Kessen II Hands-On

Kessen II is a great improvement on its predecessor and may be one of the best strategy simulation titles on the PlayStation 2 yet. We sat down with a Japanese copy of the game to see what to expect from the North American version.

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The sequel to Koei's well-regarded feudal war-themed strategy game is coming to PS2s at the end of this year. Best described as a fantastical take on Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Kessen II puts you in the shoes of a historical Chinese general and has you command his army in a campaign to unite China and rescue his true love. Kessen II promises to have all the strategy elements that made Kessen so amazing, as well as plenty of extra goodies to wow fans of the series.

In Kessen II, you assume the role of Liu Bei, the leader of the Shu kingdom. Your ultimate goal is the destruction of Cao Cao, the leader of the Wei kingdom. The game begins when Cao Cao kidnaps Diao Chan, your love interest. Enraged, you declare war on Cao Cao, not only to rescue your love from his clutches, but also to claim his land for yourself. But to make things more complex, your royal fortuneteller has foreseen that Cao Cao is destined to rule and Diao Chan is a key element is his rule. It's up to you to turn the tides and defeat him. Talents from all sectors of the Japanese entertainment industry will lend a hand in Kessen II. Veteran anime voice actors Toru Furuya (Tuxedo Mask from Sailor Moon) and Makio Inoue (Captain Harlock from the Captain Harlock anime series) will play Liu Bei and Cao Cao, respectively. Actress Emiri Nakayama is the model and voice for Diao Chan, and respected Kabuki performer Somegoro Ichikawa is the model and voice for Zhuge Liang. The story is presented using both prerendered CG movies and the game's real-time graphics engine, and it even sports a minor use of live action in a particular scene. And though it's been only a year since the last Kessen game, the cinematography and presentation in Kessen II are significantly superior to those of its predecessor. Producer Kou Shibusawa promises that Kessen II will be "more dynamic, more dramatic."

Every mission begins with a general overview of the map showing the territories each kingdom occupies. The narrator will describe which territories were taken over in the last mission and where the next point of battle is expected. You are then required to make some decisions. Three of your generals will make suggestions on what to do with your troops. These suggestions include training your available troops, recruiting new troops, and convincing your enemies' allies to join your forces, among others. The end result is always a positive one, so none of the choices are incorrect. The game then shifts back into cutscenes to advance the plot, and then a new battle begins. Here you will have the opportunity to choose a strategy for the mission, and the three generals will provide you with three different strategies to choose from. While none of them are incorrect choices, some make the mission much easier than others, particularly toward the latter half of the game. Kessen II has made the battles easier to handle for novice players of the genre, since the strategies are already laid out for you. Now players can focus more on the battles between cavalry units rather than the general strategy of the mission.

The in-battle interface allows you to switch between three different camera views. A general overview depicts the geography of the entire battle map in 3D and represents each distinct unit with an individual box. Here you can choose a destination point for each unit. Though most of these have been preset during the strategy phase, there will be times when you'll want to alter parts of your plan in mid-battle, and this view will be useful. The camera during battles mainly focuses on one cavalry unit, which is usually led by a general and some subordinate officers. Like in most console RTS games, you can quickly switch from one unit to another using the L1 and R1 buttons. There is also a cursor that appears on each cavalry unit and points at either the general or the subordinate officers, and by pressing a button, you can zoom in on the general or one of the subordinate officers and take direct control of him using the analog stick (or the D-pad) and controller buttons. Though it is not as action-oriented as Dynasty Warriors, the game is more interactive and direct. Pressing the circle button allows you to manually attack an enemy soldier. You can also hold the down direction on the D-pad or the analog stick to gather your troops around, and pressing the circle button performs a charge attack that will decimate a group of troops. One of the special attacks in Kessen II allows you to take direct control of one of your generals and have him gallop around the battlefield, beheading and lancing enemy troops.

Some of your generals even have the ability to cast magic spells, including lightning, fireballs, and tornadoes, among others. This is also available as one of the special attacks in the menu, and each spell has a range shown in a circle, a rectangle, or other shapes. Some of the enemies also have access to these spells, but fear not, some of your generals (as well as the enemy generals) have a special ability that allows them to withstand the spells. The spell and weaponry special attacks can only be used a certain number of times during a battle, though, so it is important to keep track of when you use of them during the missions. Some of the other special attacks are familiar from Kessen, but they're presented in a more dynamic form in Kessen II. The duels between two opposing generals have gotten a face-lift, and the duels look simply breathtaking this time around.

The only concern during the battles is that when more than one unit is gathered in a secluded area of the map, you have to move one of the units away from the area in order for another unit to pass through. For example, there is a mission where Liu Bei has to escape and reach the valley in order to complete the mission. The valley is rather a secluded area, and while there were two units battling nearby, Liu Bei's unit wasn't able to pass through and was instead forced to join the battle. So players should take note: when assigning each unit's destination, try to avoid crossing paths with another unit. There are a variety of missions in Kessen II such as battles on rivers and taking over enemy fortresses, and in some cases, the missions feature unique cavalry units like the elephant forces or the winged troops. The missions feel shorter when compared with Kessen's missions, simply because you are more involved in the game. After finishing Liu Bei's quests, the game will unlock the quest for Cao Cao, which is a more challenging game geared toward the intermediate players.

Kessen II is a great improvement on its predecessor and may be one of the best strategy simulation titles on the PlayStation 2 yet. The game has already been released in Japan--expect North American and European releases later this year.

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