15 August, 2014

Dustin' Off - Onimusha Warlords

In Dustin' Off we take a look back at some older games; what was good and bad about them back in the day, and why they might still be worth trying out today! This time we revisit Onimusha Warlords, the first, and arguably the best entry in the Onimusha series.

Onimusha Warlords

Set in feudal Japan Onimusha Warlords was built very much in the vein of Capcom’s star survival-horror series, Resident Evil, but it did seek to differentiate itself, diverge from its cousin’s mould in a few key ways. Onimusha had a greater focus on action than Resident Evil did at the time, but retained the use of core elements like pre-rendered backgrounds and fixed camera angles.  More controversially, Onimusha was a considerably more trimmed experience, the hours of monotonous backtracking – a staple of the Resident Evil series – were removed, which resulted in naturally shorter experience.

Released in 2001 on the PlayStation 2, and later tweaked for the Xbox in 2002 as Onimusha Genma, Warlords was the first game to shatter the one million sales mark on the PlayStation 2. Within a year of launching, it had shipped over two million copies worldwide, more than a million in Japan alone.

You play primarily as Samanosuke Akechi, a samurai of seemingly peerless skill who happened to find himself in a castle filled with undead and demons. Well not quite, your actually trying to rescue Princess Yuki of the Saitō Clan, who – if you don’t succeed – will be the main attraction in a sacrificial ritual, loosely consisting of having the (now resurrected) Nobunaga drink her blood, from her skull. Regardless, the premise is pretty terrible, the dialog isn’t too hot either, in the English translation at least.

While I wouldn’t describe Onimusha Warlords as a hard game, it does demand some patience, it also helps if you can identify and exploit the strengths and weaknesses of each enemy, especially how they move; attack range, attack speed, if they can be blocked. Upon revisiting the game I was surprisingly reminded of my time with Demon Souls, while this is in no way as demanding as those games, it does require use of similar skills. You can block and kick enemies away, but the environments are often narrow and limiting, you’ll need to knock enemies back from one direction and dispatch your foes from the other, lest you be surrounded and swiftly mauled to death. Manage to knock an enemy down, you can close in and initiate a immensely satisfying execution animation, instantly ending your adversary, which is key when fighting those pesky ninjas with the eerie glowing eyes.

Thanks to the magic-giving Oni you meet at the beginning of the game, Samanosuke is no longer just a flimsy katana wielding warrior. You acquire a number of weapons, including elemental affinities for your sword. These are needed to open certain marked doors as well as maim the undead demon horde. These elemental weapons can be upgraded to deal death at a faster rate and they also have a powerful magic attack (governed by the magic meter) which is key to defeating the game’s cadre of bosses.

When you do succeed in slaying an enemy, colourful souls will disperse from their quickly dissipating corpse, varying in colour, these souls will heal you, refill your magic, and allow you to upgrade your weapons. It’s a pretty handy system; if your running low on health and don’t want to waste your precious herbs, find an area you know you can beat and clear it a couple of times to restore your vitality! Naturally, there is a supremely annoying type of enemy that will steal your hard earned souls mid battle, if you don’t deal with it sharpish it will simply fly off and these souls will be forever lost. 

You also briefly take control of Kaede, Samanosuke’s ninja companion, she isn’t gifted with magical talents, but she has got a few blade slinging and back flipping tricks of her own. There are also some light puzzle elements, I would never describe them as fun, but there not too much trouble either. 

At the time of release, Warlords looked quite stunning, the pre-rendered backgrounds were detailed and varied, and the glowing trails of the evil ninjas’ eyes were a stunning effect. The real star of the game’s presentation however, was the fluidity of the animation. All motion-captured, movement and attacks are flowed together with staggering beauty, both, in the CG sequences and player controlled combat. The CG movie sequences were some of the best around at the time, and I maintain that the opening scene, depicting the Battle of Okehazama is still worth watching, perhaps one of the best openings of all time.

Capcom released a number of games in the Onimusha series, all back in the PlayStation 2 era, most of which were good. The main line of Resident Evil-esque action games were always well regarded, although despite it’s rather ridiculous premise, I never could bring myself to actually enjoy Onimusha 3: Demon Siege.  Set partially in modern day Paris, Demon Siege is a time travelling adventure, which saw Samanosuke fighting demons on the streets of Paris and French security officer Jacques Blanc (likeness of Jean Reno) battling back in time in Japan. The game wasn’t actually that bad, just kind of ludicrous, Blade Warriors – a Super Smash Bros. styled 2D fighting game – was another matter entirely… 

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