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Onimusha | review | game | Lollipop
(Capcom for the PS2)
by Eric Johnson
The inch-thick layer of dust covering my Nintendo 64 can attest to the danger of buying a video game console prior to the first anniversary of its release. Companies can pull out of their asses any hardware statistics they want, the real quality of these systems is so software-dependent that it'd be wiser to take your money to the dog track than to blow three bills on a potential electronic white elephant. The first thirty titles released for any given system is always a laundry list composed of forgettable and obligatory representatives from the sports, fighting, and kid-friendly run & jump mascot-driven adventure genres. Ten months after its initial release date, the PlayStation 2 (PS2) still suffers from a chronic lack of compelling software, and it's for this reason that I haven't bothered to acquire one until recently. Lollipop isn't a magazine for hobbyists or rabid video game nuts, so I figure the majority of readers haven't bothered to snag one yet either, or got it more for its DVD-playing capability. Fortunately, some good games are starting to trickle in and some eagerly-awaited releases should be available by the end of the year. Here's a short list of the good and bad among the more compelling titles that I've encountered...
Despite its pathetically unoriginal plot and disappointing brevity, Onimusha is an excellent game and a great choice for new PS2 owners who want to see their system flex some graphic-generating muscle. Set in feudal Japan, Onimusha tells the story of Samanosuke, a supernaturally-endowed warrior compelled to action by the imminent sacrifice of a princess kidnapped by a serpentine demon lord and the apocalyptic hordes that stand poised to invade the Earth once her blood is shed. It seems that these demons have utilized the confusion of a battle between local warlords to make a deal with one and use the rival's castle as a staging area for their attack. No, the plot is not even remotely aquainted with originality, but like most games based on Japan's feudal samurai culture, it has the advantage of style. Indeed, the architecture, artwork, and clothing of that time and place make for a world begging to be explored.
Exploration is certainly the key, since Onimusha is a particular type of adventure game. "Survival Horror" is a stupid term, but it's the popular nomenclature for a number of cinematic, tremendously gory, quasi-scary, slow-paced, shock-oriented, third-person adventure titles originally inspired by zombie films. The genre tends to favor atmosphere over action and is marked by dramatic (occasionally obstructed) camera angles and the exploration of elaborate highly-detailed environments. Newcomers to the genre will find that Onimusha feels like an interactive movie, one that plays out like a partnership between Akira Kurosawa and Caesar Romero. The unusual controls and perspective will cause some initial frustration, but if the opening film doesn't suck you into an hour of playtime, it certainly should. Much of your time will be spent looking around, checking nooks and crannies for journals, keys, and other items that will explain or trigger events in the storyline. Defending yourself involves the use of a unique, intuitive, varied, and fun sword-based fighting system that involves hacking away at demonic hordes and sucking their dissipating souls up with your magical gauntlet. The souls come in handy for improving weapons and healing yourself.
There's plenty of fighting and a wide variety of enemies to confront, but Onimusha never devolves into a vapid arcade game. The balance between story, action, and atmosphere is expertly balanced. The sound is excellent, provided you switch the voices to Japanese with English subtitles; for some reason, even the most insipid dialog doesn't seem as bad with subtitles, and the English voice acting is terrible. The graphics are far better than I'd expected. The characters have faces and body language so astonishingly realistic that computer-generated people regularly convey emotions with far greater effect than their outclassed verbal counterparts. My only real complaint with Onimusha is not its typical "save the princess" storyline but its inexcusable brevity, typical for games of this type. Twenty hours of dedicated playtime is all that's required to finish it. That's not a tremendous amount of game to drop fifty bucks on, but it has style, is a great deal of fun, and I found it to be a remarkably satisfying first acquisition for the system.