Koei's PlayStation 2 strategy title Kessen, published by EA here in the US, was one of the better Japanese launch titles. While there are definitely a few better games out here in the US, Kessen still stands up as a good-looking, interesting strategy-simulation game. Koei is well known for its console and PC strategy-simulation games, like those in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, but the average player tends to shy away from them due to their complexity. Kessen happens to be somewhat of an exception.
Kessen, roughly translated as "Decisive Battle," is a strategy-simulation game based on the samurai era in Japan. Although some of the elaborate costumes are fictional, the plot and setting for the most part are true to the history books. You initially take the role of Ieyasu Tokugawa, leading your troops to battle against Mitsunari Ishida (whom you can play as once you finish the game). Watching a brief summary of the first battle at the start of the game is like watching a documentary. The narration and presentation are superb and very television-like in style. A real-time cutscene then shows Ieyasu and his generals discussing battle strategy.
The game progresses in real time as you control a group of armed troops led by a general and face a similar group. Your general's decisions are AI based, and while the game is in progress a tutorial can be displayed to help explain the game system. In the later half of the battle, you take control of your troops and make your own decisions. It is easier to pick up the control at that point since the enemy forces have thinned out enough for you to finish the job.
When you're engaged in battle, the triangle button lets you switch from the field map to the battle view. First it shows an overview of the battlefield, with all the troops shown from far away. You can use the D-pad to move the cursor to particular areas of the battlefield and then hit the triangle button to zoom in on the area to show the troops battling against each other in real time. You can also switch to different areas by using the L1 and R1 shoulder buttons. Aside from the normal attack, you can execute special battle tactics, which range from making your cavalry charge, to shooting cannons, to even performing a dance to taunt enemy troops. There are also occasions when the generals of each cavalry will duke it out one-on-one, or a general will run across the battlefield swinging his ax-spear, hacking dozens of enemies. Although giving commands on the field map can be quite boring, it pays off when you can see the battles up close. Koei has definitely made use of the hardware capabilities of the PlayStation 2 here - you will see hundreds of troops on one battlefield, and you can view them up close in real time.
There are not enough voice-overs during gameplay, but the cutscenes have much more speech, which balances the game out. The English voice work is quite good, and definitely fits in with the rest of the game's audio. The soundtrack is so amazing - even if you weren't watching the game, the music alone could bring the epic battles to mind. The sound effects are also realistic, but unfortunately the graphics don't always match the high marks achieved by the sound. Seeing hundreds of soldiers in one battlefield is indeed an accomplishment and a good use of the PS2 hardware, but there are some details that can't be ignored. There is no blood in the game at all. Sometimes, the cutscenes really have very good animation, but not seeing blood when one soldier slashes another is pretty unrealistic. After playing the first few missions, you might even find the battle animation to be a little redundant. It may be captivating the first few times, but you'll probably get to a point where you'll want to skip the animations. Although the gameplay may become redundant, there are different scenarios, depending on your loss or victory during a battle - which also means straying from the history-based storyline. You will also be able to play as Mitsunari Ishida after you finish the game once and experience a different point of view of the story. So, in that sense, there is a decent amount of replay value in the game.
Japanese history buffs will definitely love this game, and even novice players will appreciate the game, with its stunning visuals and sounds. The only question is whether you are willing to sit down and play the game, with its continuously redundant nature.