What's In A Name?
Many publishers have taken a sceptical approach to developing for the Xbox, and that's probably why Capcom's first major European release for the new console is a port of one of their biggest PlayStation 2 sellers of last year, Onimusha. Genma is little more than a solid revamp of the original PS2 version, which was an impressive but critically ineffectual action game. As the story begins we find sword-wielding Samanosuke determined to cut his way through the ogres and demons of mystical Feudal Japan in search of the kidnapped Princess Yuki. In the process he meets up with a bounteous ninjaress by the name of Kaede, and the quest continues with her pitching in to a certain extent. When it first came out it was noteworthy more because of its expensive and elaborate use of CG videos than for the actual gameplay, and although Genma Onimusha's cinematics are impressive, nine months on we're more than used to this kind of thing, with Metal Gear Solid 2 and a number of other big titles more than matching Capcom's prowess with the camera. Onimusha is also starting to show its age outside of those video sequences. The game is played from the usual horror survival style fixed cameras, with characters moving around pre-rendered areas. These environments, beautifully drawn and painstakingly brought to life, effectively drive Samanosuke and Kaede down a straight and often narrow path through swarms of demons and cutscenes. The swordplay along the way grows progressively more exciting, thanks to frequent upgrades and powerful attacks, but the game is marred by the two areas I always find myself criticizing when it comes to Capcom action games: controls and camera. Like Resident Evil, Dino Crisis and the original Onimusha, Genma's control system fights the player at every turn. The analogue stick isn't often my first choice for this type of game, but Genma's total lack of analogue support left me stuck with my least favourite aspect of the Xbox controller, the d-pad. It sat there, grinning at me. The painful experience of having to use the derisive d-pad was only accentuated by the characters' slow turning speed, and having a 180 degree spin bound to black, the least accessible of all the buttons, didn't help matters much. Getting Samanosuke facing in the right direction to deflect blows is hard enough, but action sequences are often made unnecessarily difficult due to the game switching between camera views, leaving you struggling to readjust. Luckily Samanosuke's blows make easy contact from the slightest of angles, and most demons hit the deck before the end of his three-thrust action. But to say that the result of nine months' conversion process is a disappointment would be an understatement.
Ballet With Swords
Despite the lack of any obvious update to Onimusha's basics, players of the original will pick up on the one main difference immediately. As before, Samanosuke's abilities gradually increase as the game wears on, and this is because his arm is bound in an ogre gauntlet capable of harvesting the souls of slaughtered enemies. These improve Samanosuke's stamina, power and other vital attributes, so in the aftermath of a mighty blow or fatal stabbing, players must pound the A button to drag the departing souls to his side and reap the benefits. Apart from leaving you vulnerable though, this action can now go badly wrong. In Genma Onimusha, demons have the ability to fight you for the souls in a tug of war, leaving you with the choice of letting the bad guy absorb the soul and go berserk, or being mashed by closing enemies. This adds a new degree of difficulty to an already troublesome game. You might finish it in a day if you really put the hours in, but it will mean repeating a lot of sections, fighting to reach the next magic mirror to save your position and augment your weapon's capabilities at the expense of your own. Genma Onimusha is packed with enemies, who spring up from nowhere and rather annoyingly repopulate areas you have already cleared while your back is turned. Avoiding them might buy you some time, but failing to get your regular dosage of souls will leave you ill equipped to fight the bigger baddies later on. So the game consists of slicing and dicing, tugging and dying in equal measure, and although it's fun for a while, it loses its charm quite quickly and becomes largely tedious. The cutscenes become an excuse to rest your blistered thumbs, and the mythology and imagination employed to great effect in the telling of the story are wasted on a bored gamer. Bonus points must be awarded for giving you the choice of Japanese and English soundtracks, however.
Onimusha is a decent enough action game in its own right, with spectacular graphics and epicurean encounters with savage, monstrous enemies, particularly the boss characters. But it's already showing its age and is hindered by a control and camera system we had hoped to have seen the last of. Any fans of Feudal Japan and sword fighting not prepared to fork out full whack for the Xbox version of the game might do well to wait for the recently announced Platinum re-release of Onimusha for the PlayStation 2, as ultimately this game is no longer worth £40 of your hard earned cash.