It overstates the case a fair bit to call Kengo: Legend of the 9 a game. While this latest addition to the minigenre of Japanese swordfighting comes in a retail box and is priced right up there with other new releases for the Xbox 360, it feels more like a proof-of-concept demo than something that developer Genki actually expects people to buy. Mindless button mashing and missions that consist entirely of slaughtering mobs of mouth-breathing bad guys make you wonder if somebody shipped the wrong build to the mastering lab.
Regardless, what made it to store shelves is barely playable, much less engaging. The only interesting aspect of Legend of the 9 is its connection to Japanese history, as the nine protagonists are renowned samurai from the 17th century. Anyone interested in feudal Japan will certainly recognize such legendary swordsmen as Musashi Miyamoto, Jubei Yagyu, and Ito Ittosai. But none of these characters is given any sort of lifelike characterization, so it's not like you're getting a tour of the more colorful personalities of the samurai set. Each is really nothing more than a beefy muscled stereotype that struts around spouting dialogue that would embarrass the screenwriters who penned '70s kung-fu movies. At least the game's original Japanese voices are translated solely with captions, so we're spared the agony of listening to hacks delivering these cheesy lines in spoken Engrish. It's just too bad that somebody couldn't have similarly silenced the repetitive sword ringing and shouting during battles or the bloody squelching sound used to underscore menu selections.
The nine main campaigns where you guide the heroes on various adventures are equally drab. Although each campaign is supposed to be entirely different to represent aspects of each character's life, they're actually nearly identical hack-and-slash expeditions. These consist of you mindlessly hacking down packs of thugs, ninjas, and the like until you reach level bosses. All that really separates one campaign from another is the identity of one of the mission bosses. These bosses represent the other eight playable samurai in the game, and you don't flash the blade against yourself. The only signs of life here come from the ability to customize your warrior at the end of each level by spending spirit spheres or experience points to buff stats, such as health and attack power, or to pick up new sword-slinging moves. Some of the mission architecture looks pretty good too. Levels generally aren't very big, but they typically feature one striking theme, such as a ninja fortress in the moonlight or the deck of a ship in front of a setting sun.
Other modes of play are more monotonous than the scenery. Mission mode collects 10 campaign maps and gives them separate objectives. Unfortunately, all of Genki's creativity was expended on naming these escapades. Cool-sounding titles, such as The Three Ronin Must Die! and Death at the Kira Household, cover up more mechanical slaughters where you simply cut a swath from point A to point B. Combat mode is a bit better, in that it features straightforward one-on-one dueling either against the artificial intelligence or a buddy over Xbox Live or on a second gamepad. At least here you can get the scraps over with in a just a couple of quick rounds and skip the tedious repetition of the other game choices.
In the end, however, none of these selections are worth your time. Legend of the 9 mixes bland modes of play with equally uninspired combat. Although the game purports to present an authentic re-creation of swordfighting, what we've got here is really just another button-mashing beat-em-up. All of the customizable fighting stances or fancy attack and defense terms, such as soku-giri, kumitachi, and kuzushi, are meaningless. All you need to do to win most fights is move in close, twirl the left stick a little then punch the Y and B buttons. Actually, it's tough to do much more. Although you're supposed to be portraying lithe killing machines, the samurais lumber about like they're wearing cement sandals, which makes it hard to react to enemy moves and leaves you open for devastating counter-attacks. Only environmental kills give you a sense of purpose. It's somewhat nifty to try to slay enemies by maneuvering them off docks or pinning them into walls with your sword after locking them up in a kumitachi sword clinch. They're not particularly easy to pull off and totally unnecessary because you can kill foes in much easier ways, although they do at least reward you with bloody close-ups.
Missions are also packed with cannon fodder that you can hack through in moments. In true kung-fu-movie style, the deeply dumb grunts generally engage you in one-on-one battles even when they've got you totally surrounded. So you'll sail through gangs of goons paying little thought to swordsmanship, stringing together combos or pretty much anything else, only waking up when a tougher guy comes along (you'll know them by their coolie hats) or you stack up enough bodies to trigger the appearance of the level boss. The latter opponents provide just about the only tough battles in the entire game. But it's not like they outduel you or do anything skillful. They lay back and wait for your attack, preferring to counter only after you do something stupid, such as force an attack due to the tedium of waiting around for the other guy to move. This can often lead to instant death because even though enemies seem lazy at times, they have a knack for turning your attacks into kuzushi moves that leave you totally helpless in preventing a one-stroke kill.
A good sword-combat game is long overdue on the Xbox 360, but don't let your desperation cloud your judgment when it comes to Kengo: Legend of the 9. While it's usually fun to run around playing samurai, there isn't nearly enough quality slicing and dicing here to even warrant a rental. Wait until the next time, when maybe that unknown future developer will actually finish its chop-'em-up game before trying to sell it.