While best known for their Dynasty Warriors series, Japanese developer Koei has experimented with a wide range of historical simulations, from the excellent turn-based empire building Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, to the real time strategy franchise Kessen. Though I use the term loosely in Kessen's case, since the original and sequel were a bit light on the gameplay, choosing instead to create a more cinematic experience. Kessen 3, based around Japan's Warring States period was a bit beefier in the gameplay department, but it still came off as shallow compared to Kingdom Under Fire: Crusaders. Well, no longer. Because the Kessen series has been reborn and rebranded as Bladestorm, changing the face of console action strategy forever.
The Hundred Years War was a fantastically horrible time in European history, full of brilliant tacticians and terrible scoundrels, impossible victories and endless bloodshed. Grand historical figures struggled for control of France, and you now stand among them as a mercenary just looking to make his or her fame and fortune in this war-torn land. So choose your avatar from a somewhat limited selection, and head down to the bar, where there are missions to undertake, equipment to buy, squads to bulk up, and your own character to improve. All depending on how you do out on the field.
Visuals are lush with an HDR sheen, from the armor of the soldiers to the vibrant green grass. Don't expect a level of minute detail though, not when hundreds of enemies and allies will be taking to that field. You can control any friendly squad by selecting them, as long as you have the book associated with their choice of arms. There are seventeen different squad types in all, each with a series of stats that can turn them from panty waist weaklings to cold killing machines. Though don't expect to charge down a group of pikemen with your cavalry, unless you like the smell of dead horses. Specific squads have strengths and weaknesses depending on who they face on the field, and managing that is one of the keys to accomplishing your mission.
Most squads have a normal attack you can just hold down for a constant stream of slashing, but also possess a number of special abilities, such as poison arrows for archers, and a shield smash for your foot soldiers. Each of these have a cool down period, so use them wisely, and you won't be overwhelmed by the enemy. The purpose of all this fighting is deceptively simple: weaken the defenses of a fortress and annihilate its commander when he appears. With the way enemy forces can rush in from other points on the map, it's easy to be caught unawares, and end up eating gravel. However, keeping your eye on enemy troop movements might let you catch an isolated squad off guard, and wipe them out while they still knee deep in the river.
Action is meaty here, with a sense of tactics and a tactile feeling of action that no other game has mixed together so seamlessly before. It's fun, but it's also thoughtful, and has enough armaments and upgradable stats to sate the number hungry. It also feels like something I've never played before, which is a welcome change from the flood of FPS titles and God of War clones. If I had one complaint at this point, it's the overall weakness of the voice acting, which is full of forced accents that don't ring true, but so far I've only played a small sample. In either case, it's not nearly enough to stop me from wanting to dig to this grand historical massacre.