Onimusha: Blade Warriors
Two Onimusha reviews in one week - but is Blade Warriors anywhere near as good as Samanosuke's proper third outing?
Capcom knows how to milk a concept for everything it's worth. Think of Street Fighter, Resident Evil or Rockman and you immediately struggle to recall every last game that bears these names. The thing is, these moneymaking monikers often start out as wholly original and sometimes classic slices of gaming, only for their names to be relegated to being brands that read like cautionary wards of impending mediocrity to gamers - especially Resident Evil, which had hit the skids at a tremendous speed and trailed a brown streak across the good name of Capcom.
Although Capcom continues to exploit its back catalogue by re-releasing games with minor gameplay adjustments and new characters, it's always made an effort with the Onimusha series. I remember that, on playing Onimusha 2, it came as a genuine surprise to be playing a sequel made by Capcom that strived so purposefully to be a departure from its predecessor: Onimusha 2 was very much a different beast from the first adventures of Samanosuke, thus a more than worthy sequel. At the time of writing, this reviewer hasn't been able to get his sweaty mitts on Onimusha 3, so in the meantime, I've been working my way through Onimusha: Blade Warriors.
Frankly, the idea of a scrapper using the Onimusha world and its many characters had me squealing like an over-excited Reality TV star (read: victim). On first hearing about this title, I wholly expected Capcom to turn out its answer to the Soul Calibur series - I'm sure the prospect has crossed the mind of more people than just lil' ol' me. So it came as some surprise to learn that Blade Warriors had completely sidestepped the established one on one beat em up format, instead opting to borrow from Nintendo's Super Smash Brothers series.
From the outset, it's clear that Blade Warriors has multiple players in mind - in today's seemingly cautious consumer market, it's brave for a game to extol the virtues of the PS2's multitap, let alone utilise the little-used peripheral. But just like Nintendo's Super Smash Brothers Melee, Onimusha Blade Warriors takes a familiar cast of characters and pits them against each other in a pseudo-2D battlefield.
Blade Warriors really only has two gameplay modes worth talking about: Story and Versus. Story mode sees you choosing a character from the initial roster of 12 and working through a select number of missions, levelling up your characters stats using souls and collecting items along the way. Once you've made your way through, you'll be rewarded with a new gameplay feature, like a new character or maybe a new level, both features that are far more useful to you in the versus mode, which allows for up to 4 players to compete against each other either in a Battle Royale or in teams of two.
The surprising thing about the combat in Blade Warriors is that it doesn't stray too far from that seen in previous Onimusha games. Aside from a couple of moves like the ascending slash and the jump, the game plays very much like any other Onimusha game, albeit in a different kind of semi-3D environment than we're used to. The use of blocking and attacking is remarkably intuitive, as Onimusha fans will no doubt find themselves falling into familiar patterns during combat, with even the familiar enemies exercising their trademark offensive and defensive techniques.
Though that isn't to say that the game is going to be a breeze to get through, as a combination of factors unique to Blade Warriors' design are going to impede your progress significantly. Enemies, whilst predictable, often appear randomly and in large numbers, attacking with far more gusto than their cautious counterparts in previous Onimusha titles. With this incarnation of Onimusha, a meter now limits your capacity to block, so you're not going to get away with standing still for too long. Couple this with the claustrophobic play environments which simply don't allow for escape and you've got yourself a game that encourages non-stop action.
Combat takes place in a number of different (but often familiar) arenas, ranging from fields of knee-high crops to towns and forestry, all of which offer multiple planes. Thankfully, alternating between these planes isn't dreadfully difficult, as regardless of your positioning, you need only tap up or down on the digital d-pad. Whether these multiple planes add anything to the gameplay is debatable, as the sheer number of enemies dotted around the play environment often detracts from the strategic value of escaping to a different plane.
Graphically, Blade Warriors does an adequate job. All the characters are well rendered and not a great deal has been compromised in bringing the series into new territories. Character models, whilst perhaps a little less detailed than in their original context, still look fine, though you'll only notice the difference in the cut scenes. Indeed, for the best part of the game, the focus belongs to the environments that, whilst totally in keeping with the Onimusha series, still manage to vary in quality. Some areas suffer from their own generic settings, whilst others (most notably the aforementioned crop field) or a little more lush and stylised.
Blade Warriors, on the face of it at least, sounds quite promising: great care has been taken to ensure that the game's target audience, Onimusha fans, are well catered for. Unfortunately, it's this pandering that has stifled the game both creatively and fundamentally. Initially, the familiarity of the combat is welcome, until you realise that without the exploration content of Onimusha 1 or 2, the combat alone doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. Despite attempts to add flavour to proceedings by adding a couple of new gameplay inputs, it still makes for fairly shallow playing. The predictable unlockables don't warrant working through the story mode and the versus mode is simply too underwhelming to prompt competitive play.