Onimusha Series – PS2, XBox, PS4, XBox One, Nintendo Switch

Onimusha
Shit! People are reading now…and they seemed to like the “Every Game In The Series” stunt I pulled with Resident Evil. What other series do I have? Mega Man? Nah, they’re all the same. Final Fantasy? Goodbye, next five years of my life. Fire Emblem? Where were you when I did that the first time! Damn it! I’m just not ready to be done with Resident Evil! I need more! Isn’t there anything like those classic games, where you wander back and forth through a haunted mansion looking for keys and solving puzzles? Screw this! I’m playing Onimusha.

Onimusha 1

Sato Castle…Feudal Japan’s version of the Raccoon City Police Department

Onimusha, if you didn’t immediately catch the joke, is a game set in feudal Japan where a samurai, Samanosuke, wanders back and forth through a demon-infested castle looking for keys and solving puzzles. It’s survivally horrorish, except that a mainstay of survival horror is the conservation of ammunition. As one tends not to reload a sword all that often, the game adopts a more adventure-y feel.

Onimusha Fortinbras

I am Fortinbras! Japanese demon king who has a penchant for naming my underlings after characters from Hamlet for some reason!

One of the more interesting aspects of the game is that it was based on actual historical figures and locations. Oda Nobunaga really did fight the battle at the beginning of the game, and then laid siege to the Saito clan’s Inabayama castle. He was, as we find out in the third game, finally defeated at Honno-ji, by Mitsuhide Akechi (uncle of the fictional protagonist, Samanosuke Akechi), possibly over a contention with another of Nobunaga’s retainers, Mori Ranmaru. Of course, saying that Onimusha is based on historical events is on par with saying that William the Conqueror won the battle of Hastings with a contingent of trolls and a magical amulet provided by Doc Brown and his Delorean. The real Nobunaga is respected as one of the great unifiers of Japan, while the Nobunaga of the Onimusha series is basically the child born after Hannibal Lecter raped Satan at Auschwitz. And also, I’m pretty sure he didn’t make a pact with demons after they resurrected him and drink the blood of a Saito princess from her own skull. But I wasn’t there. Don’t quote me on that one.

So the game plays out pretty much like a Resident Evil game with a little faster pace. The only complaints I have are that the game feels too short, and also that the sequels played with this design like two monkeys flinging shit at each other. For instance, the second game, Samurai’s Destiny, takes the God-of-War-2 style cliffhanger from the first game—Nobunaga, imbued with fresh demon powers, menacingly approaching Samanosuke after he transformed into the Oni Warrior—and runs it through an industrial garbage disposal, washing it down with a steady flow of sulfuric acid. They never come back to that. It feels like that game where you tell a story one sentence at a time, and then pass to the next person for the next sentence, except one of you is trying to write a Game-of-Thrones sex-murder scene while the other one is channeling the more conservative parts of Jane Austin.

Onimusha 2

Highlight of the game was playing with the stacked Asian chick with the European fighting style.

To be fair, both Onimusha 1 and 2 are good games, but in the way where Final Fantasy 7 and Grand Theft Auto are both good games; you’ll play them both, but when someone tries to tell you they’re related, you react the way you do to the people who accost you on the street to tell you that Jesus is returning in his flying saucer as soon as the shadow government decides to release flux capacitor technology to the public. Samurai’s Destiny just straightens out the map like it can’t waste time wandering around some damn haunted house because it’s got somewhere to be. And then it ramps up the difficulty to ensure it won’t get there on time. In my defense, though, I made it all the way to Nobunaga’s final form before I collapsed like a pavlova with bad knees and lowered the difficulty. So…almost good enough, I guess?

Onimusha 3: Demon Siege is where things start going hilariously off the rails.

“You know what we need in our epic historical samurai series?”

“Is it it modern day French guy?”

“Close.”

“Is it a modern French guy and 21st Century France?”

“You know me so well!”

“Hey, isn’t there a tough guy in France?”

Onimusha Frat

It’s amazing how thousands of miles away and 400 years apart, the secret frat handshake still works.

And so they hired Jean Reno to play—wanna guess?—a bad-ass French cop…who was chosen by the Oni clan to fight Oda Nobunaga, the great unifier of Japan and accused demon colluder. Meanwhile, Samanosuke gets a well-deserved vacation in 21st century France, chumming around with Reno’s son and girlfriend, helping them resolve some deep-seated resentment between the two. Because the core of any game about surviving an onslaught of demons is a relatable, human conflict about the potential usurpation of an absent mother. And what better vehicle for resolution than a hapless time-traveling samurai who somehow speaks fluent modern French? And while he’s there, Samanosuke gets to take in the sights: Notre Dame, the Arc D’Triumph, Mont-Saint-Michel, and the Eiffel Tower, all of which currently suffer from a Genma demon infestation.

Meanwhile, Jean Reno (what was his character’s name? Give me a moment. I have to look this up…Jaques Blanc. Wait, seriously? Jack White? Did Capcom literally name the only European in Japan “White”? I’m sure there’s also a White-Stripes-Seven-Nation-Army joke in there somewhere, but I’m too lazy to find it right now.) Anyway, Jaques gets dropped into feudal Japan, where a radioactive KISS fan tells him to go slaughter the head of state, and Jaques signs up without so much as checking Wikipedia for potential historical ramifications. But hey, to prevent any zany cultural mishaps (you know, other than murdering their de facto shogun), they send Jacques on his way with…Navi.

Onimusha Aku

I hate you already.

Well, not quite Navi, but basically the same thing. A tiny little girl (ostensibly a tengu, but actually a discount Barbie with wings) who buzzes your head like a mosquito at a rave. Because those first two games were apparently so terrible that they needed to add the only character more obnoxious than Slippy Toad.

Onimusha Siege

Demon seige. Or, rather, melee, which is the complete opposite of a siege, but points for trying.

And…honestly, I can’t even begin to describe how weird this is. Your obnoxious guide spontaneously gains the ability to travel through time and carry objects back and forth, but not Samanosuke or Jaques. You land on a 17th century ship in Japan sailing to an underground Shinto temple in Paris. Jaques’ motorcycle appears out of nowhere for no reason other than a kick-ass scene where he guns it off a dock and onto the departing ship. And the Genma somehow build a device on the Eiffel tower to fold time. I’ve had more coherent mushroom trips.

So yeah…the hole in my heart left by squishing zombie heads was sadly not filled by Onimusha. I guess I have no choice but to plod on and hope RE7 goes back to its roots, as they say. And now for something completely different…

Advertisements

Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams – PS2

onimusha-dawn-of-dreams

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.

Thus cementing the already obvious comparison to Resident Evil 4.

Thus cementing the already obvious comparison to Resident Evil 4.

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?).

Nobody knows...the monsters I've seen. Nobody knows, but oni.

Nobody knows…the monsters I’ve seen. Nobody knows, but oni.

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.

If I could take my own PS2 screenshots, you can bet I'd take a few that would show you something other than flashy lights.

If I could take my own PS2 screenshots, you can bet I’d take a few that would show you something other than flashy lights.

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.

So cute you just want to squeeze him. Squeeze until his jar breaks and his eyes pop out of his oversized head.

So cute you just want to squeeze him. Squeeze until his jar breaks and his eyes pop out of his oversized head.

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.

Japanese mythology commonly depicts oni as monsters weilding iron clubs. This game has a bizarre sense of humor. Like look at a wall with a slightly crooked picture that you can't straighten.

Japanese mythology commonly depicts oni as monsters weilding iron clubs. This game has a bizarre sense of humor. Like look at a wall with a slightly crooked picture that you can’t straighten.

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.

Onimusha Warlords / Genma Onimusha – PS2, Xbox, PC

Onimusha_-_Warlords_CoverartWhen 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.

The kumdo license lists my birthday as September 9, 198. They obviously misprinted it. It should read "September 8."

The kumdo license lists my birthday as September 9, 198. They obviously misprinted it. It should read “September 8.”

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.

Samanosuke's patrons, the Oni, pictured with legendary monkey king, Son Wukong.

Samanosuke’s patrons, the Oni, pictured with legendary monkey king, Son Wukong.

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.

I bet you say that a lot while wearing that suit.

I bet you say that a lot while wearing that suit.

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?

Not quite what Tom Stoppard had in mind.

Not quite what Tom Stoppard had in mind.

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.

I hear the Castlevania production team let Onimusha use their set at night (but they had to share with Spanish Castlevania)

I hear the Castlevania production team let Onimusha use their set at night (but they had to share with Spanish Castlevania)

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.

Oh yeah. Magic. You can use magic. I guess I didn't find anything funny to say about that in the main entry.

Oh yeah. Magic. You can use magic. I guess I didn’t find anything funny to say about that in the main entry.