Review: Samanosuke Doo, where are you?
One of the PlayStation 2's defining franchises in its early days, Onimusha has fallen back into the pack since its debut sold 1 million copies. Though the quality of the games increased, with Onimusha 3 being the peak, the sales have consistently dropped as the library of the platform grew more diverse. Though the series was supposed to end with number 3, Capcom has saw fit to give the franchise a rebirth with a new entry, Dawn of Dreams. It's only subtle ties to the original trilogy makes it a easy for a new player to jump right in, and those same subtle ties should make it easy for veterans to see how DoD fits in. Dawn of Dreams is a genuine attempt to mix things up with the series, thanks to some key gameplay changes, but yet fans shouldn't have much problem getting a hang of things. But much has changed in the action/adventure genre, so can this newest entry in a long running series keep up with the Joneses?
Dawn of Dreams picks up about 20 years after Samanosuke took out Nobunaga and saved Japan from his reign of terror, and the country is in an unprecedented time of peace, under their noble emperor, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who has brought all of Japan together. I bet you know what happens next. Toyotomi suddenly goes wild, pulling all sorts of evil deeds, and not only that, but there's all sorts of disasters across the land, and the Genma have once again inhabited the land, just like it was during Nobunaga's run. It doesn't just happen though, as it's all begun ever since a strange planet-like object appeared in the sky, seemingly the catalyst of this terror. But every terrorizing event has a silver lining; as it becomes the coming-out party for the Oni of the Ash, known to us as Soki. He begins his journey by thwarting the Toyotomi invasion of his city, and undertakes the task of taking down Toyotomi...or whatever it is that's caused him to go mad. Pretty typical Onimusha really...but unlike the trilogy, Dawn of Dreams has its fare share of humor to mix things up, a real change from the decidedly humorless past.
Playing as Soki, veterans will leap right into his gameplay style, as it functions just like the original games. Using your sword to kill demons, you absorb their souls, which in turn can be used to charge up your weapons, making them stronger. The souls also can power up the magic spells Soki gets to use dependent on the weapon equipped. This is all standard stuff. The newest addition to the mix is a fully rotatable camera; the pre-rendered backgrounds are gone and while it might sacrifice visual quality a bit, being able to control the angle makes it easy to avoid offscreen enemies and get a better lock on your surroundings. Soki though is slow and plodding, lacking the sort of excitement you'd get from playing more modern action games like God of War, Ninja Gaiden, or Devil May Cry. Because the game still sort of relies on the prehistoric Resident Evil engine, many might find the whole thing old and busted, ultimately boring.
Clearly Capcom expected that sort of reception because they've designed more characters to play as along with Soki. 4 more heroes will make up your party, gradually joining up as you progress. One of which is a relative of Yagyu Jubei, hero of Onimusha 2. These new playable characters have unique abilities; Jubei is a master of melee blades, while Ohatsu keeps their distance and fires long-range attacks. Tenkai can even speak with the dead you'll come across during the journey. Their upgrade processes are the same, as they use souls to charge up their element-based weapons and armor. At any point in time you can simply hit L2 while playing to switch between the characters, making it easy to swap if necessary depending on the enemies or the situation.
One thing 2005's Genji had that was neat was how there were some areas Yoshitsune couldn't access because he wasn't strong enough, and some areas Benkei couldn't because he was too big, fat, and slow, making you switch between them (almost a trick to force you into playing as both heroes). Dawn of Dreams kicks this up a notch, by creating puzzles and obstacles only one character can figure out. A few places require speed, some require strength and some require that mentioned ability to talk to dead guys. Some puzzles require teamwork between characters, so it's as easy as swapping between them to figure it out. It adds a neat twist to the formula and another layer to solving a puzzle. Because you can just hit the L2 button to hotswap, there's no need to head back to a meeting point to switch, like Genji. You'll find it extremely useful from beginning to end. Even during the epic, titanic boss battles, you never know which character can give you the edge.
There's no question that Onimusha has become more of a cerebral kind of action game, though perhaps not by choice. It was alluded to earlier, but the action genre has changed a lot since Onimusha 3 came out. Ninja Gaiden brought challenging, fast paced action with the same sort of Japanese tyranny. Devil May Cry (ironically from Capcom) has been around a while but DMC3 really brought the sort of crazy, twitch action gaming back thanks to its intense challenge. And of course, God of War mixed in the same sort of cerebral aspects as Onimusha, jut with far more intense and satisfying action. Even Resident Evil 4 redefined the whole horror genre, which the original Onimusha drew its influence from. Dawn of Dreams, however, feels plodding, slow, and even boring in action sequences; it's still Onimusha, but it really hasn't changed much from the original game way back in 2001. That'll make or break it for the masses. On the good side though, Dawn of Dreams is a very lengthy game, and might take 20 some hours to clear both discs. Compare this to the original trilogy ? you could beat all three games in less time than it would take to beat Dawn of Dreams.
With the change to complete 3D, DoD takes a slight hit in the visual department, due to everything being real-time. Still, there's a lot to like, thanks to diverse environments, enough enemy variety, and the boss battles which become spectacles in special effects. The spirit of feudal Japan is captured well, as is the terrain of towns, wilderness, and dungeons. Because the action is so laid back (so to speak), there's no times where it outruns the framerate and thus very few moments of slowdown. Cutscenes in particular shine with great direction adding excitement to the interesting plot. Voice acting does hurt it a tad thanks to some poor lines here and there, but there's a diamond in this rough, as it's possible to select the Japanese language track, which is leaps and bounds better...at least it seems that way. Language barrier, and all. A strong orchestrated soundtrack rounds it out, in the same way the original trilogy was enhanced by such musical scores.