Version tested: PlayStation 3
I'm not sure if this is going to work out. Sure, it's beautiful - stunningly beautiful, in fact - but there's just so much baggage. For all her sultry good looks, I just can't forget that time when she stood there with another man - men! - in front of the world. All those words, all those phrases, they all keep popping into my head - and I know that she's always going to be associated with him, and with the words that they shared. It's just difficult to find perspective.
Especially when the other men are Sony studio boss Phil Harrison and SCEA president Kaz Hirai, and the words in question are "(historically accurate) giant enemy crab" and "flip it over and hit the weak spot for MASSIVE DAMAGE!"
They were all part of a cringe-worthy E3 demo that delivered Genji: Days of the Blade - a sequel to last year's relatively nondescript PS2 slash-'em-up - into a scabrous arms of people who wanted a PS3 poster child for all the wrong reasons. And months of ridicule, it seems, are pretty serious baggage to bring into any relationship. Even here at Eurogamer, where we try to keep an open mind, there was a little ribbing mixed with some sympathetic noises when Genji landed on my review list. With so many amazing games around at the moment, there was a distinct sense that we'd all just played Celebrity Blind Date and I'd ended up with Vanessa Feltz.
The comparison is immediately unfair - whatever failings Genji may have, it's hard to fault the looks of the game. The team at Game Republic has taken the beautiful artwork present in the PS2 title and adapted it beautifully to next-gen hardware and high definition. Natural and outdoors areas are particularly arresting, with foliage and water delivered in a stunning, dreamlike manner that almost renders the scene like a painting. During battle scenes you can see dozens of NPCs fighting far off into the distance, and the visual effect is dramatic and impressive, to say the least.
The playable characters themselves are also a pleasure to behold. Wonderfully detailed and animated with a smooth, fluid feel that really adds to the combat of the game, all four have had care lavished upon them. There's some lovely, subtle use of motion blur when one of them dodges or carries out a particularly rapid attack, which makes the whole scene look much more lifelike - and weapon effects are also noteworthy, with a vast range of different moves and attacks available. The game even highlights particularly good attacks. For example, hitting multiple enemies, dealing extra damage or simply clearing yourself out of a tight corner slows the action down to illustrate your skill in more detail with a slightly washed-out, film stock effect.
Admittedly, there are a few flaws brought about by all this graphical splendour, with the framerate a significant victim. While for the most part the game is consistently smooth, at times it descends into a jerky mess - particularly in cut-scenes (for some odd reason. Surely these would be the easiest bits to optimise?). Along with some peculiarly stilted narrative, including a situation where you're sure the game is about to drop you into a horseback segment only to instead show a brief in-engine cut-scene. It's details like this that give weight to the theory that Genji is a bit of a rush-job.
But Genji looks good. Unfortunately, that seems to be what the development team considered to be the most important element. The gameplay is comparatively neglected, and owes much to its PS2 predecessor - a game widely criticised on account of the fact it was so easy that you could complete most of it by just hammering the square button throughout. Thankfully that's not a criticism that you can level at the PS3 sequel, with a more intelligently pitched difficulty curve and a diversity of moves that actually matter, but there certainly are problems that linger.
In essence, you play as four characters in Genji 2: young swordsman Yoshitsune and his stoic tree-trunk swinging ally Benkei (who were the key characters in the first game) as well as token girl Shizuka, who swings around light blades on the end of chains, and Buson, a pike-wielding character who looks a lot like an enemy from the first game (for a rather good reason). Each of these characters has a fairly individual play style as well as a special ability of their own, which are used to solve a variety of puzzles. Shizuka can grapple to far away locations, Yoshitsune can run along walls, Benkei can break obstacles and Buson can, er, look a bit frightening despite having girly hair.
However, you'll probably end up playing as Yoshitsune a lot (especially at first), simply because he's the best balanced character. He's fast enough to counter enemy attacks, very mobile and quite powerful. Later in the game, other characters will become more useful, although by and large you'll still find Yoshitsune and Benkei to be the backbone of your force. An interesting aspect of Genji is that you swap characters in real-time (and yes, you switch weapons in real-time too, which is much less useful) by selecting them with the d-pad. So you could, for example, smash through an enemy's armour with Benkei and then move in with Yoshitsune to direct a flurry of fast attacks at his exposed weak point, before jumping backwards and selecting Buson, whose defensive powers are best, to avoid the counter-attack.
When the game requires this kind of strategy from you, or rewards you for it, it's actually really good fun. Regular, well-placed save points mean that you're rarely penalised heavily for trying out new things, although admittedly these become a bit more spaced out towards the end of the game. As you progress you find that characters other than Yoshitsune become more useful, especially as they find weapons that balance them out a little better. Each weapon has a unique set of moves associated with it, so characters do evolve significantly over the course of the game simply by collecting new weapons. Interestingly, the weapons don't necessarily get more powerful, just different, so your starting weapons are still relevant by the end. Weapons can be made more powerful by spending points earned in combat; you'll rarely have enough points to upgrade everything, though, so spending wisely is required. Similarly your characters' hitpoints and a special ability called Kamui (which allows you to take out a large number of enemies by tapping keys as you're prompted for them on-screen) can also be upgraded using hidden items that you find as you progress. You'll need to do this selectively, though, since you can't upgrade everyone at once.
The problem is that the majority of the game's combat doesn't require this sort of strategy - instead, it's possible to simply switch to Yoshitsune and slash away until everything is dead. It's by no means as bad as the previous game in this regard, and there's something quite satisfying about the characters' move sets, but it's not enough to sustain you over ten hours of gameplay - despite the combat allowing for fairly omni-directional slashing and switching position mid-chain. Equally, the puzzles that the game throws at you are all relatively obvious in nature, and the whole thing is depressingly linear, overall. Despite creating a beautiful representation of mythological feudal Japan, Game Republic seems determined not to let you strike out on your own and explore. Even in the massive battle sequences, you'll be restricted to fighting in your own particular corner by invisible barriers, which would have been depressing and annoying in a PS2 game, but simply smacks of lazy design a generation on.
That's far from the only last-gen hangover lingering here though, like a mid-morning headache and a taste of tequila every time you burp [thanks Rob - Ed]. The single biggest flaw with the game is the camera. It's the one issue which drops it in our estimation from being a somewhat traditional but very pretty and enjoyable slash-'em-up, into being a game whose improvements over its predecessor are totally overshadowed by its problems. For reasons best known to themselves, the designers opted to stick with fixed camera positions rather than with a tracking camera, and that just opens up a whole can of worms.
The result is that oftentimes you'll be fighting enemies who are off-screen behind the camera - or worse again, trying to navigate jumps and obstacles you can't even see. Consulting the mini-map becomes vital, because you simply can't see who you're fighting or where you're going half the time. In boss battles, you'll sometimes find that because the boss is behind the camera, you can't see the animations that prompt you to defend against a powerful attack. And so you die, in the most frustrating, unforgivable manner a game can kill you - because of its own shortcomings and not yours.
Does this make Genji awful to play? No, not as such. It certainly means it's a lot less fun than it should be, and contributes to shocking frustration at times, but it doesn't mean it's dreadful, and Genji certainly does have its moments. In fact, the infamous giant enemy crab is a particularly fine example: despite sniggering when he appeared, swinging Benkei's giant club into his skull-like visage smashed his entire damned face off. And I didn't giggle, I laughed out loud because it was cool. When you execute a stunning move with Yoshitsune, or "tag" a few enemies with Shizuka and then make them explode with a casual swing of your weapon, while they're behind you and you're looking into the camera, the game feels right and the designers' knack of delivering animations fluently and elegantly shines through.
Then, a minute later, you'll fall into a pit you couldn't see and get your head smashed into the ground by an enemy who's off-camera, and Genji's flaws will come flooding back. It's a real pity, in a sense; the only way that Genji could ever have shrugged off the ongoing ridicule was to be so fantastic that nobody cared about MASSIVE DAMAGE any more. Left in the development oven for a bit longer, with the awful camera fixed and some more freedom to explore and interact with the world, the basic ingredients could have been fantastic. As it is, Genji is undercooked. It's not terrible, but it's not good enough to rise above the baggage of ridicule hanging over its shoulder. The saddest thing, though, isn't that. It's not even the camera. It's that, as a game, Genji on PS3 is going to be remembered for a long time, by people who will never play it, because it features a historically accurate giant enemy crab, while those who do play it will soon forget that it's a competent, beautiful-looking, but terribly flawed action game.
6 / 10