When I lived in Korea, I earned black belts in Haedong Kumdo (Korean Kendo) and Hapkido (Korean Aikido). They issued me licenses for each one; when someone makes some crack about registering their hands as deadly weapons, know that I actually did. The Kumdo license entitled me to legally buy a battle-ready katana, which ended up costing me half a month’s pay. I don’t mean to brag. In fact, rid yourself of the American notions of paranoia that the rebellion will begin any day now, the south will rise again, or that bad guys with guns exist in every store and restaurant, just waiting for a good guy with a gun to mow them down; Koreans practice martial arts mostly just to keep in good health. As such, any mugger who crossed paths with me in a dark alley would probably meet with the law-enforcement recommended protocol of me granting him easy and painless access to my debit card, naturally giving me the last laugh when he tries to find any money in the account. The Haedong Kumdo skill, unfortunately, has even less practical value in real life, as roving bands of samurai no longer wander the streets of Duluth, and have even refrained from menacing Korea for a good seventy or eighty years. Even so, the art claims to adapt the one-on-one sword fighting method for use on a battlefield full of guys with swords. It amounts to forms, really. Dancing with a sword. And honestly, I enjoyed it. Even more than polka. But it has limited uses, even on a field full of samurai. In fact, I can only think of one hoard of enemy it might fight effectively: zombies.
Fortunately, the idea of fighting monsters with a samurai sword doesn’t merely belong to Max Brooks and other brilliant authors; in 2001, Keiji Inafune of Mega Man fame released Onimusha Warlords for the PS2 (Genma Onimusha for the Xbox), which took the Resident Evil engine, set the story in feudal Japan, and replaced the zombies with the Genma tribe of demons. Although a horror game at heart, the concern over conserving ammo tends lose its emotional impact when armed with a sword, so the game strays from the survival horror design into more of an action genre. Which, I guess, makes it exactly like Resident Evil. The game surrounds itself with real-life historical characters, much in the same way as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It has a profound respect for history in the same way that God of War has a respect for mythology and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has for classic literature, going even so far as to explain the fates of the surviving characters at the end of the game–Animal House style. The story follows the ronin samurai, Akechi Samanosuke, a character based on his supposed in-game uncle, Akechi Mitsuhide, who led a rebellion against the famous Shogun, Oda Nobunaga, a historical point rendered unnecessary when the game lodges an arrow in Nobunaga’s neck within three minutes. The need for rebellion neatly eliminated, Samanosuke turns his attention to his childhood friend, Saito Yuki-hime, and her concerns about the Genma demons stuffing her into a bento box with a dash of wasabi. Samanosuke arrives at the Saito castle to find Yuki missing and most of the Saito clan either dead or desperately trying to avoid becoming soylent sushi. The Oni clan whisks him away long enough to grant him a magical gauntlet that will inhale demon souls like a hoover, and let him inject them into his weapons to power them up.
From there, anyone who has played one of the early Resident Evil games can pretty much predict what happens. Samanosuke fights his way through a haunted house…er, castle…filled with hungry monsters, convoluted locking mechanisms that would only piss off any normal person who lived there, and random encounters with a small cast of characters wandering aimlessly around with no regard for the onslaught of things that want them dead. Onimusha de-emphasizes puzzle solving, which I appreciate even though I can’t think of anything more horrifying than slowing down the pacing of a good story in order to solve a riddle about which order to push a series of buttons. Like Resident Evil, play occasionally shifts to Kaede, Samanosuke’s kunoichi assistant who, again like Resident Evil, has less strength and health, but moves faster. Since she can’t seal souls, Kaede doesn’t have a lot of motivation for hanging around to stab things, so the player has to change tactics to more of a gauntlet run. Except she still has a knife and a belt full of kunai, so her sections of the game didn’t annoy me the way that playing as Ashley Graham did.
The game paces itself very well. Better than most modern games. While many games, RPGs especially, like to throw a challenge at you ten or twenty times to make sure you didn’t succeed those previous nineteen times on a fluke, Onimusha throws a challenge at you, then gives you something new to fight when you finish. Cut scenes and other story elements happen close enough together that you don’t need a libretto just to remind yourself why Samanosuke would rather let pig monsters bludgeon him to death rather than high-tailing it to Okinawa where he could kick back and enjoy the sunny, monster-free weather with a nice bowl of sake in one hand and a nice kunoichi or two in the other. In fact, even with side-questing and leveling up, I can finish the game in about three and a half hours. Because of its length, I can finish with the desire to actually play through it a second time to take advantage of all the unlockable items, and unlike Leon Kennedy and his tommy gun rampaging through Spain with infinite bullets and not enough monsters to put them into, I don’t get bored before the novelty of invincibility wears off. Plus…well…two words: panda costume. Who wouldn’t want to fight demons while wearing something both cute and vaguely unsettling?
Onimusha really shines in the cultural department. I come from America, the culture that gave us Charlie Chan movies. If you don’t recognize the name, he came from a series of mystery novels and movies about a Chinese-born detective in Hawaii. When adapting the novels for film, they tried a few different actors, and the American viewing public watched the movies and said, “Yeah…we think the white guy made a more convincing Charlie Chan.” With racism like that, I understand why anything Japan wants to market in the U.S. has racially-neutral characters, that could belong to either Asian or Caucasian heritage, depending on how hard you squint and what you really want to see. Onimusha, however, delivers a cast entirely of unapologetically Japanese characters in a marvelously Japanese setting using traditional Japanese folklore. Er…mostly traditional. For some reason, all the demons bear names out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, often referred to as “The greatest story ever written.” Hamlet represents the peak of Western literary culture. I’ll let you come up with your own interpretation for that. I, for one, appreciate the distinct cultural flavor of the game (much like visiting Kyoto tourist destinations…but with monsters). For added difficulty, set the game to Japanese audio with English subtitles. The voices sound a lot cooler, and the trick treasure box puzzles have a new twist when you don’t get Arabic numerals.
Once more like Resident Evil, the game gives you a report card at the end, one final smack in the face for anyone who thought they did well. Depending on your grade and how many useless rocks you found, the game will either reward you with unlockable goodies and a bonus mini-game (obviously designed with enough difficulty and repetition so as to wean you off of Onimusha and on to your next game), or it will send you to bed with no dinner and take away all video game privileges until your grade improves. Later games don’t quite live up to the quality of the first, which probably explains why the series effectively came to an end in 2006, but I give this first installment an A…even if it thinks I deserve a B.