Full Review: If this were hardcore porn instead of hardcore b-movie, Kaede would want Samanosuke to pierce her with his sword.
In the early days of the PlayStation 2, good games were few and far between. There were a few that may have been overlooked, but for the most part, you didn't have the widest selection to pick from. Such is life with a brand new game console I guess. But in early March, Capcom released their new survival horror title, Onimusha, which finally gave the PS2 a great game that didn't come from the much-maligned launch. The game is a year old now, but even today it's one of the better PS2 games, despite being rather short. And with the new $30 price point, you get a lot more game for your money, even as the release of Onimusha 2 nears. If you haven't had the time to experience this game, I'd definitely recommend finding a copy, because despite taking maybe 4-5 hours to beat your first time through, it's a damn good ride while it lasts.
Onimusha's story is rather convoluted and trite ? hardcore B-movie stuff. It's set in the 1500's during feudal Japan; and the names, themes, and backgrounds show it in spades. The lead character, Samanosuke (Sam from now on so I don't have to keep looking at the back of the damn box to spell it) is out to rescue Princess Yuki, who is kidnapped by a band of Demons for a sacrifice. Sound yummy so far? Actually, the story is a little better than it sounds, with some weird twists here and there. Kaede, a female ninja; who was once hired to kill Sam, but instead became his closest confidant, accompanies Sam. You'll play as her a little bit during the game as well, and even do tag-team moves with him as well to get out of some traps & puzzles. Other characters are present; a little boy named Yumemaru (sp?) gets involved, along with a handful of demon bosses; most frequent a weird demon guy named Guildenstein (name isn't mentioned in the game, but in the credits. odd) who has all kinds of messed up creations for you to fight.
Sam doesn't have it easy to rescue the princess; he can't kill the demons on his own; so a band of Ogres who were ?subverted by the Demons? give their powers to Sam, in the form of a gauntlet, to rescue the souls of those the demons have killed. That one difference adds a difference to gameplay compared to RE, besides the swords and stuff that is. And that's just about all the story has to offer. Considering that Flagship (the same guys who wrote the RE storyline) was behind it, it's highly disappointing compared to the excellent RE story. Still, there is just barely enough meat to it to keep you playing the game to see what happens (the ending is fun; if not overwhelmingly rewarding). Barely. However the finely-tuned gameplay will keep you going anyway. Onimusha is what everyone says it is ? Resident Evil with swords. For the most part. While the main point is to run around solving weird puzzles and killing the baddies; there is a lot more variety brought to the table. As mentioned before, the gauntlet is used for absorbing souls of enemies; which is in turn used to enhance weapons, restore health, and restore magic power. And unlike RE, where you want to conserve ammo and kill as little as possible; Onimusha point-blank requires you to kill, kill, and kill some more. If you don't, you won't get enough power to upgrade weapons, which won't let you open some doors; therefore not getting you very far in the game.
Sam has one basic attack; hack, slash, hack, slash. Doesn't sound thrilling, but its not that bad really. Most of the enemies are rather smart and don't go down easily. Sam also has a death-blow downthrust stab to quickly end the lives of the demons; but doing that in a pack will leave you wide open to attacks. Besides the magic attacks; that's all Sam has, besides a lone kick move you can use to shake off an enemy if you must.
Magic attacks are more to be used in tight situations, or boss fights. Magic is acquired through little orbs that go into your gauntlet - a Thunder orb, a Fire orb, & a Wind orb. Each orb has its own sword to go with it that you can enhance as well. The magic attacks are of course more powerful than the regular attacks, but are not infinite and thus supposed to be used wisely. Each has the exact effect the Orb says; especially useful is the wind attack for getting out of a cornering situation (which can happen either by choice or by default). The orbs are also required to open certain doors that you must unlock to continue forward with the game ? sometimes if you don't defeat enough enemies you'll need to backtrack to collect more souls to enhance far enough. That's possibly the only drawback with that idea; though from experience, if you kill pretty much everything in sight and upgrade your orbs first, you shouldn't have any trouble with that.
The rest of the gameplay techniques (besides the extras) are definitely Resident Evil-esque. Onimusha has ?Magic Mirrors? for saving your game, as well as enhance your weapons. They are a lot more prevalent than the typewriters in RE; and there is no limit on saves (nor does it count in your final score tallying, thankfully). Anyone familiar with RE will catch on to the idea. Puzzles are also very much like RE; find a key, pull a tab, collect pieces, break seals, etc. Some of the puzzles are timed and can result in death; for instance there's a team puzzle where Sam gets trapped and water is coming down to drown Sam. Kaede must align pieces of a board correctly to show the mark of one of the Japanese clans before the lever next to her goes all the way to the top. If it does, Sam is a goner.
Other fun puzzles revolve around answering weird questions using a series of books you collect throughout the game. If you can decode the readings, you can plug in a series of answers in a box near a Magic Mirror. Get the right answer, and get a bonus (a heath or magic enhancer). This portion isn't a requirement, though. The other fun one is the Trick boxes that contain some essential weapons and items. In order to unlock the boxes you need to align the numbers in the right places (in order 1-6 or 8 basically). None of them are particularly easy; actually a lot of them are extremely frustrating. They're more of a chore to solve than anything and take away from the game sometimes. The ?fun? I mentioned was sarcasm, by the way.
The one major RE difference is the fact that Sam can block attacks with his sword; opening up a different gameplay experience. Now, instead of having no defense against the enemy, you can get off a few swipes; block for the counterattack, then jab in a few more swipes. This especially comes in handy (more like required) in the boss fights, which require a lot of sticking and moving (or just a barrage of magic occasionally too) in order to be successful. However, overhead attacks cannot be blocked; though a new strafe move comes in handy for blocking those instead.
Sam has a pair of other non-sword weapons ? he can use both a bow & arrow attack or use a matchlock (which is a shotgun basically..woohoo!) to knock off enemies overhead, like annoying archer demons or the soul-suckers that steal your collected souls if it gets close enough. Variety in weapons isn't too much of an issue.
As mentioned, you take control of Kaede on 2 different occasions. She is a little bit different to control than Sam, and a lot weaker as well. She has no magic attacks, though she is extremely fast. She can kill demons however with her throwing knives or stationary knives (which opens up my first gripe with the story ? if Sam can only kill demons with the gauntlet equipped; how can SHE do it?? It's not explained in the game). The items she collects are interchangeable with Sam as well, though some items aren't available for use for one, even if the other can.
Another RE difference is the lack of storage boxes; you carry everything at the same time. However you don't collect nearly as many items as you do in the RE games (cause you don't stockpile guns and ammo) so it makes up for it. It beats the old backtrack game, to find the correct weapon or item to advance to the next area of the game, something that RE made infamous.
The one major knock is the shortness of the game; and I have to admit it's very short. Beating it will take you 2 hours or so once you get the hang of it; 4-5 hours from scratch. However, there is one tiny thing ? not every game has to be a 40-hour marathon. As much as I love Code Veronica - I think it was a little bit TOO long ? the story really dragged during the Chris Redfield portion. In Onimusha - the story, despite being trite, still never drags and bores you. Sure, I think they could have extended the final area into another hour or so of gameplay, but I'll take what they give me. If a story drags and gets boring, there is no use to making a game last forever.
For what it lacks in length, it makes up for it in extras & replay. First off is the Easy Mode you time-release after about 10 deaths ? this game isn't a cakewalk honestly, and the easy mode will help that. It's a little too easy (at least compared to normal), but it's great for those who are having troubles. One little mini-game that is thrown in to the mix is the Dark Realm (not the ending Dark Realm map but a bonus thing). A weird old cocooned man will invite you in; getting through it will give you the ultimate weapon for beating the final boss. However, this is an incredibly difficult task if you aren't prepared for it ? you WILL need medicine and herbs; and you WILL need to know how to block, counterattack, and wisely use magic for the tougher enemies. Each of the 20 levels is increasingly challenging, though you do acquire health recovery items along the way. This is one of the ultimate tests of Onimusha. It's well worth it though, believe me.
Also, you'll want to collect the 20 Fluorites (not to be confused with toothpaste) hidden throughout the course of the game - to unlock Oni Spirits - a minigame that is more of a timebomb challenge than anything. And just like the Dark Realm, the levels get increasingly hard. You'll die a LOT in this one before you get the hang of it. There is NO margin of error. Defeating it reaps some rather spiffy rewards; so it's worth it.
Plus you can unlock a special trailer for Onimusha 2 (goofy eh?) as well as some extra costumes for the Sam and Kaede. Sam's is especially off-the-wall ? I won't spoil it but you'll know what I'm talking about when you unlock the weirdness (or trippiness) that it is. Funny thing about the Onimusha 2 trailer ? the thing is extremely outdated, considering all the changes made to the final product.
Sure, Onimusha is short, but the extras make replaying the game more than worth it. Besides the top-notch gameplay and great graphics & musical score, that is. It's always a challenge to get a higher grade than your last play (based on time, fluorites, kills, and souls collected, but NOT saves), and that adds to the replay as well. Shortness be damned when the game is this solid. And the bottom line is; the game is FUN to play. Sure it's RE with swords ? but RE is the perfect game to build off of, considering how great those are. It doesn't make it any less fun because it's not totally original.
The only little caveat that may put off some people is the linear atmosphere of it ? truthfully, it's not one of those games that has branching paths and that sort. It's rather straightforward, which might upset some gamers. You can do a couple things by going to different places first, but either you'll need to kill a lot of demons to get there, or you'll get things way out of order. The hierarchy of the gameplay and requirements makes it very static. And while a lot of times you'll see 3 or 4 doors in one room, only one really gets you where you need to go (for instance, when you enter the keep, you have 3 doors ? one goes to the next area, one is a save room, and the last door is the path to the Underground; and chances are your orb required to open the door to get to the underground isn't strong enough to open it; and you really can't get there because you don't have all the orbs yet) so the paths have to be taken in the correct order to progress the fastest. In this case it works well even if it's the same game every play through it.
One small thing ? this is classified as a survival horror game ? but it's not scary, or horrific really. Survival yes, horror no. Oh well. One of the steps back in Onimusha is the use of prerendered backgrounds for the graphics. The Resident Evil series on PlayStation used prerenders; but last year's Dreamcast effort Code Veronica featured a fully 3D environment. The flat 2D backgrounds of Onimusha might seem odd for PS2, but there is a reason.
Originally, Onimusha was intended for the original PlayStation. With that in mind, obviously they went with 2D backgrounds to fight the lack of graphical punch the PSOne carries. So obviously they kept the 2D backgrounds for PS2 instead of transferring everything to full 3D. Copout? I suppose you could say that. Then again, if they spent the time making it fully 3D, it may not make it to PS2 for another 6 months or so. It's no worse for wear in the gameplay department anyway. Oh, and those awful 2D backgrounds? They are far from awful. More like beautiful. They are so well designed and detailed you may forget they are static 2D. Objects are more hidden into the backgrounds better than ever before due to the detail of the backgrounds. Yes, you'll be able to detect items quite easily once you get the hang of what to look for, but they interact very nicely with the prerendered backgrounds.
What's interesting is how the non-prerendered environment interacts with the rest of the backdrop. In particular, an area near a waterfall is astounding; seeing the waterfall pour over the static backgrounds is quite a sight (and a hindrance for your own sight trying to find what's behind it); and the water effects are as lifelike as you'll see ? perhaps the best water effects ever produced at the time.
Besides the backgrounds, the characters are incredibly designed as well. Sam is composed of thousands of polygons and is extremely fluid. But then again, with the prerendered backgrounds, you can afford to have characters as detailed as that. The enemy variety is strong; compared to the usual zombies and one or two mutants in RE; you get more than a dozen different characters; all unique and well designed. One in particular is a standout; a chameleon of sorts; appearing and disappearing to attack. What stands out is the trail of invisibility the character offers; then slowly transforming back into sight ? the sort of thing you have to see to believe.
One minor flaw with the 2D ? bad camera angles in a few places. One of my little qualms with RE was the camera; sometimes the damn thing will be in the wrong place, resulting in a cheap death or attack. It's not prevalent in Onimusha, but when it does happen, especially when you're surrounded (or a freaking arrow shooing demon fool stabbing you from a mile away), it's annoying. But RE: CV had occasional camera problems as well.
And the intro? Watch it, then watch your jaw drop 10 feet. It's THAT good.
Despite not being completely 3-dimensional; Onimusha delivers in the graphics department; running at a solid 60 FPS as well; with a tad of slowdown jumping from prerendered background to the next (load times). Onimusha again fits the RE bill with the sound ? the musical score, performed by an actual major Japanese symphony (not sure who, I want to say New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra though), is absolute brilliance. The authentic 16th century feudal Japan classical themes (just like from those movies) fit the mood and while aren't creepy (to fit the survival horror theme) it's very fitting. Boss fights, especially late in the game have that dramatic feeling; especially the theme that plays before the second to last boss fight ? incredible. Like the opening intro, this is one thing you have to hear to really grasp (if you can hear it that is).
The major fault is the laughable English translation voice acting. As per usual, the voice acting is subpar, and lame. You could throw Barry Burton and his lockpick for Jill Valentine in this game and it would fight right in (except for being a few hundred years later on in the timeline..). A lot of tacky phrases and hacked actors ruin the experience somewhat (though it's campy fun a time or two). Though you can change it ? Onimusha lets you choose between English acting and the Japanese acting voice-overs; along with English or Japanese subtitles as well. This gives Onimusha a more realistic feel; I mean c'mon, what Japanese people from the 16th century speak fluent American English?
However, the mixing needs some work. The sound effects of the demons and weapons are solid and loud ? but the music is faded out as well as the voices. Turning it up will make the rest of the FX too loud, and you can't change the options (not from what I could see at least) to balance it out. It results in a hard-to-hear game with drowned out music (though I did turn it up to see how good it was in that department). A poor job by Capcom here ? something they need to work on for any sequels.
Onimusha is a first-generation game in a 2nd and 3rd generation PS2 world, the game still to this day shines as one of the better titles on the console. It's not the most original or technologically advanced game, and it never really was. It's just one of those games that is so slickly produced and well-balanced that it succeeds anyway. Onimusha 2 is on the way to the US sometime later this year, but until then, Onimusha is a good bet if you're lacking the game in your collection. And at $30 bucks, it's almost a steal.