Onimusha Warlords review
Plagued by the spirits of archaic game design
Two Capcom hack and slash franchises started in the year 2001 - Devil May Cry, which was meant to be the real Resident Evil 4 until a glitch turned it into Devil May Cry 1; Onimusha, on the other hand, was Jun Takeuchi going "you know, Resident Evil is great, but it needs more swords and demons set in feudal Japan with supernatural powers". Now, the idea of a horror game where you play as a samurai had already been done, and it was Soul Of The Samurai for the Playstation 1. Much like Soul Of The Samurai and Resident Evil 5, Onimusha has the distinct dishonor of having absolutely not idea on what it wants to be. It wants to be a survival horror with its emphasis on tight corridors, tank controls and pre-rendered camera angles, but how everything is laid out begs for better controls and better camera angles. A hack and slash could theoretically work with pre-rendered camera angles and tank controls, but the way Onimusha does it is in a way that's less atmospheric and more tedious. It's not a horrible game as it has some great ideas, but the execution is less than stellar.
Even the story isn't all that great! You play as Samanosuke, a lone samurai who has to save his cousin, the princess Yuki, from demons known as the Genma. However, Samanosuke is unable to save her as he gets smashed by a giant Genma. While laying unconscious, he's visited by the twelve oni and from them, he gains the power to not only stand up to Genma, but also absorb their souls with a mystical gauntlet. While there's plenty of potential to make things interesting like going into the Genma, or more into their diabolical plan, or even trying to develop Samanosuke's relationship with his killer-turned-potential love interest Kaede, the story is instead kept in the background, used just to give you a basic reason as to why you're killing demons and saving the damsel in distress. What we do have is okay as it isn't offensively terrible or anything... it's just the sort of story that's ruined by what it lacks – a compelling X-factor of sorts.
Confucius say... we are the poo that fertilizes the grass that the antelope eat that the samurai eat.
But really, it's the design choices that hurt this game. I'm normally of the opinion that each game has to be able to execute its own style as convincingly as possible, but Onimusha's style is something that just isn't right. Now, I can understand there being tank controls and pre-rendered camera angles in a survival horror game as the idea is to feel helpless against what may jump out and spook you. Unfortunately, Onimusha is not really a horror game. There's no item management because you wield a sword that doesn't require anything to fix it or enchant it, but that's not the big issue here – nope, the big issue here is how you go about actually playing this game. This isn't Resident Evil where the pacing is deliberate, the enemies are slow for the most part and you have firearms; Onimusha's pace is somewhere between deliberate and frantic so you'll encounter enemies more often than you would in Resident Evil but not quite as often as in, say, Ninja Gaiden. Not to mention, Samanosuke wields a sword, so he has to go up to his enemies and slash them. Said enemies are fast and require you to react immediately to their attacks, and that's not even mentioning the boss fights that take place in four different quadrants requiring four different camera angles. Said bosses are fast and require speed in order to destroy them. Samanosuke doesn't have speed because WE'RE USING TANK CONTROLS!!! God, this game feels like crap.
Okay, there are some means of making the game feel less annoying. For one thing, you can lock onto enemies and you can circle around them. Circling around them is much easier than wrestling with the horrific controls. Another thing is that when you initiate a combo attack, you move in towards them regardless of where you are and whether you've targeted them or not. Now, if I had anything more to say like there are some great complimentary level designs, good camera angles and suitable enemies and bosses, there would be a nuanced feel that'd become second nature after the first half hour or so; in fact, it'd be like the first Startropics and Kingdom Hearts games where everything compliments one another. Instead, the enemies are fast and require fluid controls which Onimusha does not have, the camera angles feel more intrusive than suspenseful (aka it's not scary or mystifying, it's just annoying) and the level designs, while thin in the more indoorsy type areas and a bit more open in the great outdoors (albeit a very dark great outdoors), are... how do I put this...
...the overall design of the game ranges from genuinely good to just accommodating towards the tank controls. When it's a case of the latter, it's thin, but not claustrophobically so, which sort of misses the point of having thin level designs. Maybe when you're fighting a group of enemies, it could be claustrophobic as you're fighting a group within what would appear to be a tight corridor, but that's a bit of a stretch. It doesn't help that targeting allows you to circle enemies and your attacks gravitate towards your target. When it's a case of the former however, it's a result of some excellent puzzles. No, not some silly fetch quests where you have to take this one item from one side of the map and insert it in Slot A on the other side; more like when you have to deal with booby traps and riddles to prevent said booby traps. This game takes place within a ninja stronghold for the most part, why WOULDN'T it have booby traps? The issue, however, is that unlike Resident Evil where it focuses more on exploration and immersion, Onimusha focuses more on combat. WHAT!? These are mostly great puzzles that would work fantastically for a game like this! I mean YOU'RE IN A NINJA STRONGHOLD, and yet you spend more time fighting enemies... and yes, you can absorb their souls to not only heal but also gain experience points to power up your sword, but that doesn't really do much if anything to enhance the experience. Just feels like an arbitrary addition to try and give off the illusion of depth without there being any.
Yes, I'm aware you also get a bow and arrow, shurikens and a gun for ranged attacks, but their purpose is to kill whatever can't be killed with your sword – mainly because you can't get to them on foot. If you fought enemies here like you would in Resident Evil, it's not quite as feasible as it could've been as ranged attacks aren't as powerful as sword attacks. It's supposed to enforce a balance, but all it actually enforces is that you should just use your sword to kill everything that you can get to on foot. The enemies are a bit too fast, not to mention too resilient for your ranged weapons, and the bosses... forget it – unless it basically shows that you have to use your ranged weapon on it because you can't use your sword on it, you'd just be wasting your time and ammo. It's a shame because ranged combat actually works with the tank control... maybe I'm just in Resident Evil mode whenever something reminds me of Resident Evil and Onimusha is the finest example of reminding me of Resident Evil because it's Capcom-made and it honestly just feels like Resident Evil with swords.
Hey, that front Genma is walking into my blade, why isn't it dying!?
Back when it was released, Onimusha was a fine, fine looking game and it did justify the usage of pre-rendered camera angles. Even though time tells a different tale where games like Ghosthunter, Shadow Of The Colossus and even Resident Evil 4 look better and are rendered in real time, Onimusha still looks at least aesthetically presentable. The pre-rendered backgrounds are sharp and detailed with a keen eye for lighting, but they're not polygons and this was achieved with no problem on the PS1. The polygons that are on display here are either unimpressive or somewhat good in quality. When it comes to the in game models, they look like something out of a PS1 game with maybe a sparse amount of detail to make some parts stand out, but otherwise, they don't really look too good. There aren't any shadows or a whole lot in the way of special effects either. This was okay on the PS1 because it wasn't all that powerful, but with the PS2, you'd expect something a bit... more, really, and when there are special effects like particles or whatever, the framerate takes a significant dip downwards. Not very good. At least the cutscene graphics are moderately detailed. Yeah, there's no lip movement, but I guess it beats having desynched English tracks... speaking of which...
The sound design is a bit of a mixed bag. The soundtrack is great, mixing in sweeping symphonies with traditional Japanese music to set just the right mood. Whether it's a subtle theme during a character's entrance, a louder theme for a battle or dead silence as you explore, it never really skips a beat and when there is music, it sounds brilliant. On the other hand is the voice acting... kind of. In Japanese, it sounds pretty good, but in English, it's garbage. In English, it sounds like they phoned in their lines. It's the kind of terrible voice acting that's just impossible to listen to without cringing or trying to skip the cutscenes. At least the Japanese voice acting sounds more authentic and... well, it doesn't make you want to turn the volume to mute. Yeah, if you're playing this (either for notalgia's sake or just because), play with the Japanese audio and English subtitles... or set the subtitles to whatever language you naturally speak if you can.
Onimusha receives a 4.5/10 for at least trying to make the most out of a bunch of poor, archaic game design choices. The idea of a hack and slash with tank controls sounded silly even when it was fist coming out, let alone nowadays with the likes of Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry. It does at least make some design choices that make things somewhat more bearable, but what they did feels like a band aid on a tumor. Maybe if they went a bit further with it, it'd feel more nuanced than just bad. Personally, I'm more for just ditching the archaic tank controls and pre-rendered camera angles entirely because it never quite feels right to play a hack and slash like this. It isn't completely unplayable, but Onimusha's downfalls are more of a result of baffling design choices mixed with some good ideas.
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