There are games that define a console. There are games that define an entire generation. And then there are games that try to imitate that success but inevitably fail to match the superior product in basically every way. That’s the exact case for Kensei: Sacred Fist. It tries desperately to be the next big fighting game by imitating Tekken 3 almost to an absurd degree. And while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it doesn’t mean you should play this game while the real McCoy is readily available.
To start, and in defense of Kensei, the game isn’t terrible. It’s a 3D fighting game with smooth animation and a decent fighting system. With no other games in the series (or at least none I know of) I can’t really speak to the longevity of these characters or an overarching story line. It’s a competent fighter that doesn’t really do anything that special in terms of gameplay. A variety of characters and fighting styles makes multiple playthroughs unique, and hidden characters and unlockables may entice you to continue trying time and again.
I’m trying to give some credit to Kensei without wholly comparing it to Tekken 3. However, it’s incredibly difficult. There are so many things directly relatable to Namco’s iconic fighting game. The type of fighting, the character select screen, the animation style, hell even the font and start menus are near identical. This isn’t inherently bad for Kensei. Where the issues arise, though, is in the fact Kensei is simply inferior in every way to Tekken 3.
Let’s take for starters the combat. Tekken 3 is lauded for its smooth fighter movement, the excellent use off 3D space, and it’s easy to play combo and combat system. Kensei just has inklings of this, with it’s punches and kicks feeling less smooth to pull off. One of the characters in Kensei named Yugo is both gameplay-wise and thematically very similar to Jin in Tekken. While Jin can pull of sweet high punches and low kicks that flow into each other, Kensei’s Yugo simply does not, and instead feels more like an older style fighting game where combos and links weren’t even heard of. This can certainly be attributed to my own gaming preferences and style of play, but it boils down to Kensei’s combat just not feeling all that fluid to pull off.
Visuals and sound are also inferior here. Both Kensei and Tekken 3 came out in 1998 on the PS1 (1997 saw an arcade release for Tekken 3, but Kensei is a console exclusive). Looking at the two games side by side you can see the similarities, but you’d be likely shocked to know they are only a few months apart from one another in terms of release. Kensei has an older look to it, almost feeling more in line with the animations and backgrounds of earlier PS1 games like the Battle Arena Toshinden games. Tekken 3 on the other hand set a high bar for what the Playstation could put out visually. In addition to that, Tekken 3 has a pretty rocking soundtrack, with excellent beats that accompany each brawl. On the other hand, there’s Kensei’s more muted tones and songs that do bring some action but are again not up to the same standards.
Lastly, I want to touch on the finer details of imitation. It’s obvious… like VERY obvious Kensei is trying to be Tekken. When starting up the game the menu select is identical. The sounds you choose when you pick a mode are also similar. The character select screen is similar. How you unlock a ton of new characters is the exact same. There are even “hidden” characters that are different skins than the main character you select (like Alex/Roger or Kuma/Panda). It’s honestly absurd how alike the two are. I do wonder if there are players out there that somehow played Kensei first (or at all), and think of Tekken 3 as the cloned game? Even if that is the case, it would be extremely difficult not to put Tekken above the others. I mean if nothing else it has the better ending cinematics, that’s for sure!
Was this really a look back at Kensie: Sacred Fist? Despite being embroiled in so much talk of Tekken 3, I think it still is. I would venture to claim the entirety of Kensei’s notoriety stems from its sameness with Namco’s title. Think about it: if Tekken 3 wasn’t there to hold up Kensei’s shortcomings, the game would just be a bland, boring 3D fighter that had some good ideas but could be better. While Tekken 3 didn’t need Kensei in order to shine, Kensei having Tekken 3 around to compare itself too at least gives it some benchmarks of poor expectations. It’s funny: no matter the scenario I think the game is inferior, but having the game it’s inferior too not exist almost makes it even worse. A fascinating conundrum.
Should you play Kensei: Sacred Fist. No. No you shouldn’t. You should just play Tekken 3 instead. Seriously though, if you haven’t played Tekken 3, you’re honestly missing out on perhaps one of the Playstation’s straight up best video games period, let alone fighting game. And then once you’ve played Tekken and think you’ve got a grasp on its spectacle, then you can think about maybe kind of sort of trying Kensei. Not only will you appreciate Tekken more for what it is, you’ll also then come to understand just how bland and boring Kensei is too. And isn’t that what gaming is all about?