Shin Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams

JP coverI finally cleared Capcom’s latest entry in the Onimusha series, and I can definitely see why they’re dropping the number and going with “new” (shin) instead. While the game shares many similarities in style and basic templates with its predessesors, the execution is almost completely different this time around.

A new era, a new journey
With Onimusha 3 having concluded with the end of Nobunaga’s reign, Shin Onimusha starts more than a decade later, during the reign of Nobunaga’s successor Hideyoshi. While many might suggest that the story is the same with a simple villain swap, this isn’t entirely the case. Until now, the Onimusha series had been focused on Nobunaga as the Genma Lord and main antagonist. Shin Onimusha covers something more epic instead, and the quest reveals far more about the Oni and the Genma than ever before.

Abandon tradition, embrace change
For the first time ever, Onimusha has completely ditched the useless tank controls that have plagued the series since its original conception as a “Resident Evil in feudal Japan” game. Not only are the controls free-movement now, but the static 3D view has also been abandoned in favor of a third-person camera which can be rotate in any direction. The game features all the usual Onimusha commands like lock-on, guard, and so on, but the new free camera in place, the controls behave much more like those in a respectable 3D action title, rather than a survival-horror derivative. The only glaring flaw in the controls is that there is still no jump button, even though there are still airborne enemies. This was marginally forgivable in previous titles because the entire control scheme was so out-dated that it just seemed like an inherent problem, but now there’s absolutely no excuse. Capcom should take notice of this before attempting another sequel.

Five times the heroes, five times the fun
Instead of a solo lead character like in previous Onimushas, there are five fully playable characters this time. While there is still a lead hero (Soki), as he gathers more party members, and they’re all playable. Nor is Onimusha 2′s system still in use, whereby party characters were only playable in select optional scenerios. In Shin Oni, you choose a character to use as a partner at the beginning of a stage, and you may swap between your main character and the partner character at any time. Sometimes the story will dictate the choice of partner at the beginning of a stage, but during the stage itself, you can switch your ally at any save point. While the AI for the partner character is pretty generic, there are useful commands you can give them using the d-pad, such as “all out attack”, “wait and recover”, or “follow and attack.” Each character also has a unique command, like “absorb souls” or “distract enemy”.

The characters themselves are quite varied. Soki is the traditional swordsman character and good at slashing attacks. Jubei’s a fast, nimble ninja. Ohatsu uses guns and is great for ranged attacks and taking out aerial foes. Roberto’s the heavy-hitting close-range fighter, and Tenkai is the medium-ranged staff-user, and is good at thrusting attacks and clearing areas.

Action game or Action RPG?
One issue that truly puzzles me in the game is how Capcom seems utterly confused as to what they really wanted Shin Onimusha to be. With the expanded control scheme and new camera, Capcom has also implemented a combo system for consecutive kills and loosened the Issen (single-hit killing blow) timing, allowing for it to be much more easily incorporated into combat strategies instead of being an option for only the hardcore. Adding to this a stage-by-stage progression unlike any Onimusha before it, it might seem that Capcom is trying to push this as a pure action game akin to Devil May Cry.

That is not the case. While the game does have more leanings towards a pure action title than the Onimushas before it, it still lacks a jump button, which makes combat against aerial enemies a complete joke. There’s also a whole bunch of action RPG elements that, while enriching the overall experience, also undermine many of the game’s action-based yearnings. For example, even though the game has a stage by stage progression, between stages the game sends you to a “hideout” that allows you to talk to party members, revisit any previous stage, use party members to combine items, buy items from a store, and so on.

Each stage also contains puzzle elements similar to action RPGs, whereby to get certain treasures you might need the aid of certain unique abilities that only certain party members have. As not all party members may be available at all times (due to plot reasons) when you first tackle a stage, there’s always a good reason to revisit old stages to pick up extra goodies. There’s a whole truckload of accessories to find and equip, with effects that range from increasing the attack power of specific attacks to increasing defense to increasing your chances of finding items from slain enemies.

On top of all of that, the game features a full level/experience system, in addition to the souls/weapon/armor upgrade system that has existed throughout the series. With the new experience system, each enemy killed nets the player a certain amount of experience. It works like any other RPG, and as you level up you gain more HP and MP. With each level-up the characters also gain character points to put into the various moves they can do (attack, thrust, kick, lift, evade, critical), and by putting enough points into certain basic moves, new moves are unlocked for each character.

This is a very rewarding system, and while it’s a treat for action-RPG fans, the problem is that a system like that completely undermines the skill-based purpose of pure action games. By late in the game your entire party will likely be pretty overpowered, not only from really beefed-up weapons, but from their own experience levels. The entire back-room design of Shin Onimusha feels like the team really wanted to make a large complex action RPG, but yet the frontend execution feels like that of a team that wants to turn the series in to a pure skill-based action title. What results in a confusing mix, that while surpassing the quality of the previous Onimusha games, feels held back from truly shining in either field.

Budget, budget where art thou?
Shin Onimusha also probably has the lowest budget of any Onimusha game ever. While it spans two DVDs, the most storage required yet for the series, it is also the cheapest in terms of production values. The awesome CG FMVs done by virtuoso studio ROBOT are now gone, replaced instead by very few – though still respectable – CG FMVs by a cheaper studio (Digital Frontier, I believe). In addition, there are many real-time-quality cutscenes with models slightly detailed than their in-game counterparts, prerendered in MPEG2 with “cool” filters that try to hide that fact. The game is also filled with cheap moments, such as how after the first four hours of the game or so, you’ll start to notice that entire opening and ending portions of stages are devoid of any cutscenes, with scrolling text and talking heads in their place.

There are also a few quirks in the actual gameplay which feel rushed and cheap when you encounter them. An example would be an accessory which increases your attack power by 50% in exchange for taking away your ability to block. Unfortunately, when you equip the accessory, you can STILL block. The only difference is that while the blocking motion is still triggered when you hold the button, the game treats every attack as an “unblockable” and you will get damaged anyway. Also, when one of your characters pushes blocks around, for some reason he can only push the block half an inch before stopping and then continuing again if you’re still holding down the direction. The lack of a continuous pushing animation is disappointing, because for pretty much all the block pushing sequences, the location of the pit you are required to push the block into is more than 5 inches away, which means you’ll be subject to the pushing and stopping motion over 10 times!

Friendly for importers, unfriendly for everyone
The Japanese version of Shin Onimusha convinently features complete English/Japanese language options for both text and voice. This is really great for importers, but at the same time Capcom seems to feel the need to screw everyone when it comes to unlockables this time around. Throughout the game you will find 10 “Oni Charm” items, but they won’t show up in your inventory. What these items do is to unlock an “ID” in the respective section of the SPECIAL menu (accessible from the title screen). Each ID corresponds to a certain Japanese cellphone carrier. What the player must do to unlock the costume/weapon that is in the Oni Charm is to go to the game’s cellphone webpage to key in this randomized “ID” which will then be decoded into a password which you key back into the game to unlock the said costume/weapon. The main problem here comes in the form of how Capcom has decided that different unlockables will require different carriers, ranging from Imode (DOCOMO), Vodaphone and EZWeb (KDDI). This means unless you live in Japan and have 3 cellphone lines with a different carrier each, or you have friends in Japan with different cellphone carriers willing to help you decode the passwords, you’re shit out of luck. I do hope that Capcom got a really good price for this cross-promotion with the cellphone carriers, because they obviously aren’t doing their fans any favors this way.

So does it suck?
No, not at all. I feel that Shin Onimusha is a pretty solid game on its own, but it does suffer from several glaring flaws. If you can look past those flaws, and I think most people will be able to, the game itself is very rewarding. From the collecting aspect that will make you want to get every weapon and accessory (and there are a TON), to the fast-paced action with well designed stages, there’s a lot to like in Shin Onimusha. The game itself is also pretty lengthy. It took me about 25 hours to complete and offers quite a bit of replay value, as there are New Game+ options as well as the ability to load your final Hideout save and try harder at getting a better collection percentage. The storyline is pretty standard Onimusha-fare on a much more epic scale, so fans of Onimusha won’t be disappointed one bit. The ending is pretty good, and I thought the Ayumi Hamasaki-performed opening and ending songs were pretty solid too. Overall it’s a good package with noticable holes at the bottom, but things aren’t bad enough to cause the contents to come falling out.

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