For years, the historical strategy genre has been Koei's bread and butter, but over time, the appeal of classic series such as Nobunaga's Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms became limited to a niche audience. But the original Kessen for the PlayStation 2 was a giant step forward for the company, as it moved Koei's historical simulations into the real-time 3D world and appealed to a broader audience. In Kessen II, Koei takes yet another step toward achieving more general appeal for its historical strategy games. While Kessen was set in the Samurai era in Japan and based on a realistic premise, Kessen II centers on the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms epic and is rooted more firmly in a fantasy setting. The result is a game that is visually striking, with massive spell effects and a histrionic storyline, but one that may not appeal to fans of realistic war simulations.
The primary story of Kessen II is about lost love, as the game's lead protagonist Liu Bei wages a seemingly desperate battle against a vicious warlord of the Wei Kingdom, Cao Cao, in a quest to rescue a woman named Diao Chan. However, once Liu Bei engages Cao Cao's troops, he soon realizes that there is a much broader goal at hand, as he must secure the mandate of the heavens and save China from Cao Cao's tyranny. Kessen II's storyline is more robust than the original game's, so Kessen II is heavily driven by its plot, using both real-time and prerendered cutscenes. Each battle is sandwiched by lengthy cinematics, which essentially means that the game demands patience from the player and naturally requires a healthy interest in the Romance of Three Kingdoms epic. Unlike the original game, which could be played as a straight war simulation, Kessen II is closer to the Koei's vision of creating a dynamic and interactive movie experience with its Kessen games. Thus, you don't have to pay much attention to the story.
Further aiding those goals, the strategizing prior to the battles is now simpler and essentially laid out for you. For example, at the beginning of each battle, Liu Bei's generals present you with three basic options for troop positioning and movement--once an option is selected, the battle begins. The battle preparations in the original Kessen were much more involved, as they required both strategy and troop management on your part. However, this change is an intentional one on Koei's part, as the game's creators were more concerned with allowing you to enjoy the battles themselves, as well as make the game more accessible for novice players. Koei has achieved those goals on both counts.
The battles in Kessen II are instantly more interactive when compared to the original game, as they let you assume direct control of any of your generals by using the analog stick and face buttons. You are then able to roam around freely on the battlefield--cluttered with hundreds of individual soldiers, archers, and cavalrymen--and dispose of their enemies in close combat. In the original game, players were never able to assume direct control of the generals and were only able to control the movement and formation of individual units. These sequences in Kessen II are akin to those in Koei's Dynasty Warriors, although you don't have nearly the selection of moves and attacks as you do in that game. However, several of the generals in Kessen II are able to perform special attacks, which range from simple raids to robust magic spells. The ability to cast spells introduces a welcome dynamic to the gameplay, but it also adds immensely to the game's overall visual presentation.
Some of the more advanced magic spells, such as lightning strikes, fireballs, and tornadoes, are truly astounding. As the general rises to the sky to perform a spell, the camera pans out and gives a more panoramic view of the battlefield, truly highlighting the grand scope of the real-time battles in Kessen II. Then the spells are shown, also in real time, wiping out entire army units and wrecking havoc on the landscape. For example, the earthquake spell rips the ground to shreds, creating a massive chasm in the middle of the battlefield, as individual soldiers can be seen dropping into the hole and otherwise clinging onto the ledge to survive. The impressive graphics in Kessen II extend beyond the spell effects.
The game's environments, which were essentially barren in the first game, are now much more realistic and detailed--particularly in the latter stages of the game. In one battle, Liu Bei's troops must raid a fortified city. Massive walls and giant wooden gates surround the area. Inside the city, stone streets wind through army barracks, assorted houses, and an imperial palace. The effect of watching hundreds of troops rampaging through the streets of this fortified city is quite impressive. On a smaller scale, the character models look about the same, in terms of texture details, as those of the first game. However, this time around, there are many more characters onscreen at once. Everything from foot soldiers to cavalry elephants and even winged troops clutters the battlefield.
The final piece of the puzzle is the game's orchestral soundtrack. During the battles, the music is relatively understated, but the soundtrack runs in perfect concert with the game's emotive cutscenes. The voice acting in the game, on the surface, can seem overly dramatic at times. However, given the game's overall tone and subject matter, this is more of a nuisance than a significant problem with the game.
In one sense, Kessen II, with its basis in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms saga, takes the series back to Koei's roots. But, with its intuitive interface, pared-down strategy elements, and complex cinematics and storyline, Kessen II is designed to appeal to a more mainstream audience than any of Koei's previous strategy games. Although the game achieves those goals marvelously by bringing you closer to the action, fans of the original game might miss the emphasis on advanced war strategy.