Yoshiki Okamoto's a bit of an enigma. Here's a man who abandoned a job at Capcom after 20 years because of a desire to do something new ("it was very difficult to start a new title with a team capable of creating a brand new, really excellent title," he says when asked why he left), only to spend the next two years developing, of all things, a hackandslash set in feudal Japan.
Now Sony Europe's poised to publish Genji - the game he couldn't make before - and he's in buoyant mood, joking with reporters and needling producer Bill Ritch, poking him indignantly every time he looks away when he should be translating. It's always nice to see a happy developer, and that he clearly is, but with just a month to go until the game's European release date we thought we'd best have a look at why.
"The gameplay is very simple, so that everybody who buys the game will eventually be able to see the ending," he tells the jetlagged journos. "We obviously want the gamer to get to the end so they see the whole story." And it's obviously been a challenge - but the solution, judging by our demo session, might just be ingenious.
Cornered at a hilltop temple by Heishi clansmen, hero Yoshitsune stands indignant, strands of beaded hair hanging loosely from behind his furrowed brow over silken robes. In a flash he's mobile, landing blow upon blow and leaping balletically out of the way of anything that swings in his direction. It looks like a fairly traditional third-person sword-fighting game, with a fairly traditional hit-counting combo system - except, "it's all done with one button". Simple, timing-based action. On top of that are special attacks - again very simple - and then Kamui.
Kamui's the simplest element, and could also be the most entertaining. Build up enough power and pull the trigger and the whole spectacle's suddenly bathed in a sort of violet haze, and as Yoshitsume is set upon in slow motion you're given a split-second to respond with a stab of the square button. Done correctly, Yoshitsume brushes the falling blow aside; square again and he responds with one of his own; another square at the right time and he spins out of the path of another enemy, slicing him across the back as he does so. And on it goes. Genji seems to understand that the real spell of martial arts films is the faultless dance-like elegance of the combat - and so it lets you replicate it.
Some stages give you the option to control Benkei instead, and he's a lot bigger and slower, but has an enormous club-like weapon and reach to compensate. Should you find it's not compensation enough to save you from the locals, you'll have to try again - but Game Republic's thought about that too, and designed an experience points system that builds up regardless, so you should find yourself stronger the next time you take on that scenario. For those at the other end of the scale, the game grades you based on your performance. It's also possible for the more skilled fighter to rip the talons off boss monsters and have them forged into superior weapons.
Equally important to Game Republic is the aesthetic, inspired by films like Hero. Okamoto-san and his team had that film and its vibrancy very much in mind when they started out, and wanted to avoid the hackandslash clichť of dark and shadowy encounters. So much so that the leaves in each area will be a slightly different colour. One section we saw - a boss encounter with an enormous, tiger-striped monster with blades extending from its forelegs and a scorpion-like sting, somewhere along the line between a stick insect and jungle cat - took place in a gorgeous sun-kissed clearing in a forest, all greens and yellows speckled with everything in-between.
As you may have noticed, Genji also featured on the PlayStation 3 trailer reel at the Tokyo Game Show. Okamoto-san argues that it's not at odds with his stated aim of making new games; "I just want to create a new franchise, and release a brand new project into the marketplace. We don't think it will go into the higher numbers," he says. As for the PS3 game itself, "[it] will take place three years after this story ends," will draw some characters from this game, and will be tweaked. It'll probably also be informed by the reaction to the PS2 Genji - of which we'll be offering ours sometime in the next few weeks.
Until then, it's worth thinking about this: Demons and shamisen are never long from our consoles in this job - you might say they're the Nazis and marching drums of eastern games development - but they're often slow to excite. By flattering the player quite so much and focusing on what it can do afterward, Genji makes a different impression. It may not succeed - and indeed it'd be churlish of us not to point out that some early reviews suggest it hasn't - but it ought to be fun while it tries. It's certainly enough to put a smile on Okamoto-san's face.
Genji is due out on PlayStation 2 in Europe from October 21st.