Most people wouldn’t associate fighting games as a story-driven platform. As I’ve mentioned countless times with the NEO GEO fighting games, story traditionally is a backdrop or an afterthought for most 2D brawlers, as the action and the strategy should really be center stage. In order to really focus on what could be the storytelling or narration, you’d need to sacrifice something to maintain a balance: after all, people most interested in the tale being told won’t dedicate time to understanding the complexities of juggling, counters and aptly timed combos. And that’s exactly what happened in order to make Koihime Enbu.
Coming to us from the appropriately named UNKNOWN GAMES via Degica, Koihime Enbu tries to take a classic tale and form it into a brand new form. Thirteen different fighters each represent a figure from the hugely historic and influential tale, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. If you’re not familiar, Romance is an amazing saga that loosely documents a hundred years of the Chinese empire when it was split into three distinct kingdoms, and the story is heralded as one of the four great Chinese works. It’s incredibly verbose, has a thousand notable characters, and has been turned into multiple video games over the years, including a long-running set of strategy games on the PC (the latest installment is a bit of a mess, but whatever). This isn’t even the first time a unique take has been made on the tale: Dynasty Warriors is entirely based around the mythical plot (although the Zelda variant has little to do with the source material). But to take royal and military figures and turn them into cute anime girls who are on quests to be the strongest, to find the best meal or to simply protect a cat is a bold and borderline insane move.
Still, it’s not like Koihime Enbu is trying to be a straight one for one with the Romance tale. Each girl has their own Japanese name bestowed upon them, with the Chinese character they’re based on being their primary title they get referred to throughout the game. Their actions and decisions, like journeying between the kingdoms or seeking an audience with the different (feminized) rulers, while having some basis in the source material, is ultimately original and meant to be another cute article of note in a game that’s already dripping with adorability. Ultimately, if you knew nothing of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’d be satisfied with how the stories played out, and you’d probably be amused by how they’re handled in this particular medium.
As a fighting game, Koihime Enbu is incredibly simplistic. You don’t really have any variety of moves or tactics: there’s a weak, medium and strong attack, and a throw. There’s a way to do some slightly more powerful moves (your standard fireball throw or flying leap) and a simple button combination to active an attack from your support, who is an NPC that just follows you around throughout the story. In fact, that’s seriously about it. I haven’t had something so well laid out since the SNES days, and this is even less complicated than mashing the kick button whilst playing Chun-Li. The crazy part is that, despite the simple battle style, it actually has physics in place to support ragdolling and overkill. So, if you can fathom it, you can do the same three moves over and over again in a relatively square dance pattern and end up juggling one of the girls in the corner while you slowly get a perfect victory. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with fighting games will be borderline offended with how fast the match is over, and anyone who’s been lied to about strategy deserves to actually punch the friend in the face who said this was the next great challenge.
Ironically, that isn’t a bad thing. As stated above, Koihime Enbu feels like a very short visual novel that simply picked up the wrong pair of pants to put on a show today. The fighting is incidental only inasmuch as keeping the story moving forward with showing actual conflict rather than just telling you about it. The fighters aren’t always stale cracker simple, with some of the later opponents showing actual gumption and skill when it comes to seeing patterns and keeping you active. Nevertheless, the same set of moves that works for one fighter will literally work for any of them, and memorizing one combo will almost certainly work with any other character. If you’re just here to see all the story arcs, no problem, this is the fastest way to get there. If you were looking for something to scratch that itch until the next Tekken game comes to console, bad news, this ain’t it.
And the character are cute. Koihime Enbu does an excellent job of creating a visually appealing team that is diverse in tone, age and buxom-ness, at least in their thumbnails. Once you get into combat, you’ll find that everyone seems a bit toned down, so the need for Dead or Alive age sliders is nonexistent. The sprites don’t really have a wide range of emotion in the arena, and the animations can feel a little stiff with some of the jumps seeming less fluid and more stop motion. Nothing is too obviously poor, however, and there’s still a good deal of quality in the overall design. I especially enjoy the backgrounds, which have that wonderful Japanese take on how ancient China appeared. It’s accurate and consistent while still being, well, distinctly anime.
Koihime Enbu is going to be for two types of people: anime girl lovers and super simple fight fans. Historically, this isn’t going to be a brand new medium for people to learn about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but it’s certainly not the worst approach taken. In addition, fighting fanatics will tear their hair out at the simplicity, but people who haven’t had the best luck in the ring might get a kick out of the level playing field here. You can get through a single story arc in under twenty minutes, so there’s plenty of time to decide if you want to stick it out for the whole, multiperspective saga (and get those sweet trading cards), or shrug your shoulders and admit it’s not for you. Koihime Enbu is certainly memorable, and that, in the age of heavily saturated gaming, is more important than most.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.