For those who have been hankering for more strategy in their hack'n'slash titles or more action in their strategy titles, Koei has created a hybrid that should have some appeal for both camps. This is Kessen III
and it brings together a couple of styles in a fresh way that manages to hold its flavor through the whole game. This is such a large departure from the previous games that the connection to the rest of the franchise that one begins to wonder if the father on the birth certificate is the real deal. But no matter what the heritage is, this deserves a look for both its action and strategy.
The previous Kessen titles have focused on large scale battles in which battalions clash and players can swap control to the leaders inside the fray. These epic fights took place over huge expanses of land that were flat as far as the PS2 could see. To make sure there was some extra spice in the action the officers themselves had some special skills that could have a minor effect or get all Biblical by creating a huge fissure in the ground to swallow up the enemies. It was strategy, but realism was also told to take a hike in the process.
This time around, everything has been turned on its head. The location has been switched back to 16th century to follow Odu Nobunaga's quest to unite Japan and the action is completely different. The battles take place in smaller confines that has terrain, impenetrable woods, ponds and rivers, as well as some fortress walls that can be destroyed. Each fight therefore is much more about the specific scenario and learning how to master both the fighting of the enemy as well as using the terrain to one's advantage.
Remember those big armies with a couple hundred soldiers and various formations for them to form? Well, they've been drastically cut down to size to form units that now have just a couple dozen warriors in each. They're also led by an officer who is intrinsically a part of the action. Moving the left analog stick moves the entire unit. There are still concerns about the formation, but this just about keeping the ranks tight and focused rather than worrying about the overall shape. The status in the upper left only displays if the unit is together or has gotten spread apart.
In the different battles it's possible to switch to any unit that's still alive and when there the player controls all of the attacks along with the movement. The action is a simplified combo system with only seven different possibilities and many of these are just a matter of stopping short from the four attacks that can be done in a row. The trick is not just tapping the square button to constantly attack, but really everything that surrounds that to form an entire strategy.
The landscape truly does take much more importance here. With the terrain that can sport some steep hills the force that is uphill has a definite advantage in the fighting. With multiple units fighting one other unit or even a group of units it's best to flank the opposition. Get one unit right in the middle and it's possible to knock them back and forth with an ally until their strength dwindles to nothing.
For even more impact it's crucial to get used to the support teams as well. These can be controlled for action in fighting and can be moved around directly, but for the movement that's directed via the map system they can only follow their main unit. In a sense they're there for regular back-up, but it's the support actions that are important. This is the ability to call in special attacks from the support unit by tapping the R1 button. Hit it at the right time and they'll rush in to knock the enemy over or launch an extra large volley of arrows to drop the opposition's health by a good chunk.
When getting ready for battle with the map of the area it's crucial to figure out who of the available units will be fighting and what their skills are. There are troops on foot, on horseback, and many soldiers on either one with a variety of weapons. Their current condition must also be monitored and if one unit takes a beating the last time around it's best to keep them out the next time. With this in mind it's time to choose what units will be leading on the field and which ones will be back-ups.
So victory is helped by not just mastering one unit or even flanking an enemy, but also combining forces for attacks. It's for this reason that the simple attack combo is easily forgiven. There is so much else to do and play with in battle that you're better off learning to play to each unit's strengths in the overall battle. And with unit conditions that depend on the result of each fight it's important to plan ahead to the next battle or even two.
What feels so right about the action is that it's possible to get both the strategy and get a little lost in that aspect as well as enjoy beating the crap out of a surprised army. Since coordinating movements from the overall map is nice and quick it's possible to assess the overall situation, give orders, and drop back into the action to lead the charge in much less than a minute. Sometimes this whole process can be as short as ten seconds.
And, of course, there's still more to play with. The officers leading each unit have skills that can be used in battle, too. These can increase or decrease the attacking and defensive abilities of each side or heal or make them desert, which is all to be expected. They can also launch magical attacks or use the Berserk, a mode where the leader goes completely solo and rips through the enemy ranks.
The Berserk skill is a bit of gameplay ripped straight from the Dynasty Warriors games and it provides an opportunity to weaken the enemy's troops as well as hurt the leader's strength. Its actual usefulness as compared to how long it takes to pull off is a little questionable, but it's a sweet change when you just want to tear up a few fools on the field.
After all the fighting is done there are plenty more details to play around with which can be done as much as you want or largely ignored. That's not to say that it's useless, far from it, but it's good that it's possible to succeed in playing through the game either way. If you just want to complete the game, you can do that, but if you want to find all the hidden items, that's there as well. Want to play with finding the perfect weapon and armor and horses for your troops? Knock yourself out. Want to set things up in a minute or two and get into the battles to focus on fighting? You're golden there, too.
With so many cool things happening in a game that's about the fun action-strategy, it's disappointing to see some problems still creep in. This is mainly with the support units and their own pathfinding abilities. They can be called in closer, but there were several times when the R1 button popped up on the screen for a special attack and after hitting it nothing would happen because they were caught around a corner or behind a barrier. Sure, they can take a little longer to get to the fight, but if the option is there, then it should do something. It shouldn't set you up for the idea that there's another attack only to have it not appear and the enemy launch a counter-attack in the meantime.
The other problem is that it can be a little nerve-wracking to leave the other units to themselves. Since the allied units are computer-controlled and have levels of expertise this means that a single unit can get wiped out by the enemy if you're not looking. This is even more frustrating when you try the mission again and control each and every fight and win the scenario easily.
Both of these issues lead to a matter of the AI in the game not being as solid as it could be and that's a disappointment when you just want to be able to have one battle going off in the distance and focus on one particularly tricky area for the actual fighting. The result is that players need to be a bit of a control freak and move around the map often. Since this is easy to pull off it doesn't drag down the whole game, but it's something that does nag you in the back of your head.
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