Kengo: Masters of Bushido is the first next-generation development from Light Weight studios, the development house most known for its Bushido Blade games. The development team is no longer affiliated with Square, the publisher and owner of the Bushido Blade license, and Kengo isn't an official entry into the Bushido Blade series. Still, a remarkably similar premise and gameplay mechanics vaguely reminiscent of Bushido Blade make Kengo an obvious but not official progression of Light Weight's last two games.
Kengo has three gameplay modes. The single-player mode has you pick a lowly dojo apprentice and make him into a famous swordsman. The tournament mode has you pick one of the game's 20 characters and fight a seemingly endless string of warriors until you either defeat them all or drop. And the versus mode lets two players battle it out on the field of their choice.
The single-player mode is the meat of the game. First you choose one of three budding warriors and one of eight dojos, and then you train your character in the ways of the sword through training minigames and practice lessons with the dojo master. Your fighter's ability is represented by six stats, and these stats can be raised through training and actual fighting. As you complete various forms of your training, new challenges will be opened to you. Eventually you'll beat the master of your own dojo, at which point you'll be able to challenge the other dojos in the game. The game continues in a seemingly endless string of battles and practice sessions and doesn't appear to follow any sort of solid storyline. Unfortunately, the single-player mode boils down to a series of tedious practice battles fought with wooden swords and boring training sessions with repetitive puzzle-game mechanics. There is no actual quest mode in the game - your samurai never leaves home to search for worthy opponents, and he's never given any motivation to fight beyond merely improving his skills. And while the game's intro sequence shows a weathered swordsman sleeping under the moonlight and fighting ghost warriors, this isn't actually a part of the game.
Kengo's gameplay is a drastic departure from the Bushido Blade formula. Light Weight has abandoned the multiple weapons of Bushido Blade, and each fighter in Kengo uses a basic katana. Additionally, the stance and combo systems have been completely changed. As your character progresses through the game you'll learn new sword techniques. These moves can be strung together to form three-move combination attacks. You can edit your sword combos between matches, and you can store up to 16 different combinations. Each combination is activated when you change your stance and is initiated when you hit the attack button three times while in the appropriate stance. While this system lets you customize your combo attacks, it forces you to use your combos as your primary form of attack. As such, the battles in Kengo consist of button mashing, not the strategic attack and counterattack moves of the Bushido Blade series.
The basics of swordplay in Kengo are quite different from those in Bushido Blade. In addition to your sword combos, you can also perform basic sword techniques by pressing a direction and the attack button simultaneously. You can block incoming sword hits, and you can even parry the blow if your timing is precise enough. In Kengo there are two new gauges to represent your character. The first is a ki meter - a bar that gauges your spirit and increases or decreases depending on the honor of your fighting style. You can recover ki by hitting the triangle button, and when your ki meter is full, the triangle button will launch your special attack. The second gauge is the life bar - a meter that shows how much damage your character can take before he dies. Kengo has done away with the one-hit kills and localized damage of the Bushido Blade games and instead simply has you whale on an opponent until he dies. The game does present a fairly interesting spin on the classic fighting formula: When fighting with actual swords, blows will draw blood and cause bleeding. Characters with heavy wounds will eventually bleed to death, but the bleeding is slow enough to not actually affect gameplay too drastically. It takes several major hits to down a foe, and the fighting is often long and drawn out. This, combined with the tedious number of survival-style battles in the game, makes Kengo a fairly frustrating and boring game.
You move your fighter with the analog stick, which takes full advantage of the analog support. Moving the stick slightly will make your fighter back away slowly, while moving the stick fast and hard will make your fighter dive or roll out of the way of an attack or make your fighter charge at the enemy. Unfortunately, the fighters seem to have a hard time connecting with their blows. The game makes full use of all three dimensions - fighters circle, strafe, and roll around each other, but lining characters up to make a slashing attack is often difficult. Fighters will often stand close to each other but miss their attacks because of the cumbersome control.
The graphics in Kengo are slightly subpar in terms of current PS2 standards. The characters look mediocre, and the animations are sometimes a bit unconvincing. While there are plenty of characters in the game, you spend most of the time fighting the same character model over and over again. The game has only one sword model, so all of the weapons look exactly the same. The bleeding effect is poorly executed, and the fact that physical damage isn't carried into the next round really kills the realism of the game. The backgrounds are the one nice aspect of the graphical presentation. The dojos all have a unique look and feel to them, and the backgrounds are nicely rendered. The game features no in-game music while you're fighting, and the sound effects are a bit trite. The sword and shuffling-feet sound effects make up most of the audio, along with the horribly repetitive birdcalls that ring out painfully often in every dojo level.
Kengo fails not only as a knockoff of the Bushido Blade series but also as a sword-playing game. The game has a weak fighting system, and the lack of a compelling storyline makes Kengo just a series of boring, repetitive battles. The game abandons both the characters and the gameplay formula of the Bushido Blade series and ends up being a disappointment on all fronts.