Review: Two times the samurai ass-kickery!
Genji: Dawn of the Samurai could be an answer to a trivia question ? it was revealed at the time of Nico, which of course became Shadow of the Colossus. As such, Game Republic's first title has been a low-profile one, even though there was a lot of promise simply due to the beautiful visual presentation and comparisons to other action games on PS2...and that's not even mentioning the pedigree of the company itself, with a former Capcom development star at the helm of the project. Perhaps being a low key SCEA release does it good ? after all, while Genji is a good, solid game with a welcome blend of action and role-playing elements, it's also not a particularly exceptional game either; not average...just good enough to be worth playing, even if it's a rental or a bargain bin pickup in future times. The beautiful graphics, strong audio, and decent story create a nice demonstration of what's left of PlayStation 2 hardware, but short playtime and overall lack of challenge really hurts what could have been a top-flight action game on a console overflowing with them.
Genji: Dawn of the Samurai is actually based on the book of the same name, which is oft-considered the world's first true novel. Taking place in 12th century Japan, various clans are fighting for supremacy and ultimately overall rule of the country. The evil Heishi clan finally gained the upper hand, thanks to their use and abuse of mystical Amahagane, which are orbs that grant their users power beyond mere human capabilities. Using this power, the Heishi begins to oppress the land, and wipes out all the other clans leaving them the dominate force. However, a few scattered remains of old clans exist, most notably the Genji clan. One such survivor, Yoshitsune Minamoto, leads the charge against the Heishi and eventually comes across allies ? most importantly another Genji, in Benkei Musashibo, a giant of a man. Using their own powers of Amahagane, Yoshitsune and Benkei begin a journey to topple the Heishi and end their evil regime encountering friend and foe alike on their quest.
Genji shares a handful of qualities with other action games, though veteran PS2 gamers will note a strong resemblance to Capcom's Onimusha franchise. Much of the time, you'll run from stage to stage, battling constantly respawning enemies, which you can cut down in numerous ways. Both characters have two normal attacks, one strong and one light, which you can mix up for hard-hitting combos. There's no real 'magical' attacks, but instead you use the power of Amahagane to execute a special attack that when done right is very damaging; depending on the level of your Amahagane and how you've filled up the special meter, you have more time to plan your counter, as the whole concept is about slowing down the action, like Bullet Time with swords. It's not required to mess around with these special powers (with one exception where you can only win by using it perfectly), but they can come in handy when in a difficult boss fight.
What's cool is both Yoshitsune and Benkei are not clones of each other; each character has a different quality that can be either a benefit or a hindrance, and Genji is designed to make you use both characters to see and do everything. In short, Yoshitsune is very, very fast and has the ability to get in a lot of strikes in quick succession, however, at the expense of strength. Yoshi also can't bust through breakable doors, break tree trunks blocking paths, or open certain chests. On the other hand, Benkei is slow and plodding, but makes up for it with far more damaging attacks, but with less speed. It's a basic trade-off; you either hit for power or hit for average, using a baseball phrase. Benkei also can smash doors, break trees, and whatnot, so Yoshitsune can access areas otherwise blocked. Unfortunately you can only control one character at a time, with the other sitting at your 'hideout', so you have to go back and forth to achieve all this. I suppose it's for the best rather than having to program a partner AI. There's a couple spots where you alternate using a character, but otherwise it's like playing 2 separate games.
To top it off, Genji has some decent RPG elements to add more depth to what would be an ordinary action game. All of Genji's action is based on a world map, which you travel to and from to visit shops, replay stages, and progress the plot. Unfortunately the map is very small, befitting the fact that Genji is a very brief game. As just mentioned, you can hit up shops to buy healing items, special accessories, and upgrade your weapons and armor just like you would in Final Fantasy. In fact, you can 'customize' ultimate weapons and armor by finding the right pieces scattered about. To truly round out the RPG aspects is the ability to level up. Killing enemies gives you experience, and once you wipe out enough enemies, you'll level up and gain more strength and defense. Your health also replenishes and even increases a tad. Since all locales you visit will respawn enemies, you can leave a level, reenter, and once again battle for experience. There's even a bit of hidden item collecting, when you find a special, less potent version of Amahagane, which can be mixed with 4 other pieces which also make your characters even stronger. It's easy to find these special items ? the controller will vibrate like mad when you get close to one.
As such, Genji is a unique breed of game, as a hybrid RPG/action game. However, in most regards, it's a fairly ordinary game as well; nothing is truly exciting about it, even if the gameplay is fairly interesting and the RPG elements a nice touch. On the default difficulty, the game really isn't too tough either, as most enemies are pushovers and boss encounters become simple quickly since they reveal their weakspots and patterns almost immediately. The final boss encounters can be tough (since you have to fight two in succession), but that's really about it. The story is not all bad, but it can be predictable and kind of rushed especially since this could have been more developed into something epic given the source material. To top it off, it won't take long at all to beat it ? 5-6 hours at the most, depending on whether or not you spend time exploring and increasing your levels. There's some incentive to replay it on a higher difficulty level, but you'd really have to be a hardcore fan of the game to find a need to play through it more than once.
Genji's best quality is definitely the fantastic graphics. Lush, artistically strong locations, be it a forest full of trees and a waterfall, to a run-down ruin, and a beautiful city of snow. It's got a serious wow factor the first time you see a new place. Enemy designs are repetitive and generic, but not bad. The main characters, be it PC or NPC types, all look really good though. The frame rate is slick and smooth, and only on a couple occasions did I run into any slowdown. And finally the CG movies are almost Final Fantasy quality. Which is saying a lot. On the audio side, Genji takes a unique approach. Though it's all subtitled in English so we can understand it, all the voice acting is Japanese, just like the JPN release. It's hard to get a grip on its quality since the language is foreign but it's not too bad. Hearing Yoshitsune's way of saying Benkei is pretty amusing though. The orchestrated music is great and epic, fitting the on-screen action well. It doesn't always play though; when in a stage, it only kicks on when you get into a fight.