Koei's Kessen games are strategy-action hybrids that serve to bridge the gap between the company's statistics-dense strategy titles and the pure hack-and-slash swordfests that characterize its Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors series. Kessen III delivers a good balance of tactical decision making and up-close action that will be most appealing to existing fans of Koei's other beat-'em-up works, but it's simple recipe for mass warfare can create an armchair general out of anyone.
Based on the Warring States period of Japanese history, Kessen III follows the story of a brash young nobleman named Oda Nobunaga as he sets about unifying a turbulent Japan by dominating the nation through military might. The tale is based loosely on historical fact, but there's plenty of romance, mysticism, and some ham-fisted comedy to spice up what might otherwise be textbook battles. Everything unfolds in short, manageable cutscenes between major and minor conflicts as you progress, and as a result, the game never gets bogged down in ponderous, self-important storytelling. You'll grow attached to the diverse cast and their struggles without being pulled from the action for significant periods of time.
And there's plenty of action doled out in the many battles that range across Japan's scattered and contentious shogunates. Before each fight, you'll assign your units and support squads to the provided locations on the battlefield, and then it's a matter of leveraging your warriors to good effect to obtain your goals. You can control any of the individual groups on the field and direct them in mass melee against your foes, and you also have the option to switch to that unit's general to control him or her directly in brawling that's very similar to that found in the sister series, Dynasty Warriors. While you can rack up some bonuses in that mode (rampage mode), often you'll be able to rout the enemy with just the brute force of your separate units. Your generals also each have unique and learned abilities, called "officer skills," that you can use in battle to heal your units, increase their attack power, and so on. And the units themselves have "troop skills," which are special charge attacks that let them slice through enemy squadrons for massive damage.
There's a bit of mixing and matching when it comes to the various units and generals you have available, but your strategy will usually boil down to cutting your way to your objective by using your powerful group skills and then using those same troop skills to clear the stage so you won't spend much brainpower on tactics. And while it's certainly fun to watch a group of infantry form a spinning death wheel that decimates enemy groups, it does start to wear thin after you've seen it for the hundredth time. A number of officer skill upgrades and troop improvements help keep things from getting too stale, however, and in between battles you can purchase new units, skills, and a bewildering array of weapons, armor, and other equipment to outfit your generals and boost your abilities.
You can level your generals and boost their special talents by fighting both major battles and an assortment of minor skirmishes that become available. The game will progress slightly differently depending on which encounters you choose at certain points, and there are various special items to discover throughout the maps, as well as a number of generals you can recruit under certain key conditions. For Samurai Warriors fans, there are even a few unlockable characters you can bring on board by using your game saves to add to your roster. While this isn't the most complex game in execution, there are still enough extras to give it good value.
The environments in Kessen III that serve as the backdrops to your many epic battles are generally wide, sweeping, and devoid of clutter or excess of detail that would get in the way of all the action. The many skirmishes play out with no slowdown, and while your units default to a fairly basic look, they move briskly and look good when massed and when charging across the landscape. The special attacks in the game, particularly those of the officers, are impressive and satisfying to watch, and those same generals look very good in the game's detailed cutscenes. Each one has a great deal of style and a distinct appearance that's enhanced by the many, many different types of gear you'll be able to deck him out in.
The symphonic melodies that characterize the game's music fit the theme and setting perfectly, and they supplement the experience quite well. The assortment of sound effects is primarily taken up by slashes and the thundering of hooves and feet, filling out battle-background noise well. The game also features full voice acting, which is very solid and well delivered (in most cases), to serve in enhancing the tale and the game.
It can be a tough order to make a strategy game that's easy to just pick up and play, but Kessen III is both accessible and enjoyable. While some of the action has a tendency to get repetitious, when that action consists of smashing large numbers of screaming troops against one another in huge, tumultuous battles, most action aficionados won't mind terribly. This game is simply learned and easy to like, especially for Koei fans with a need for a new brawler.