Koei took a different stab with their title Bladestorm: The Hundred Years War in that it plays like the old Kessen titles, but moves the game to an entirely different setting -- France, during the ... well, the Hundred Years War. Prince Edward, Joan of Arc, you know, the same war covered in the PSP title Jeanne D'Arc. It's a hot topic. How did Bladestorm pan out? There are a multitude of things to consider when reviewing this game, simply because there's so much in it that you can concentrate on. Read on, friends, as you might be surprised.
First, a disclaimer: if you like strategy games with generally hands-off gameplay, or have played a Koei game before, you have found yourself a great game. If you like action where you, like, press buttons and can run into any situation and whomp some ass and stuff, then you'll hate this game very, very much. That said, I'm a strategy/RPG gamer, so this title was absolutely my cup of tea (and probably why I was the only one willing to review it!). The nonlinear structure, amount of customizable options, plethora of soldiers, and horrible voice acting all combine to make a great experience for anyone who's played a Koei game before.
We need to address the best part of this game, because it's so very, very surprising -- the musical score. Koei, known for mostly grungy crap or poor electronica mixes, have busted out their symphonic chops and delivered a truly epic score that could have made its way into one of those medieval war movies like Arthur or Kingdom of Heaven or something. Seriously, this game has a very impressive soundtrack and that was a very welcome surprise.
The story is bare bones -- you're a mercenary and you take jobs for either the French or English forces (you never have to choose just one side) and go into battle, seizing bases and fulfilling objectives for some cold, hard cash. Your best friend in the whole wide world is the silly bartender at the tavern where you sign contracts for work. Through him and the other patrons at the tavern, you'll learn some game mechanics or meet special mercenaries, who I suppose you could call "heroes". Sometimes they'll be your ally in a battle, other times they're an enemy officer. It's the mercenary life, I guess. That's really it for the story. As you progress through the game, you'll get cutscenes at the start of story-centric battles, but they don't actually tell your story, just that the war is going on and it's cruel, blah, blah, whatever. The point is the story isn't what makes this game.
Graphics don't make this game, either. In titles past, Koei always struggled with the "fog of war", the inability to keep dozens or hundreds of enemies on screen at once. Luckily, the PS3 has eliminated that struggle as characters and enemies are always visible, no matter how crazy the battlefield may get. However, the soldiers you can command all look the same and the AI still suffers from the "well, I'm in battle, but let's stand here for a second and take in the situ-ARGH!" that has always been present. You get to customize your character, sort of. Male or female, each with a handful of pre-made faces and hairstyles and a choice of three voices, each one laughably bad. Presentation-wise, the graphics are all right. Nothing to wow you, but they get the job done a lot better than any PS2 title Koei released.
Gameplay is comprised of two parts for the sake of this review and my inability to discern where to start a new paragraph: battle and customization. Battle begins after you sign a contract. You are brought to a map that is split into squares, some of which are lit up because the army you are working with have forts in that section of the map. You can start at any of those forts, which is cool because you never have to go the same way twice. After you choose your fort, you start up the mission (which is generally "seize Fort X", sometimes with a "maintain your Fort Z" attached as well). Once on the field, you'll need to enlist a group of soldiers (you can buy them for quick summons, but that's getting filed under customization), which you can do by walking up to a group that isn't already under someone's command and hitting X.
There are a ton of different squads and each has their relative strengths and weaknesses against other squads. For example, archers are strong against cavalry, but weak against swords. Knives are strong against spears, but otherwise, they totally suck. With each squad, you have three commands (Triangle, Circle, X) as well as your regular attacks (hold down R1). Each command differs between squads, but generally you'll get any combination of these three: a status-boost move, a strong attack move, and a distance attack move. Once you use them, they take a while to recharge and are dependent on inventory (throwing a spear requires you to have adequate inventory, same with arrows) in some cases. Basically, you need to capture bases with your squad. You take your squad and trudge across the ridiculously enormous maps until you find an enemy base. You have two options -- if you followed the rest of the army, all you have to do is get another officer to join you inside their base and the "Base Commander" appears. Defeat that and the base is yours. If you're alone, which you often are, you'll have to deplete the Base Defense Points -- enemy squads with shields behind their names.
To engage these enemy squads, it should be mentioned that you need to keep R1 pressed down to enter "battle mode" which also attacks automatically. It's very hands-off, but due to the strategic nature of the game, if you've got a squad of swordsmen squaring up against heavily-armored spear wielders, you will most certainly die. From what I've said thus far, you can safely assume the game is most about preparation and very little about actual execution. Getting the right squads is most of the work, then you just hold down R1 and occasionally use one of the three special commands. All strategy aside, it's pretty easy to kill over a thousand troops in one day of battle. Still, that's what makes Koei games fun for some and repetitive nonsense for others. Luckily there's a lot of depth in customization that other Koei games lack.
In the tavern, and between days on the battlefield (dubbed Nightfall), you have a chance to check out your character and the different squad books you've accumulated. In order to use squads, you need to have their respective books -- you can find them by defeating enemy officers ("heroes") or sometimes taking a particularly well-fortified enemy base. Your character doesn't have much customization on his/her own, but you can purchase a lot of equipment that changes your physical appearance. Yep, you can buy and equip helmets, gloves, leggings, armor, and "penants" which are basically stat-boosting items for your squad or stat-diminishing items for the enemy. It's a nice touch that gives the game some extra life.
The books have a lot of options -- as you use a squad and defeat enemies, that particular group gains experience and upon leveling up, grant you a certain about of points you can use to distribute among various things. For example, you have the main page of a book that allows you to increase the squads attack, defense, number of troops available, amount of items in their inventory (arrows, etc), and the ability to give you additional points upon subsequent level ups. As if that weren't enough, the Sword book has about seven or eight pages (sword, sword&shield, 2-handed sword, etc) and each of those have their own set of special commands to level up. Leveling those up is important too, as the wait time between each usage can decrease, damage can increase, or special effects could get tacked on (throwing a knife at someone can light them on fire? Sweet).
The main problem with Bladestorm is there's a lot of grinding to get these points and the way the game is set up, this will prove boring for a mass audience due to the predominantly hands off gameplay. Some squads are fairly useless, like the Mace (only good against heavily armored troops ... which are ... not so common), but others are impossible to stop, like the Polesword. Presentation-wise, everything fits pretty darn well for an intense strategy game, but for most people, this won't be a blip on their radar.
While holding R1 down can be a pain after a few minutes (it would've been nicer to just tap it once to enter battle mode and tap it again to exit), Bladestorm is a pretty fun experience for strategy/RPG fans. It's hard to rate this game -- on a Koei-specific scale, this game would rate an 11. However, since the world is not just Koei, it's an average game.
PS3 Fanboy Score: 7.0