Note: The European import version of Kengo 2: Sword of the Samurai was used for this review.
Ever since Japan opened itself up to foreigners (as much as that can be said, taking into account its perpetual repellence of Westerners), the whole samurai theme has been incredibly attractive to those intrigued by all things Japanese. And, of course, there’s been no lack of material on that subject coming from Japan – samurai anime, samurai movies and so forth; and even the gaming world has gotten a few titles, like the remarkable Shogun: Total War for PC, and now, Sword of the Samurai, also known as Kengo 2.
When I first played Kengo 2 while in an electronics store in Japan, I chuckled at the seeming limited appeal of the game. I played the game with a friend of mine, and it amused me how short all combats were – if you take Tekken or Virtua Fighter, most combats last anywhere from 20 to 60 seconds, and there is a wide array of techniques and button combos involved for the longest gameplay experience possible. By contrast, Kengo 2 does not even have a timer, because most battles last anywhere from 5 to 20 seconds. Why? Well, the fighters used real swords in the demonstration version we played in that store, and frankly, how many sword cuts would a person be expected to survive before they die? We noticed that, in general, three – four average hits would kill a man, and occasionally, we got lucky and had single-hit deaths (ippon shobu, as they say in kendo). So we chuckled and left, not having thought it was a bad game, but also not in the mood to spend $90 on it.
Now that the final version came out, and I had a chance to properly evaluate it, I have come to a radically different conclusion. I have come to the realization that the game is not intended to be a multiplayer experience – the two-player mode is there for some quick entertainment, while the single-player story mode is there for the true enjoyment of the game. As I told my friend after this, “I think the reason they put in the two-player mode is this: if they did not put it in, they would have a bunch of angry fans complaining that there should have been a two-player mode. Yet now that there is one, and people can see that it is not that entertaining, they can concentrate on making the single-player experience be as good as it is.”
The single experience does, in fact, appeal. The basic premise of the game is that you are a samurai who arrives into a random little city, and have to make your way to be the most famous swordsman of Japan. You will accomplish that via learning kenjutsu styles at a variety of schools, improve your swordsman skills, and eventually vanquish all the famous swordsmen and become the best of them all. Far-fetched goal, but you do take it one (tiny) step at a time.
Your first “mission”, so to say, is to win at the local governor’s tournament. To achieve that, you have to join a dojo and learn a variety of styles, which you can then use in your fight to win the championship. This is where the micro-management aspect of the game comes in. Your character is allowed to have three battle stances, and one drawing technique. As you learn new moves and new sequences, you can assign them to stances. So, for instance, if you choose to have a hidari-jodan as one of your stances [that is, left leg ahead of right (reverse of typical kendo position), sword raised above your head, prepared for a full-on attack], then you can assign a certain sequence of moves that generally flow from that stance. To put it more into perspective, you will learn a wide variety of techniques, certainly more than you can ever use in one fight. One could argue that this is not realistic, in that if I know a set of techniques, I should be able to use them at any point in the fight, without having to “assign” them or anything. That’s fair; but at the same time, then you don’t need to play this game, you can go to a local kendo dojo and practice your techniques. The game is supposed to represent a fairly realistic depiction of the samurai era, but without going so far as to make it unplayable with realism.
Going back to the point, what you do is this. First off, you learn stances from fighting with various opponents. Then, you can assign stances to your character. Each stance carries a certain number of experience points (which is related to your character’s experience), and each move or combination carries a certain weight in experience points, so you can only assign a certain number of sequences per stance. The sequences also vary: you can have blocking maneuvers; attacks where you first attack the opponent’s defensive posture and then hit him, such as in arai techniques (arai-men, arai-kote); normal attacks, parries and so forth. They all vary, as mentioned above – for instance, from chuu-dan (centre guard) you have some starter moves, while jo-dan (upper guard) will have others and ge-dan (low guard) will have yet others; and then you have variations on them.
The variations on the forms deserve a special mention. For this game, Genki actually went out and researched the variety of kendo and kenjutsu styles (like Shinto Munen and Musashi Ryu, among others) currently and previously practiced in Japan, and implemented them in the game. So while traditional kendo schools generally teach chuu-dan, maybejo-dan for advanced learners and ge-dan is almost never used (except in katas), this game goes all out on demonstrating all the styles. The other interesting tidbit is that throughout the game, you will encounter various Kengo – great swordsmen of times well past, and their fighting styles are authentically replicated so that you can see how they fought and learn something from their styles as well.
Of course, for such a huge undertaking, there cannot be a lack of faults either. The main gripe I have about the game is that it exhibits the traditional modus operandi of a computer. While the AI is not bad, it’s not quite human, either. For instance, many enemies will have (a) exactly the same and (b) predictable reactions to your behaviour. Specifically, many of them will assume a stance that is directly dependent on yours. However, it is not always the most efficient, nor the most logical way of fighting. Observe the screenshots on the right. Notice the guy in a purple hakama sticking his head out, in a waki ga mae stance? He always does that when I assume the hasso no kamae stance (i.e. sword almost vertical to the right of the torso). The problem is, I suppose the general logic here is that he would act the same way as in kendo kata #4, where both combatants strike out at each other from these positions and their swords clash, nullifying the attack. The problem is, in kendo, the distance is so large in kata #4 that you simply cannot reach your opponent, unless you can jump forwards a good few metres. In that screenshot, we are separated by the perfect distance for a men (a cut to the head), so, well, that’s exactly what I do, and the opponent simply cannot do anything, because he is completely unprotected. Note two things that give food for thought: (1) that is a Kengo, and (2) I never lost to him, because I simply kept using that one move.
Of course, this is not to say that all Kengo do these mistakes. I have fought other ones who are completely invincible, and I have no clue what to do with them; their techniques are complex and impressive, and they have a variety of chained moves that I can only dream of replicating. And they are powerful as hell. So there are some that mis-react to your positions, but overall, they are tough, tough, tough – and that’s my other gripe with the game. Winning tournaments is harder than anything else, and you’ll spend many a frustrated hour getting pissed off over how some Kengo killed you with one hit because it was so well placed. Most tournament combat is done with wooden swords, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get KO’ed in one hit – those people don’t practice kendo/kenjutsu for all their life for no reason. The rewards for winning combats are usually not bad, though: you get swords that improve your stats significantly. On a weird note, it doesn't make sense to me that a samurai can become stronger with a new sword, or that he would be more healthy (unless it were purely psychological, which may be the implication here), though it does appear logical that one be more agile with a better sword. Regardless, there are MANY swords in the game, and you win them either by winning tournaments, by doing street battles (and gambling your sword in turn), or by defeating Kengo (which is an extremely time-consuming, but worthy process, since you learn so much from those Kengo).
Overall, I really enjoyed Kengo 2. As I said before, I thought the game was kind of silly when I first saw it in Japan, but, after playing it, I have to say that it's much better than my first impression made it out to be; probably due to the fact that I actually tried the single-player mode, something not available in the other version that I tried. I'm not sure Street Fighter or Tekken afficionados would enjoy this title too much, since battles are a bit too short and technical, but if you are interested in samurai arts, or do kendo, this game might interest you quite a bit.