Neither a full blown strategy game nor an out and out hack 'n slash actioner, Kessen III tries to set foot in both camps in an attempt to be more accessible. The result is a game that won't please strategy buffs or action junkies, but should appeal to anyone who likes their gaming brawn with a bit of brain thrown in.
Set in 16th century Japan, Kessen III follows the exploits of young Lord Oda Nobunaga as he attempts to unite a fractured nation -- usually through the use of plenty of heavily armed soldiers. The game's story is told mainly through some impressive looking cutscenes which precede and follow each battle. These cutscenes also serve to highlight the personalities of characters in the game, particularly the many generals you'll have to rely on to lead your troops in battle.
Gameplay in Kessen III is broken up into three distinct sections -- Planning, the War Council and Battle. Planning is where you'll choose which battles to wage, with the main overview screen showing you where your various enemies are located and the difficulty of the campaign. The Planning section is also where you can equip weapons, armour and special abilities to your generals, as well as where you buy supplies or new troops from.
After choosing your battle, you're taken to the War Council, which is where most of the strategy element of Kessen III kicks in. In the War Council, players are shown an overhead map of the battlefield and the position of known enemy troops (although there's still plenty of 'hidden' enemy troops to be found once you're actually in Battle mode). Players then assign which of their own troops they want on the field, give those troops attack orders, set the aggressiveness of allied generals and more. Knowing exactly which troops to deploy is vital to success -- some types of troops may be more vulnerable against others, while troops who've fought too many battles in a row will fight less effectively.
Battle is where you'll spend most of your time in Kessen III, and is also the area where this game departs more from its prequels. Instead of large open, flat terrains which were the hallmark of previous Kessens, Kessen III features smaller maps with varied terrain that can have a significant impact on skirmishes. Troops will move faster going downhill, for example, and any unit that has the high ground will have a distinct combat advantage. You'll even come across enemy barricades and encampments which you'll either have to destroy or find a way around to proceed.
Kessen III in Battle mode plays more like Dynasty Warriors, although instead of one character, you'll be controlling a whole squad of soldiers at the same time. Players use the left joystick to maneuver, with the Square button used for attack, Triangle for special skills and X for retreat. There are a few limited combos you can perform on enemy troops, but for the most part tapping the attack button should see you through most encounters.
The generals leading each troop are where Kessen III's battles leave the mundane, as each one has access to a list of special abilities that can turn a battle. These abilities range from support styles that can lower an enemy's defense or raise your own, to magical attacks that can freeze or set fire to enemies. Each general can also enter Rampage mode, which sees them going solo and taking on enemy troops single handedly. Generals acquire experience points and can gain levels to make them stronger, and can also be equipped with better weapons, armour and spells.
While on the battlefield, players can quickly switch and control any other friendly unit by pressing the L2 button. This, along with the fact that you can set new orders and waypoints for all your other troops will on the field, means players can micro manage the battles to their hearts' content. Strategies can be quickly changed on the fly if required -- if some troops accidentally walk into an ambush, you can rapidly send support from your other units, or even take control of the besieged troops yourself.
With such limited deployment options available to you in the War Council section, you'll find most of your strategic decisions being made on the fly while in Battle mode. This makes Kessen III lean more towards the action side, although a healthy strategy (such as flanking opponents or setting pincers to trap opponents between your troops) is required to win the harder battles.
Graphics in Kessen III are generally well done but not outstanding. The environments are fairly nondescript and the character models are somewhat plain -- but they look good while moving and the result is a frame rate never really slows down despite the appearance of dozens of warriors on the screen at the same time.
Developer Koei deliberately sits Kessen III on the fence between serious strategy and hardcore action, and for the most part succeeds in making an accessible game that's easy to pick up and play. It won't please hardcore fans of either genre, but it is an interesting mix that's enjoyable and challenging.
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