Reviews | PlayStation 2
By Alex Kierkegaard / June 26, 2005
Capcom's Onimusha (oni warrior) places you in control of the samurai hero Samanosuke Akechi as he battles fiends, demons and the undead hordes of a resurrected warlord. There are many pitched battles to be fought, a castle and its grounds to explore and, at the end of it all, an abducted princess to save. It's a wonderful, atmospheric adventure, made with much skill and finesse by some of the company's most talented creators.
The game is a careful fusion of several elements, but at its heart lies an old school 2D hack-and-slasher transformed into three dimensions. Onimusha was not the first game to try this -- Berserk (1999) and Shin Sangoku Musou (2000) were two previous attempts -- but it was the first to pull it off with such success. Its effectiveness is rather surprising, since the team went about designing it in such a roundabout way. Onimusha was built by modifying aspects of previous Capcom titles, which could not have been further removed from the hack and slash gameplay it delivers.
Keiji Inafune, creator of many Capcom hits and the game's producer, must have realized that a lot of players enjoyed the action parts of his company's Biohazard and Dino Crisis games much more than the adventure parts. So he borrowed and upgraded the latest engine from those games (the pre-rendered version, not the real-time one from Code: Veronica), introduced visceral sword and sorcery battles, and scaled back considerably the adventuring elements and the numerous inane puzzles. The idea paid off handsomely; it's only a shame he didn't completely eliminate the puzzle sections, because they are the only aspect of the game that keeps it from being uniformly enjoyable.
The action is set in a supernatural version of late 16th century Japan. Murderous fiends have invaded Inabayama Castle and are slaughtering people left and right. Shortly before she disappears, Princess Yuki summons her old friend Samanosuke, who arrives to find a castle brimming with monsters. He is quickly embroiled in a conflict between the oni and the genma -- creatures from Japanese folklore roughly equivalent to Western ogres and demons. The genma clan has resurrected the powerful warlord Oda Nobunaga (a historical figure starring in numerous video games, mostly as a military genius; here, reeking of evil), and are using him to further their own goals. In order to rescue the princess Samanosuke accepts the help of twelve oni gods, who give him a magical gauntlet that has the power to destroy the genma.
The story is remarkably well-constructed, told in brief cutscenes that lend purpose and urgency to the action. Samanosuke is accompanied by a female ninja named Kaede, and as they separate to cover more ground the player gets to control each one of them in turn (though the majority of the game focuses on Samanosuke). From a forest cave and the keep's outer areas, through the seemingly endless rooms, corridors and secret passages of the palace itself, to a showdown on the roof and back down again, the plot races along, following their adventures to an ambiguous end.
It's an extravagant production, featuring masterfully directed CG cutscenes, exquisite hand-painted backdrops enhanced with subtle animated touches (a patch of fog slowly swirls around in a dimly-lit room; gently rolling waves wash up onto a lake's shore), and stellar voice acting. The bosses at Capcom must have been convinced the game would be a huge hit, because they spared no expense. They went out and hired popular Japanese/Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro to lend his likeness and voice to the character of Samanosuke, as well as the 200-piece New Japan Philharmonic orchestra led by acclaimed composer Mamoru Samuragouch. He has incorporated archaic Japanese instruments such as the the Hichiriki, the Biwa and the Ohdaiko, and natural sounds (wind, water, creaking wood), to create a score so convincing that at times moods are created and carried by the music alone.
But it's the skillfulness of the fighting system that distinguishes Onimusha from previous hack and slashers. Here, you are not just swinging a sword around half-blindly, as in Berserk, or button mashing like a lab monkey hopped up on speed and crack, as in Shin Sangoku Musou. Although the awkward controls inherited from the Biohazard series always take a while to get used to, no matter how many of the damn games you've played, once you master them you quickly realize how tight and technical the sword-fighting is. Enemies circle you and dart in and out of reach; they side-step or block your attacks and strike back, often when you don't expect it. They each emply different styles which you must learn to recognize in order to fight them effectively. Above all, in the chaos of an engagement against four or five foes, a good player is able to choose the direction of his attacks with precision and, thus, control the flow of battle.
Making great use of the numerous buttons of the DualShock 2 controller, Onimusha delivers a large variety of moves, many of them context sensitive. The basic sword attack becomes a rising slash when you are near your target; a thrust when you are far. Strike at just the right moment and you will perform a critical hit which kills enemies with just one cut. Repeated presses of the attack button result in three- or four-hit combos, and there is also a block, a kick, a 180-degree turn and a gory finishing move. By keeping R1 pressed while attacking you will automatically lunge for the nearest enemy, regardless of whether they are behind or in front of you.
None of the moves are superfluous. Blocking enemy attacks is not a gimmick, but a useful strategy: you can allow your enemy to attack while you defend, and then counterattack while they drop their guard. Sometimes you'll need to pounce on an enemy with a combo, other times you'll be surrounded and forced to use single slashes on multiple foes. Another good tactic is to kick enemies to the ground and then dispatch them with the finishing move, but this takes time to execute and leaves you open to attacks. And then there's the special attack, which draws its power from magical orbs placed in the gauntlet; a bow and a matchlock, which are fun to use and are handled quite realistically (you can't really use them if you are surrounded, and you come across limited amounts of arrows and bullets), and, finally, soul-collecting, which spices up combat even more.
Samanosuke uses the oni gauntlet to capture the souls of the genma he defeats. After you kill a foe, you will see little spheres of red, blue or yellow light appear over the corpse; push Circle and keep it pressed to absorb them in the gauntlet. Yellow souls restore your health, blue refill your magic meter (which you use for special attacks), and red souls are stored and used to enhance items later on. Souls disappear after a short while so you'll need to hurry. It's one more thing on your mind during battle, because capturing souls freezes you in place and leaves you open to attacks. You can wait until all foes are dead before collecting their souls, but by then some of them will probably have disappeared.
The fighting system is a refined thing of beauty; varied and well balanced, with many little nuances you might not even discover if you don't go looking for them. For example, it is possible to block projectiles like kunai and arrows by slashing at them with your blade. The timing is pretty hard to get down, but if something is flying towards your head and you don't have time to move, hitting the attack button might just save your skin. And I haven't even mentioned the more advanced techniques -- side-stepping, dodging and critical defense -- which are the real way to play Onimusha, though few players ever become aware them.
Just as highly developed is the unique weapon upgrade system. You will come across several swords, each with their own effects on various creatures. Along with each sword comes a magic orb, which fits inside the gauntlet. The red souls you collect throughout the adventure can then be spent at save points to enhance these weapons and orbs, as well as various other items (herbs, arrows, etc.) Enhancing a sword will increase its power, and higher level orbs can be used to break down the wards that lock certain doors. It's just another fun aspect of the game that keeps the experience fresh and rewarding.
Switching between the two characters is also a device for offering greater variety. Kaede doesn't have a magic gauntlet or flashy swords, and she lacks the special abilities granted by them (this means she also doesn't have to collect souls, which makes fighting with her a lot simpler). She is weaker than Samanosuke and not as heavily armored, but she runs faster and has several different moves. She uses a knife as well as kunai (small iron projectiles), of which she has a limited supply, and she can also pick locks to open the way to previously inaccessible areas. And, as befits a ninja, she has the coolest move in the game. She can jump right over an enemy, grab his head and slit his throat from behind.
But Onimusha is not all action, and the adventuring element is just as strong and enjoyable as the most graphically violent swordfight. Exploration makes up a great part of the game, and here the atmospheric locations and contemplative melodies come into their own, as you wonder what sights and sounds might lie around the next corner.
I have kept my only serious criticism of the game for last. At regular intervals throughout the adventure, the action comes to a halt and you are required to solve a puzzle of some sort in order to proceed. One or two of the puzzles are physical in nature (such as the scene involving both Samanosuke and Kaede, caught between crashing gates and a system of sequential levers), and are acceptable, if not enjoyable in their own right. Most are not, however. Somehow, I can't see the protagonist of such an epic stop to solve little travel puzzles, spell out different words, or piece together an image with little squares that shift up, down, left or right in a confined slate. I am not even going to debate whether these puzzles are easy or not -- they destroy the atmosphere that Capcom spent so much time and money creating; moreover, they are not fun. In an effort to minimize the damage, whenever these kinds of puzzles came up I just run straight to GameFAQs for the solution. If I feel like solving puzzles I'll play a goddamn puzzle game.
The real issue here is that Onimusha is short (it can be finished in a couple of lazy afternoons), but there were far better ways to address this "problem" than resort to cheap-ass puzzles. One solution would have been to create a larger castle, with more areas and fight scenes. If that was deemed too expensive then they could have saved some money by not hiring Kaneshiro-san; his presence is welcome, but doesn't really improve the game in any appreciable way.
A cheaper method, which would have enabled them to keep Kaneshiro-san, would have been to increase the difficulty. This is actually a valid suggestion, as the enemies are not really a challenge for someone who has mastered the control system. Your foes don't co-ordinate their attacks as much as they could have. I guess it would be uncharacteristic of them if they did (they are, after all, mindless undead beasts). But really, adding a few smarter foes during the latter portion of the game would force mediocre players to spend more time mastering the moves, and would give an opportunity to the experts to enjoy practicing all they'd learned.
In any case, I would have taken anything -- anything is better than the inane puzzles for god's sake, even more of the useless unlockables that no one should ever bother with (there are quite a few here already, and even a mini-game at the end, which unlocks even more unlockables). Just keep them out of the main game, so I am not forced to waste my time on them (ever wonder why there are never any screenshots of puzzles or mini-games on the back of the box?) Well, at least the puzzles here are far less numerous than in the Biohazard games, so you can call that progress.
With Onimusha Capcom gave the PlayStation 2 its first great title, ending a horrible initial year in the system's lifecycle, and giving many late adopters (including yours truly) a reason to move in. Moreover, its influence has proved far-reaching, steering the 3D hack and slash genre towards a more technical approach, and can be seen in numerous games that came afterwards, such as Devil May Cry (2001), Ninja Gaiden (2004) and Genji (2005). Any way you look at it, Onimusha really was quite a stunning achievement. Let's all just forget about those puzzles now.
Note: The US and European versions include an option to use Japanese voices (and subtitles, if you speak Japanese). This is essential since the English voice acting, though adequate, is not nearly as skillfully delivered as that of the original. Also, at least one CG scene has been butchered in the Western releases (the semi-sexually suggestive transformation of the girl into the giant wasp boss).