But I'm not here to review Nobunaga's Ambition, and within the first minute of play my suspicions and fears were whisked away. Onimusha had taken hold of me, and despite a visit from out-of-town family, I couldn't help but bowl on through it during the late evenings and early mornings, while my visitors were fast asleep.
In short, Onimusha is extremely, extremely addictive. There's an authenticity that overrides the whole "zombies rising from the dead" thing, strange as that may sound. Though you're fighting the undead, absorbing souls, and unlocking mythical weapons, it's the atmosphere, the surroundings and the wardrobe that really captures your attention. This is a title set in feudal Japan, complete with undereducated villagers, beautiful architecture, vast wilderness and dramatic military actions. It's not something that's regularly seen on this continent, and as such is much more interesting than any of the tired gaming cliches, inserted with the intention of spicing the story up a bit. Though the scale of your quest is relatively small, there's a sense that something bigger is going on behind the scenes. You portray a bit player in an opera too grand for the player to fully grasp in one sitting.
As Samanosuke (a warrior whose name is carefully pronounced time and time again by the title's voice actors, perhaps to inspire a further understanding of Japanese dialect), you've returned from a horrifying battlefield to discover the princess you've spent your life protecting has been abducted. Alongside Kaede, your apparent female understudy (their relationship is never explained in the game), you embark on a simple quest to rescue the princess from her captors. The story, however, quickly takes a sharp turn. Instead of battling enemy soldiers, Samanosuke finds himself mixed up in the middle of a fight between demons and humans, the undead and the living. It's like Resident Evil on a grander scale.
However, the similarities to Capcom's original "survival horror" series extend well beyond the mere involvement of the living dead and related monsters. Truly, the bulk of the game itself may have been ported directly from the RE series. Onimusha is not a true 3-D platform title, your surroundings aren't totally navigable. You watch from an overhead view, as Samanosuke runs from one pre-rendered background to the next. As you run off the screen, the camera angle changes and a new background fills the screen. The game also employs an identical system for maneuvering around the screen. No matter which direction your character is facing, pressing "up" will send him running full speed in that direction. Left and right are used to turn, and pressing "back" will send you on a quick jump backwards, followed by a slow moonwalk in whichever direction your back may be facing. The "X" button is used to perform actions and pick up objects, while the "Square" and "Triangle" buttons perform regular and magic-based attacks. The "Circle" button captures the souls of defeated enemies. Yes, much like The Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, your ultimate quest is to defeat enemies and use their very souls to enhance your own performance.
The story explains this away as such; on their way to conquering the Earth, the demons made mortal enemies of ogres. Enraged, the ogres have chosen Samanosuke to represent them in halting the demons' plans, a sort of sweet scheme for revenge. They grant you a bulky attachment for your right arm, used to capture enemy souls, and send you on your way. If that sounds a little bit "out of left field", that's because it is... the storyline on the whole is overly confusing, generally silly and even occasionally ignored. By the end of the game, things had become so bizarre and under explained, I still have very little idea what exactly happened in the closing cinema. I'll make this abundantly clear; don't buy this title expecting anything from the meat of the story. Perhaps the story's one true chance at a saving grace, the involvement of actual key figures in Japan's history, is lost by involving them in such a far fetched, supernaturally-based tale. Where programmers had in front of them a rare chance to both educate and entertain simultaneously, they instead chose to put the majority of their emphasis on the entertainment, rendering the education null and void.
In keeping with that trend, the voice acting takes poorly written dialogue and brutally drags it along the coals. These guys didn't even ATTEMPT to match what they were saying with their character's lips, and it's not an uncommon thing to see your character's gums flapping for a couple seconds after he's quit speaking. One moment in particular stands out to me, as Samanosuke and Kaede are captured in a steel cage. They try to part the bars, before looking at one another and declaring "We've gotta find a way out of here!" They then share a few moments of silent lip movement, still looking deeply into each other's eyes, and then proceed to stare at each other for upwards of five seconds. You can't take control of either of them immediately, there's no additional audio. They're just... starin'. Maybe something was lost in the translation? Regardless, despite their ability to pronounce all the characters' names correctly, the voice talent just isn't getting the job done here. I'd rather read subtitles than endure this.
Fortunately enough, the graphics almost completely make up for the lack of compelling audio just by themselves. As a first wave title for the PS2, there were most certainly lofty expectations for this disc, and I'd wager it's exceeded even those. Onimusha is a brilliant visual treat, taking full advantage of what the new system had to offer. Even live-rendered scenes look exceptional, with blur effects, trailers following various light sources on the screen, and a well-designed rogue's gallery to hack your way through.
Likewise, the FMV scenes in Onimusha, infrequent as they may be, are stunning. Though they haven't quite reached the level of perfection that Squaresoft seems to demand in their cinema scenes, Capcom's crew is giving the masters a stern run for their money. Characters are well designed, scenes are laid out with dramatic attention to detail, and a battlefield truly FEELS like a battlefield... not just a couple dozen characters performing the same attacks on one another, over and over again. While the story may be a little on the light side, the real emphasis in these scenes is on dynamic poses and memorable moments. As the back story is explained, hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers march in slow motion, illuminated only by the moonlight, their spears extending a good six feet above their heads. It's an ominous visual, one that sticks with you long after the power button has been turned off. In the game's very first scene, Nobunaga himself (commander of the enemy army) is told of his unit's imminent victory. He stands, basking again in the moonlight, and laughs heartily before an arrow suddenly shoots directly through his neck. Appearing every bit as shocked as the player, Nobunaga stumbles backwards and falls in a heap to the ground, a pool of blood already forming behind his head. It's a jarring moment, and successfully sets the tone for the remainder of the game; expect the unexpected. While I've had my breath taken away by the sheer beauty of CG scenes in the past, I've never been so utterly surprised as I was during this introduction to Onimusha. Square may have the upper hand in terms of technology and programming know how (however slightly), but I've never been as shocked during a Final Fantasy cinema as I was here, watching the man I was expecting to fight at the game's conclusion fall lifeless to the dirt.
As a standard hack-n-slash affair, the gameplay doesn't exactly light the world on fire. If you've played Final Fight, you basically know what the deal is here, though battles do occasionally require a bit more strategy than that old Capcom standby. You're granted a limited amount of magic special attacks, which are best saved for major battles, and the rest of the game is comprised of madly smashing the square button, retreating before the enemy can attack you, and repeating. Interspersed throughout the land are a series of rudimentary puzzles, which range from "not entirely challenging" to "simple." You'll find a special item, hold onto it for a couple minutes, and then find the doorway or puzzle requiring its use. Again, nothing to write home about, but something that'll keep you occupied.
My one major complaint about the game is its length. Perhaps I've grown a bit too used to RPGs that span upwards of ten, twenty, sixty hours before completion. I defeated Onimusha in four and a half, with relative ease. The end boss was a pushover, and I was never really concerned about being killed in that final battle. Though I did fall on three or four occasions, it was always due to my own stubbornness (I refuse to use potions and recovery items unless ABSOLUTELY necessary) and not any real difficulty built into the game itself. If you know how to press the "square" button and have retained any sort of knowledge from elementary school, you shouldn't have much problem defeating this one. The only extremely challenging portion of the title is found in the "dark realm", a sidequest which leads to the most powerful weapon in the game. Basically, you're thrown into a twenty-level dungeon with no savepoints. At each level you're given the chance to back out and start over at a later time, and as you get farther in you'll happen upon treasure chests. It's more a battle of willpower than anything, as you've got to hope the next level will have a healing item hidden away inside.
The major saving grace of Onimusha is its secrets. As you progress through the game, you're granted small, light emitting rocks, which serve no real purpose. It's only once you've defeated the game that you realize these stones are used to unlock various hidden aspects of the disc itself. Absolutely hilarious new costumes are available for both Samanosuke and Kaede, two new difficulty modes are available when the right specifications have been met, and a sub-game is hidden away within these strange glowing rocks. I will say this; though I was let down by the ending of the game, its length, the story and the difficulty, I'm more than willing to play through it again when Samanosuke is wearing a ridiculous panda bear costume. It's got replay value, even if that's just as an oddity.
There exist vast negatives and enormous positives yanking at either side of the scales in determining the overall value of Onimusha, but perhaps the heaviest factor is its price. Recently accepted as one of the PS2's "greatest hits", the game took with it a major price cut. Now retailing for right around twenty bucks, I can't help but count that as a major plus. I've most certainly bought games much worse than Onimusha for a hefty fifty dollar price tag, as I'm sure have most of you. What it all boils down to is this; if you don't mind sacrificing story and difficulty, you'll find in Onimusha an extremely entertaining play. Though it's heavily reliant on one battle system, things never seem to become monotonous. The scenery changes often, new enemies are introduced at just the right times, and there's a real epic, cinematic feel to this that can't be put into words. For all my words about what this game could have been, I think it's silly to overlook what it is. A solid, entertaining little package.
Overall Score: 7.4