Release Date: September 7, 2007
Among Majesco's more interesting upcoming offerings is the 360-exclusive Kengo: Legend of the 9, a challenging samurai action-adventure featuring nine of the greatest samurai from Japanese historical folklore. This is the fourth game in the Kengo series, though only the first title in the franchise merited an English-language release as Kengo: Master of the Blade for the PS2. The two unreleased titles were both PS2 games, so Legend of the 9 brings the franchise into the next generation. Although produced as an unrelated development, the Kengo gameplay basics bear a striking resemblance to the PlayStation Bushido Blade titles, and Kengo is sometimes described as a successor of sorts to that series. The Kengo in the title is a term often used to describe exceptionally talented swordsman, translating roughly as "great sword." In Europe, this game will be called Kengo Zero.
You'll need to become such a swordsman if you wish to survive the battles awaiting you in Kengo. This is a gamer's game, demanding expert knowledge of what your character can do and the reflexes to make sure you hit just the right button at just the right time. You may be able to mash your way through the hordes of minor ninjas and weak samurai that crowd some levels, but once you encounter a named opponent, you're in for a dangerous duel where blocking and parrying skillfully are an absolute must. Some portions of the game call for stealth as well, asking you to sneak past guards that are too dangerous to fight or who are just distractions from your real goal. Some locations give you props that can be used in executing cinematic "Instant Kills," such as hurling someone off a mountain or impaling him on a pole sticking out of the ground. You can further customize your fighting style with unlockable stances and new attacks, so you can build a samurai that reflects you personal way of fighting. Fighting itself is a blend of using sword-slashes at opponents at just the right moment, while blocking or parrying their own attacks.
Gameplay sprawls across a variety of modes, each offering a slightly different spin on Kengo's core duel-oriented gameplay. Main Mode takes players through stories designed to focus on each of the playable characters. These stories intertwine with each other, to let you re-enact famous duels like the final battle between Musashi and Kojiro. In Mission Mode, players can take any of the samurai through 10 missions designed to challenge experienced Kengo players. Combat Mode allows two players to go head-to-head offline. Xbox Live Mode offers players a unique, pseudo-multiplayer experience where they can create a samurai's unique combat AI, and have it battle AI profiles created by other players.
Each of the nine legendary samurai in Kengo has a completely different dueling style, based on the folklore about their strengths and weaknesses. All characters have upgradable stats, and you can unlock optional equipment for them by excelling at the online dueling mode. The nine playable samurai include Musashi Miyamoto, creator of the two-sword fighting style that pairs the longer katana with the shorter, knife-like wakizashi to devastating effect; the brash and mysterious wanderer Jubei Yagyu; Sanako Chiba, the lady samurai who rose to mastery of the Chiba School of Swordsmanship; Ittosai Ito, who founded the "one stroke" school of swordsmanship that prized killing enemies with a single, instantaneous blow; the fearsome assassin Izo Okada; Soji Okita, captain of the shogun's special police; Kojiro Sasaki, Musashi's bitter rival who fought him to the death; Ryoma Sakamoto, who lead the people's efforts to overthrow the shogun; and Yasubei Horibe, leader of the famous "Forty-Seven Samurai" whose loyalty to their lord drove them to commit fearful acts of murder and suicide.
The characters are "dramatized" somewhat for Kengo, although not so flamboyantly as, say, Koei's creations for the Samurai Warriors games. Characters wear reasonably period-appropriate dress, and while they can perform some truly spectacular feats of swordsmanship, there aren't any glowing blasts of energy flying around. Instead, you might use a powerful blow that smashes through enemy defense, or lets you drag them around the field as you see fit. Although not too flamboyant, these moves give fights in Kengo a much stronger sense of tactics than you usually get out of sword-slashing samurai games.
Kengo has an unusually robust online component for a title by a Japanese developer, with 10 achievements that relate purely to online performance. It is statistically impossible for everyone who purchases the game to get them all. You get your first Achievement with your first victory in an online duel against another player's AI profile. You slowly gain more achievements as you rank up by defeating more and higher-ranked AI profiles. The ultimate achievement, "Sword Saint," is only available to players who gain a whopping 100 victories in online duels and rank in the top 1% of all Kengo players online. Although fiends for gamerscore may find this frustrating, it is completely in keeping with Kengo's brutal difficulty. This is a game designed to encourage and reward players with the drive to become the best of the best in competition, and players who feel entitled to easily gaining every victory a game has to offer simply don't need to be playing it.
While the graphics are properly high definition, they're rudimentary compared to most everything else on the 360 that isn't, say, Earth Defense Force 2017. Models are relatively low-poly and have the simple texturing of an Xbox. They look roughly as good as they need to in order for players to be able to have swordfights that interact with the environment properly, and no more. Still, there are some cool blood-spattering effects that feel truly rewarding after pulling off a particular gruesome kill, including a neat stage where blood spatters onto snow.
For a title selling at a $39.99 price point with such deep gameplay, rough graphics are eminently forgivable. This just isn't a game for people who love to play games soaked in bloom effects and flashy particle physics. Kengo is a game for hardcore action fans who want to test their reflexes and skills first and foremost. These often hard-to-please gamers are likely to end up being the core audience for Kengo when it comes out in September, and they are probably going to be very happy with it.
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