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.

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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.