I’ve encountered a fair share of people in my time who scoff whenever I mention video games. “Well, I certainly would never consider that a worthwhile pursuit!” they say. Yeah. Fuck you, too. I don’t think the medium in question automatically elevates Desperate Housewives and Jersey Shore to a higher level of art than Xenogears or Final Fantasy. In fact, developers usually put enough care into each game that if you liked one, you can reasonably expect to enjoy the sequel. Film and book sequels usually have no value unless the weight of your wallet threatens to collapse your spine and you just feel like killing a little bit of time while waiting to die. But game sequels tend to grow and evolve out of their originals, building better ideas upon good ones, rather than slapping on lipstick and a wig in hopes of us shelling out the cash up front before taking them to a nice, private room somewhere, then turning them on only to realize we’ve already seen everything they have to offer. Also in this metaphor, let’s say you picked up a transvestite. Just for fun.
Still, that means game series change and evolve, sometimes into something significantly different than the original. Case in point, look at Resident Evil. The original sent you through an eerie, quiet, labyrinthine mansion, sending just enough monsters at you for your brain to send false alarms shooting through your nervous system every time you opened a door, turned a corner, or paused the game to pee. Resident Evil 4, on the other hand, gave you enough ammunition and ethnically Hispanic monsters to shoot that both Arizona and Texas nominated Leon Kennedy to run for governor. Likewise, the Onimusha series claims subtle origins. Samanosuke stumbles on a castle with all the quotidian feel of Hannibal Lecter’s kitchen, and on his own he must fight to keep his finger in the dike from hell. In Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams, both finger and dike have vanished out of existence, and the Genma demons roam through Japan with all the timid subtlety of an army of Jehova’s Witnesses (except, of course, for the fact that Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Shogun during Dawn of Dreams’ time period and one of the primary antagonists of the game, sort of outlawed all forms of Christianity and executed practicing Christians. But hey, you gotta fill the void with something? Why not Genma demons?).
I should explain here that after the death of Oda Nobunaga in Onimusha 3…and, I guess, in real life…Toyotomi Hideyoshi rose to power in Japan. After making a deal with the Genma, who he believes will help him conquer the world, Hideyoshi perverts cherry trees with Genma insects so that they either turn people into trees or into more Genma or something. I don’t know. The trees kind of act like a MacGuffin, and for all their significance to the plot, the protagonist, Soki never so much as chops one with his sword, rips off a few leaves, or even takes a leak on them during the entire game. This part, by the way, not so much true in real history.
A further departure from the original games and their Resident Evil inspiration, Soki accumulates his own rag-tag band of plucky companions, who can fight along side him nearly every step of the way. It does provide a nice game play element, allowing characters to switch off, with one having the option to either attack or to guard and regenerate health. But it definitely detracts from the creepy vibes from the early games and hypes up action like a four-year-old on his third can of Red Bull. Each partner has a special ability; one can talk to the dead, another can grapple like Ada Wong, one can fit through tight spaces and cross delicate beams, and the other can punch heavy objects Chris-Redfield-Style. Naturally, Capcom designed these skills with no other trope in mind than to let Soki access new areas, however, they don’t do this very effectively. You can switch partners at most save points, but you can only have one at a time. Rather than forcing him to backtrack once a certain character becomes available, or constructing clever tricks requiring creative use of this mechanic, you often encounter several different obstacles in short succession, requiring Soki to stand there, flipping through allies like he has a big ring of keys and just needs to find the right one.
Each ally comes paired with a major villain, if for no other reason than to have them dramatically split up for cliched one-on-one battles, buying Soki time to rush toward the final boss. Naturally, you have to win all four battles to get back to Soki, even if the game never forced you to use the crappy boxing Spaniard for any extended length of time and I had forgotten to level up his stats. Yeah, I still won. Maybe that says something awesome about my skills, but I think it speaks more powerfully about how little a difference your stats make in the long run. Leveling up feels like an eye exam, trying to tell the doctor which of the lenses make the letters less blurry–maybe one of them makes a difference, but you can’t tell just by looking. The relationships between enemies and characters provide minor subplots to spice up the story, even if they didn’t feel like finishing the details. Jubei, a twelve-year-old ninja girl, seeks revenge on her Uncle, Yagyu Munenori, a villain who steals most of his dialogue from Ed the Hyena. The game explains just enough of her reasons to make the player feel like they’ve intruded on an awkward family moment, like eating dinner with a friend when a fight breaks out with their parents.
Dawn of Dreams also gives you a cute, chibi companion whose loyalty and character will grow on you like athlete’s foot. He hangs upside-down in a jar suspended from a vine, and in no subtle terms does the game relate him to the creepy bat-guy who takes you to the Dark Realm in the first game. If you don’t immediately understand why this infuriates me, understand that it retcons one of the most subtle, yet unnerving, details of video game storytelling ever. Samanosuke encounters the upside-down bat-guy fairly early in the game, but he just stares at you. He only speaks to you after you’ve picked up the relic that allows you to communicate with the dead (uh…spoilers, I guess, if you’ve paid attention). Obviously, Capcom meant to imply that this man had died, presumably in some horrible way that left him wrapped up and strung up by his feet. Well, Dawn of Dreams introduces the idea of the Mino tribe, where everyone hangs upside down. Coupled with the comic suggestions of how he travels from place to place, often with no clear support for his vine, and I welcome Minokichi into a horror-action franchise with all the enthusiasm of Star Wars fans when Lucas introduced Jar Jar Binks.
I realize I’ve spent the greater part of this article complaining about the game, but honestly, most of the Onimusha appeal remains the same. If you enjoyed the earlier games for any reason…other than the ones listed here…you’ll want to play Dawn of Dreams. You still fight demons and absorb their souls. You have a variety of weapons–more options than the four or five the other Onimushas got, but you still can fight with katanas, spears, ninja swords, matchlocks and…lasers? Really? I guess Capcom plays it fast and loose with the whole historical accuracy thing. You can still fight your way through the Dark Realm–which they’ve made about ten times more difficult, and I have to confess, I only got to level 50. Out of 100. And I struggled to get that far. They’ve organized the game into stages (I guess nothing feels as “new” and “fresh” as the layout from 1980s arcade games), but Minokichi lets you revisit old stages. Despite sporting a second disc, Capcom apparently felt the characters didn’t need speaking animations, so to make up for that, everyone speaks in hand gestures. Big hand gestures. Well, body gestures. Actually, it very closely resembles interpretive dance. Also, since I’ve slipped back into criticizing, some of the controls didn’t work, and I couldn’t switch into Onimusha mode or do a few other moves. So…that holds the game back; generally, I hold the opinion that video games should, you know, work. But despite this installment taking hits in quality, I found it a very good action game with more length than previous games–but fun enough that I wanted to play through it all–and a moderately interesting story line. I give it a C+. It probably deserves a B+, but I object to games that grade your progress, and I refuse to give it anything higher than it gave me.