Thundering Hordes Invade Your Home

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You have probably heard that there are no games yet that tap the potential of the Playstation 2 system. Not that it matters, since the hardware remains difficult to get. Still, "Kessen," by Koei Games, feels like a hint at the Playstation 2's potential as a new form of interactive entertainment.

This war strategy game takes place in ancient Japan and begins with an unusual "author's statement." An authoritative narrator's voice sets up the historical scenario, as he will do before each battle. You play as Tokugawa, a rebel warlord who plots to take over Japan. Each battle seems to be based on historical events, though it is hard to say, since the game continues whether you win or lose.

Each battle gets bookended by full-motion video scenes that do a pretty good job of characterization for a war strategy game. Frankly, I found myself playing the battle games just to get to the cut scenes. To bolster the historicity you even get a dictionary, of all things, with the lineage trees of all the major characters (authentic, I presume). I actually felt like I was learning a little bit — an important, and new, experience in video games.

The graphics and music, not just of the cut scenes but the gameplay, are also commendable. The costumes' details were the most ornate and delightfully ridiculous I have ever seen, and the music outclasses any other made-for-game music yet. Perhaps it was done with a top-of-the-line orchestral synth, but I doubt it. This sounds like it was scored by John Williams.

The rub comes in the details. Actually playing the battles can be confusing and frustrating. First you must select which armies you wish to use and place them on the battlefield, programming in their initial actions. This works fine, but once you need to start issuing orders on the fly the controls are not intuitive. Even more infuriating, there are many repetitive dramatizations that cannot be turned off. Still, kudos to the designers for not making the battles too terribly hard, but just challenging enough.

After you complete the battles as Tokugawa, you play as the opponent, Ishida. You can also select any battle you want to play over again, though I don't know why you would bother. It's really all about the overall experience.

Playing "Kessen" makes me feel like it might just be possible to create "War and Peace" for the PS2. Imagine a game reproducing the historical battles of Napoleon, set in the sweep of a grand story. While "Kessen" gets lost in the details, it sets the platform for such a possibility.

Value: $25