Posted – 2.11.2008
If veteran gamers are looking for another Bushido Blade that their inner samurai can explore, they won’t find it with Genki’s Kengo which manages to turn a compelling concept into something of a disaster. Much as learning how to swordfight in real life can be an experience built on top of blood, sweat, and tears, getting used to Kengo 9’s brutal control scheme and gameplay design brings much of that home for your mental game to wrestle with. But even if you manage to survive your first fight, the rest of the game is an exercise in pushing just how far you are willing to endure the kind of amateur acupuncture this delivers to your nerves.
Kengo: Legend of the 9 takes nine of the most famous Japanese samurai and brings them into a game where you get to play through as each one, starting off with only three to pick from. As you progress through the game, you’ll take part in each of their stories and unlock others with their own skills and goals which sounds like something that players who love the history behind famous names such as Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi or Miyamoto Musashi would want to get into. Even if you might not be interested in the characters in so much as they might be with samurai swordfighting in general, the concept sounds like it could be fun. You would be wrong.
With authentic Japanese spoken for every line of translated cheese, it’s probably best that it has at least kept this degree of authenticity intact. For a 360 title, the graphics in Kengo appear as if they could be done on a PS2, or a regular Xbox. Although the costume designs look great and each of the nine samurai are clearly distinct from each other, the stiff animations and faces fail to do much else to help make them stand out. Although you’ll get to see plenty of the Japanese countryside along with downtown Kyoto, be prepared to be completely underwhelmed by the bland textures, empty streets, and uninteresting backdrops.
Thanks to a clunky control scheme, death is all but assured for the uninitiated. There is no training mode, or even a sparring arena in which you could practice different moves and abilities to prepare you for the adventure ahead which consists of killing legions of nameless samurai just so that you can get to the most important one in order to finish the stage. Training is on the job and failure usually means watching an extended death notice before you can get back out to the menu in order to simply continue. Saves are handled in between missions which consist of only one stage in which you fight plenty of samurai before facing off against someone with an actual name and who apparently dresses better than anyone else.
Whoever you pick has a series of moves that they can execute and button mashers will find that their favorite strategy only works to some extent, especially when some of the smarter samurai who are indicated with fancy rice hats show up and begin blocking your moves. You can lock on enemies, or run around freely and slash at them instead. However, every move you make whether it is running from battle or in swinging your blade draws from your stamina meter that sits beneath your health bar. The more you move for whatever reason, the more that your stamina will be drained. It regenerates itself if you stand still, which isn’t often, or during when you execute an instant kill move. Button mashers will usually find themselves dying quickly because they’ve completely drained their stamina to nothing, allowing the enemy to pull off an instant kill on them instead if they are pushed into a corner. It is entirely possible to slog through countless samurai, only to be instantly killed at one point because of your stamina, forcing you to replay the entire run all over again in glorious repetition.
Aside from having a stamina bar to deal with, the clunky game mechanics allow you to fight the game as much as the controls. You can pick from three different attack stances that have their own sets of moves that you can perform along with varying degrees of damage and you can change this up on the fly in the middle of battle. As complex as this sounds, it really isn’t as important as you might think. You can fight through most of the game by using only one particular stance and ignoring the others unless you happen to be bored and want to try something new. There may be one or two moments where using a faster style helps in breaking through the defenses of a particularly annoying blocker, but this doesn’t happen very often leaving you to slash often with the same combo since most of your enemies are as dull as the blades they apparently use.
You can also perform a grapple with your sword as you clash and grind your blade against theirs, using the analog stick to sway and force your opponent in one direction or another, wearing down their stamina in the process. When you are able to swing them into an obstacle, such as a wall, a stone lantern, or whatever else it might be, and they have no stamina left, you can execute them with a killing blow no matter how much life they might have. You can do this with most everyone in the game and it quickly becomes something of a cheap maneuver in dispatching lesser foes. Most everyone that confronts you, especially the named samurai, will also try and kill you in the same way making it something of a challenge to keep your stamina high. If you’re on the receiving end of a grapple, though, you can try and break out of it and roll away to safety, although how to do this is never made very clear. You don’t have to kill any of the legendary samurai with a killing blow, although you get certain bonuses if you do.
After completing a stage which can take anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour depending on how many enemies will be thrown at you, your performance will be rated and experience points will be doled out for you to purchase new combos around the three styles that you have access to. You can also earn orbs depending on your performance in the game which can go towards your statistics, such as defense and damage. But before this system is able to become something of a nice addition to the gameplay, it reminds you again why this game is a waste of plastic.
With the points that you earn, you can purchase the skills that you want and have any extra points, they’re simply thrown out. The cheapest skills that I’ve seen in the game cost 1500 points to purchase, but it’s possible to have only 1400 points to spend…all of which will be garbage once you leave the screen since no one bothered to program a way for you to carry over anything. It doesn’t make the game more challenging, it only makes you question the kind of decision making that went on behind the scenes and if they were actively trying to make you hate everything about Kengo.
If you manage to slog through a samurai’s tale, you’ll be disappointed by an ending that reminds you of how much time you have wasted in trying to work with the game. It shouldn’t come as a shock given how awful their story is which simply acts as a thin excuse for them to go forth and cover the land in bloodstained ribbons of silk and flesh. There’s really little of a reason to go through the game with each samurai given how boring their legends are as told through this title. Once you’ve finished a game one of these warriors, you can save them to a file that you can use for any of the other modes or even take them online if you really want to experience more of the same.
There are moments when the title is actually kind of fun, such as when you manage to win a grapple and execute a move that sends an experienced samurai falling over a bridge, off of a cliff, or slumped against a bloodstained wall. But the repetitive combat against a horde of nameless warriors brings down much of the fun. If your patience manages to hold on long enough for you to get used to Kengo’s numbing gameplay, you’ll find that there isn’t much else to get excited about when you find yourself falling asleep from the hordes of the dead that you are leaving in your wake. The tiny arenas that you will be fighting in is also another problem and none of the locales are really that interesting, aside from being an elaborate graveyard to which you will be sending clone after clone before reaching the head swordsman.
And if you want to play through a samurai’s story again with your saved warrior? Forget it. While several other games reward you by allowing you to experience the game all over again with what you’ve earned, Kengo doesn’t. Even if it restricted the number of stat improving orbs, there are a host of other skills that you could possibly grind for which you will have to start an entirely new game with instead. Sure, it can be challenging to go in and try at a higher difficulty level, or achieve a higher score for experience, and then there are better ways to spend your time…such as with a game that is a lot more fun to play than it is a frustrating experience. There are weapons and other items that you can earn in online fights with other players, but given how empty the arena is on Live, there’s not much of a point in trying, leaving all of that multiplayer content to waste.
Kengo: Legend of the 9 is about as depressing as it gets when it comes to a next-gen title. A promising concept is completely demolished by gameplay ideas that seem to want to deliver the kind of frustration that wants you to despise it. Even if you are a Kurosawa fan and love to read up on Japanese history whether it focuses on the Sengoku period or the individual samurai that have become legends, Kengo will despoil your memories and leave little for you to celebrate.
– World 1-1