PS2: A Retrospective, Part IV

October 20th, 2010 Marc N. Kleinhenz

On October 26, 2000, the Sony PlayStation 2 was launched, delivering not only one of the single best software libraries to the world, but also cementing a slew of features as commonplace items in every system hence: backwards compatibility, online gaming, multimedia functionality. That none of these was originated by Sony itself is a testament to the console’s legacy.

To commemorate the occasion, TotalPlayStation has gathered some of the best and most influential journalists, from either in-house or outside publications, to discuss one of their most cherished games from the PS2’s long lifecycle.

Ten authors and ten years in ten days. Let the celebration begin.

Author: Scott Rodgers [TotalPlayStation Sports Editor]
Game: Kessen II
Release date: September 26, 2001

Kessen II doesn’t make a lick of sense. As someone who has read through every word of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, it is kind of insulting to think that this is how some people could have been introduced or reintroduced to the source material.

But, holy cow, was it fun.

Most know the RotK lore from the Dynasty Warriors franchise, but the two could not be more different. Whereas DW is based on hacking and slashing, fighting officers, and running from Lu Bu, Kessen II requires that you control an entire army. From its movements to its placement to its officers’ special abilities, you are required to control every detail of the battlefield.

The story would appear, on first blush, to be a form of fan fiction. Liu Bei and Cao Cao are going head to head – great. Makes a lot of sense, right? But what are they fighting for, exactly? Land? Power? Prestige? Well, all three, but the swerve comes in the fact that Diao Chan is Liu Bei’s love interest, and she also protects the Mandate of Heaven. Oh, and Cao Cao’s best officer is Himiko, an obscure Shamanic queen. Xun Yu is also a woman, for whatever reason, and she has feelings for Cao Cao. Because of this, she has it in for Diao Chan, and there is a hilarious – yet awkward – love triangle that bastardizes the history and the lore of RotK.

Cao Cao’s army is obviously much, much larger than Liu Bei’s. Where Liu Bei holds the advantage, however, is that Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Zhuge Liang, and Zhao Yun are easily the second through the sixth best officers, respectively, in the game, behind Himiko. That lends itself greatly to helping the player, as you have to complete Liu Bei’s story mode before unlocking Cao Cao’s. Without having this imbalance to counter the sheer size of the Wei army, it’d be very easy for the AI to just overwhelm the player (which it still sometimes does).

After scraping by and leveling up your units throughout the story mode, the two groups are roughly even by game’s end. And when the final confrontation takes place, Liu Bei’s army is actually superior to Cao Cao’s. The only difference is that Himiko is basically a one-woman wrecking crew, a la Lu Bu at Hu Lao Gate in the Dynasty Warriors franchise.
When you unlock Cao Cao’s story mode, it’s as though you have turned on cheats. His army is just so massive; you thump Liu Bei over and over. Of course, it’s suicidal to rush any one officer into battle against the “Three Brothers,” but with the Wei army at your fingertips, you can pit three or four officers against one “sibling” and systematically pick them off.

With its twists and turns, fan service appearances, and complete disregard for history, Kessen II provides a fantastic experience. The RPG elements of leveling up your officers give a constant sense of growth (though you’ll curse and throw controllers to see the magician on the other side use spell after spell, killing not only your army, but your morale), and watching the map turn green or red, depending on your affiliation, is satisfying – unless you’re a Wu fanboy. In that case, enjoy your one or two appearances and turn away while the demolition takes place.

Despite all this, though, I have to say that my favorite thing about the game was not necessarily the story, the characters, or the gameplay, but, rather, simply engaging in battle and just observing the results. (It really showcased the power of the PlayStation 2 – and this was in 2001.) Koei’s games are renown for their ability to have hundreds or thousands of combatants on the map, and Kessen II was no different, save for the removal of button mashing, which allowed the player to become a spectator of epic (quasi) historical scenes.

Nothing drove this home more than the dueling mechanic. When challenged to a duel, your warrior’s fate is completely out of your hands. It’s totally up to who is the stronger character, though you never know who the stronger officers are (although you can make an educated guess by the time you experience the game some more). It is suspenseful in a way that wouldn’t be possible if the player had control over the sequences.

Basically, it boils down to this: Kessen II is one of those rare games that get better the more you play. In a day where most gamers are one and done with single-player titles or campaign modes, Koei’s little game invites you to keep playing. As you get better and understand the mechanics more, the experience is unlike anything else out there – so much so that I will still pop it in my PS3 when I get in the mood for some strategy.

Kessen II never gets old, is still a heck of a lot of fun, and, in the end, isn’t that what we want from our games? There are so many great titles that came out for the PS2, but I think this is a hidden gem that still could surprise today’s PS3 audience.

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