may need to be changed on a whim and there can be upwards of twenty five generals under your direct command, each with their own retinue. Those used to turn-based combat may not find the intensity or responsibility palatable.

The actual combat is where Kessen II shines through, but several control flaws make the game a chore to play. The ability to take control of each commander and engage in actual combat ala Dynasty Warriors 2 is a welcome addition, but the actual execution of this feat is where things begin to go sour.

Firstly, the illusion of engaging in thrilling melee is exactly that, a mirage: a ubiquitous phantom of smoke and mirrors. The player may be able to cut down a swath of enemies in his path, but not only does the enemy stand right back up, the enemy troop number doesn’t budge an inch.

Even more infuriating is that the game will pull you from the reins and shove you into auto-pilot at the most inconvenient of times. The manipulation of your character during combat is sluggish and confusing, with actual player manipulation slipping to and fro. The only saving grace to the impotence of your commander’s swordplay is the frequent use of special abilities: spells and techniques that have the potential for decimating thousands of your enemies. Alas, this requires the player to deftly move him/herself into position, a task that may or may not be accomplished with minimal frustration.

Kessen II also allows you to shift the formation of each commander’s army on-the-fly to meet and greet any opposition foolish enough to cross your wake. Thankfully these options require no real dexterity on the part of the player as the troops shuffle into position once the specific formation is selected.

I would have rated this category higher had Kessen II not relied so heavily on the combat portion of the game. While not completely necessary, your direct involvement in combat is unavoidable. KOEI’s intention was to have you fight alongside your troops throughout the entire campaign, and thusly it must be graded as an integral part of the experience. Had this feature been more thoroughly integrated and play-tested, it would have elevated Kessen II to legendary status in this genre. Since the combat interface was more of an afterthought than a meaningful aspect of the game, I can only rate the control as sub par.

Overall: 89%

With gorgeous visuals, an involving storyline, impeccable score, and a plethora of refreshing gameplay concepts, Kessen II delivers a solid and enjoyable experience. A vast improvement over its predecessor, both artistically and mechanically, Kessen II is not without its flaws. The game attempts to create its own hybrid genre: a cinematic action-epic, with drama and conflict as engrossing and engaging as any historical fiction. Kessen II succeeds aesthetically in more ways than anyone could have imagined, but their admirable attempt at melding action with this epic was met with disappointing results. Thankfully the game is not ruined by these issues, but what could have been a sterling addition to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms saga, and RTS RPGs in general, goes home with the bronze.

Overall Score 89
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Stephen Harris

Stephen Harris

Stephen helped out in many areas of the site during his time here, but his biggest contributions were being our "business person" who made sure bills were paid, and of course, extensively-detailed RPG and MMO reviews.