Back where my folks live in Pennsylvania, local cable picks up Channel 63 of New Jersey. Despite being a local, American owned station, Channel 63 fills all of its time slots with shows and commercials from Japan and Korea. This, of course, means that at any given hour you can find all kinds of ridiculous Samurai drama.
These shows are always the same; the men are loud and gruff, the women soft and gentle. The costumes are cheap, flamboyant, or in the case in which a demon is present, both (this is most of the time). The plots are ridiculous, with characters running around in the most awkward and confused ways regardless of what is going on. And every episode of Samurai drama ends with coming attractions that are preceded by bold blocks of kanji with flames in the background.
Now, here’s the best part of all; Onimusha, one of the first highly praised, highly rated Playstation 2 games, has all of these things and more. It is campy Samurai drama mixed with some Resident Evil gameplay that was barely changed for the new setting. And like the shows it is so akin to, the game’s craziness can quickly grab your attention, but only for a short while before you just stop caring. Thankfully, that’s just about the same time it’s over.
So just how similar is Onimusha to Resident Evil? Let me count the ways. We’ve got:
- Prerendered backgrounds (that actually look far, far better than most of the junk the PS2 was then sporting).
- Identical control scheme.
- A plot that unfolds through a mix of cutscenes, books and journals, a few of which you will certainly miss during your quest. The story is threadbare and poorly translated, while the voice acting is atrocious (though the option for subtitled Japanese alleviates this problem).
- Green Herbs for healing.
- Takes place in a castle instead of a mansion.
- Ridiculous RE style puzzles that are so direct and obvious that they seem almost pointless in the grand scheme of things.
- Zombies. Samurai zombies, but undead nonetheless.
- Hold R1 to ready your weapon. X to strike.
- Endgame ranking system complete with unlockables.
I think that just about sums it up. Now, Onimusha does add a few smart improvements. Your character runs by default, and doesn’t have to ready his weapon to attack. There is also an option for Japanese dialogue, which is a must in this case. Yet despite all this, there’s no way anyone familiar with RE will leave this game without a feeling of DéjÃ vu. It’s one thing for a company to be inspired by itself, but this is rather ridiculous.
It also doesn’t help that this particular story and setting end up feeling even more outlandish than Resident Evil. You would think that samurai, warlords and demons would make for an even grimmer, more violent, more serious world, especially after the impressive opening cutscene. What follows however is anything but serious or dramatic. I thought at first that something was simply lost in translation, but there too many deliberate directorial decisions apart from the dialogue that scream of cheesy samurai soap opera. While it can be enjoyed in a silly, stupid kind of way, it also reminds me of just what kind of schlock was considered “serious” by some in the Playstation Generation.
The largest difference between Onimusha and Resident Evil is ultimately the one thing that helps this game stand on its own two feet. Being a samurai, the focus is on action rather than survival. While the controls are the same, the combat is much more robust. You have access to a handful of combos, dodges, a finishing move, kicks and counter attacks, as well as a magic attack for each of your three weapons. The system is solid enough to keep you learning and refining your technique for most of the game, and with three weapons to upgrade, you’re very much encouraged to slay anything you come across.
To be fair, the combat does create a very different sense of pacing from that in Resident Evil. You don’t have to creep around or run away, and it produces a more powerful feeling when you are as capable of destruction as your enemies are.
Yet as engaging as it can be, and pardon the pun, the combat is a double edged sword. Onimusha is much easier and faster to complete than your average Resident Evil since all but the strongest of demons are painless to mow down once you get the hang of things. There are some frustrating areas (mainly dealing with zombie archers), but overall you shouldn’t face many obstacles or restarts. Even the boss fights pose little challenge, since most are as simple as holding down block and waiting to unleash your magic attack from all three blades. What you end up with is a game that can be beaten in as little as four hours on the first play.
This can be extended with subsequent replays, but I have to disagree with most reviewers who assert that the combat is deep enough to stay fresh after the first time through. A decent player should have all the upgrades by the time they first see the credits, and aside from self imposed challenges, there isn’t much new to do, since you will probably resort to the same tried and true tactics. If there were more distinct differences between the weapons, or the enemies were a little more punishing, then there might be a case for replaying this more than once or twice. As it stands, you’ll have to look towards Capcom’s Devil May Cry for such things, because I don’t see them at all in Onimusha.
The most striking thing about Onimusha is that it shows just how much times have changed. When I think of it now, the game brings the same kind of smile on my face that I get from watching Iron Chef or MXC. It is goofy and violent and faux-serious, a great little diversion for the price of a burger and fries. But this thought is quickly followed by the realization that this was once a premier PS2 game that retailed for fifty dollars. If I had bought it at that price I would have felt much differently about the experience.
Furthermore, I can’t understand some of the praise given by reviewers at the time. The story, the equivalent of foreign soap opera, was called “serious and engaging.” The puzzles are so simplified that it seems pointless to include them. Instead, this was translated into “simple and straightforward.” The combat was said to be some of the best out there, deep enough to withstand several plays, yet I couldn’t finish a second run because of sheer boredom. It makes me wonder; were our standards that much lower a few years ago? Were writers acting as Sony apologists while the PS2 slowly built a quality library? Or is it my perspective that is skewed, having seen many more games since Onimusha’s release? Perhaps back then I would have thought much more highly of the game.
The only thing I can say for sure is that you’ll still enjoy this one if you don’t think much about it. Onimusha is a good example of the growing pains our industry went through at the time. The demand for mature content continued, while the industry proved that its idea of serious and mature was still far behind that of any other form of media.
Actually, maybe times haven’t changed that much.