Representing naval ships by cute girls sure was a bold idea. Yet for 3 years now, the Kan Colle craze has taken Japan without any sign of slowing down. In 3 years, 3 millions of people have played DMM.com’s free to play strategy game. Feeling an opportunity, Kadokawa games lays down plans for a PSVita port. The handheld had a hard time seeing the light of the day (the numerous delays and Kadokawa’s decision to pull it from shelves show the negociations with DMM.com have been tough), but now it’s here, in the palm of your hand.
In this naval strategy game, you’re a proud admiral of the Japanese Navy entrusted with the defense of the mainland against a mysterious Fleet of the Abyss. At first sight, no difference with your regular PC strategy game, except that here your fleet is exclusively composed with… girls! The game didn’t choose at random, since it borrows the name of famous WWII ships. You won’t be surprised then (or maybe a little) to see the aircraft carrier Akagi become a Kyûdô ace, or submarines turning into young girls in swimsuits! Kan Colle kai also welcomes foreign vessels like America’s Iowa or Germany’s Bismarck, who are featured as hot blonde girls. There are dozens of shipgirls (as the unofficial translation says), so everybody should find his favorites within the characters available. Yet the design is clearly uneven : the initial characters are not so well drawn compared to more recent additions. Nevertheless, the player throws himself in an unstoppable collection frenzy.
Asia-Pacific in Kan Colle kai is divided into hexes that are areas you have to take back. Each turn on the map, you can either move your fleets or attack, after what it will be the enemy’s turn. Each hexe includes 4 zones and you must conquer the four of them to take control of the entire territory. At the beginning of the game, you only have Tokyo’s naval base. Be careful, because if foes seize it, it’s game over. Up to you to deploy your units efficiently enough to take back the coasts of Japan, enter Singapore, conquer Australia and finally destroy the Abyss HQ. Your job will be no less than winning WWII for Japan!
Attacks are conducted by a group of 6 shipgirls or less, each zone having several battles before reaching to boss… if you manage to find it! The big challenge in Kan Colle kai is that most areas will ask you to form your group under precise conditions. For example, no more than 2 destroyers, no heavy carrier, minimum of reckon planes… The instructions are varied, but the immense difficulty lies in the fact that the game won’t always tell you what the conditions are! You have to try different combinations before getting the one that will lead you to the boss. Even by looking up Japanese and English wikis, it’s extremely long and harsh. The walkthroughs aren’t always complete nor do they even agree with each other. An unforgivable progression system that demands strong determination.
Battles are turn based and the order of action depends on the stats of the units facing each other. If your reckon stat is high enough (if you’re stacked with planes, basically), your units will strike pre-emptively. If not, the enemy will fire in the middle of your turn. The result of battles depend on the level of your fleet : Kan Colle kai has an RPG aspect since each unit gains experience points at the end of the fight. When everyone’s done firing, the game will ask you if you want to keep fighting during the night. In this phase, accuracy is lower but you have a higher chance of dealing critical damage. Be careful, because it’s also true for the opposing units! Note that victory doesn’t require you to destory everything in front of you : the winning side is the one who has lost the least number of HP proportionally to its total HP.
When attacking, the interface will ask you which formation you want to use. This is a strategic choice on your part that must be guided by your immediate goal. For example, the line formation is the best to deal damage but accuracy can get poor, while Echelon protects you better against submarines. Those basic rules already makes Kan Colle kai fairly complex, but that’s not the end of it.
As you may have noticed, Kan Colle kai features several types of vessels, represented by cute icons on the strategic map : destroyer, light cruiser, heavy cruiser, battleship, aircraft carrier and submarines to cite thte main ones. There are uniques classes with very special abilities, but they’re very hard to obtain. Akashi, the girl of the supply menu, can for example repair units outside docks. Every class has a strategic role : you’re not leaving your simple destroyers rusting in the base because you’ll need them throughout the game. These are quite important to fight the infamous Abyss submarines, and they’ll be a key-conditions in many areas. Cruisers can damage carriers pretty badly, and submarines have the interesting advantage to be invisible to heavy units. Very expensive to produce, aircraft carriers are the best class in Kantai Collection. Well armored, useful for reckon and capable of lauching devastating pre-emptive air strikes, these girls marked by the small landing strip they hold are the units you’d want to include in your best fleets.
Once you’ve mastered the strengths and weaknesses of everyone, you’ll need to focus on weaponry so as to have the best equipment for sortie. You can equip anti-air canons of various sizes, but all sizes don’t fit to every class type (lower accuracy is to expect if the canon is too big). War planes are divided into 3 categories : fighters, bombers and torpedo bombers which influence air superiority and air strike. You’ll also need to consider reckon planes which are key to your progression as we’ve seen. Other equipment like sonar and mines can damage submarines, and the precious repair unit can save the day in dire straights. All this comes with some huge hurdle in terms of understanding : partially written in Japanese of before 1945, Kan Colle kai is full of complex military vocabulary which only the most maniac can take on.
That leaves a big question : how to develop your army? Like in any navy, actually : in shipyards. So you’re going to… build girls! This being a strategy game, you’ll need resources. Each hexe brings steel, gas, bauxite and ammo. Once those waters are under your control, resources will be added at the end of the turn. Bauxite is fairly rare but allows you to build the powerful carriers, so you should take such territories at all costs. You need transport vessels (not personalized, those one) in order to collect resources. Transports being incapable of defending themselves, you’ll have to appoint escort groups to prevent them from being sunk. Gas and ammunition are used every turn for resupplying your fleets, so securing resources is of critical importance. Note that you can also drop by Akashi’s shop if you’re short at some point. But the big thing to do there is purchasing tokens to extend repair or the upper limit of your army.
Shipbuilding happening like a captcha of Japanese free to play games, the units are obtained at random. True, there are standard recipes which have been found by hardcore players, but getting duplicates is unavoidable. Nothing lost, because you can strengthen one character by consuming another character’s card. After reaching a certain level, shipgirls can even evolve into more efficient classes. Chiyoda and Chitose sisters for example evolve from seaplane to light aircraft carrier. Logical choice, because the Japanese Navy did improve the Chiyoda and the Chitose in 1943! Team of 6, random find, evolution… Yes, you got it : Kan Colle kai takes the exact same formula as Pokemon, with much success and efficiency.
The more you progress in the game, the more aggressive the Army of the Abyss will be in its attempts to take back the lost grounds. And here, believe me, it’s not some pleasure trip. Hexes will turn turn yellow, ten orange and then to the maximum alert level, red. If no fleet is present to defend it, you lose all the 4 zones in it, plus the the one that comes just before! The conquest of one single hexe can take hours, days in some cases, so this Is absolutely huge in terms of presssure. In the late stages of the campaign, the Abyss forces launch attacks everywhere and everytime. You can’t take a break, even though you still have the hardest territories to take on. It will therefore be critical to station solid fleets at key points of the map and anticipate the enemy’s moves. Fortunately, several secondary missions will have allowed you to raise the number of available fleets to 8. Strategy in Kan Colle kai grows increasingly complex and demanding, but is proportionnally rewarding given the challenge. In short, exactly like a good Advance Wars.
There are 3 levels of damage in Kadokawa’s game : light, medium and critical. If your flagship suffers critical damage, the current mission cannot continue and you’ll be forced to return to base. Heavily armored vessels are strongly recommended for this task. To increase the pressure, death in Kan Colle kai is definitive. A sunk character will not return (unless you rebuild her). And contrary to recent Fire Emblem games, here you can’t deactivate permadeath. A shipgirl with critical damage can die at any moment, making fights very tense like an old-school Fire Emblem : you pray for that the boss miss his shot, you triumph when your heavily damaged group wins tactical victory.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t really go beyond the original 2D, only little animation being added. Kantai Collection bring with itself an original and popular design which the reason for the wide merchandising. Even the Fleet of the Abyss, in featuring both grotesque figures and sexy “princesses”, makes very attractive artwork.
The sound environment in the other hand is very good : with very loud firing sound, light military march and symphonies with grandeur, it’s varied and relevant. Themes like MI Sakusen and Hatsurei! Daiichigô Sakusen are definite masterpiece and make battles that you won’t forget. You also get the possibility to re-arrange the interior of your HQ with new furniture and such.
Japanese strategy games have become rare, especially those like Kan Colle kai which feature both addictive game and enjoyable challenge. Its interest and success lies in both its fine gameplay and weird design, which only got richer over the years. An impressive concept which takes the best from other Japanese strategy to build a unique and fascinating experience.