As Samanosuke, you've returned from a horrifying battlefield to discover the princess you've spent your life protecting has been abducted. Naturally, you embark on a simple quest to rescue the princess from her captors. However, instead of battling enemy soldiers, Samanosuke finds himself mixed up in the middle of a fight between demons and humans, the undead and the living. It's like Resident Evil on a grander scale.
However, the similarities to Capcom's original "survival horror" series extend well beyond the mere involvement of the living dead and related monsters. Truly, the bulk of the game itself may have been ported directly from the RE series. Onimusha is not a true 3-D platform title, your surroundings aren't totally navigable. You watch from an overhead view, as Samanosuke runs from one pre-rendered background to the next. As you run off the screen, the camera angle changes and a new background fills the screen. Much like The Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, your ultimate quest is to defeat enemies and use their very souls to enhance your own performance. The story explains this away as such; on their way to conquering the Earth, the demons made mortal enemies of ogres. Enraged, the ogres have chosen Samanosuke to represent them in halting the demons' plans, a sort of sweet scheme for revenge. They grant you a bulky attachment for your right arm, used to capture enemy souls, and send you on your way. If that sounds a little bit "out of left field", that's because it is... the storyline on the whole is overly confusing, generally silly and even occasionally ignored.
In keeping with that trend, the voice acting takes poorly written dialogue and brutally drags it along the coals. These guys didn't even ATTEMPT to match what they were saying with their character's lips, and it's not an uncommon thing to see your character's gums flapping for a couple seconds after he's quit speaking. Despite their ability to pronounce all the characters' names correctly, the voice talent just isn't getting the job done here. I'd rather read subtitles than endure this.
Fortunately enough, the graphics almost completely make up for the lack of compelling audio just by themselves. As a first wave title for the PS2, there were most certainly lofty expectations for this disc, and I'd wager it's exceeded even those. Onimusha is a brilliant visual treat, taking full advantage of what the new system had to offer. Even live-rendered scenes look exceptional, with blur effects, trailers following various light sources on the screen, and a well-designed rogue's gallery to hack your way through.
Likewise, the FMV scenes in Onimusha, infrequent as they may be, are stunning. Though they haven't quite reached the level of perfection that Squaresoft seems to demand in their cinema scenes, Capcom's crew is giving the masters a stern run for their money. While the story may be a little on the light side, the real emphasis in these scenes is on dynamic poses and memorable moments. As the back story is explained, hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers march in slow motion, illuminated only by the moonlight, their spears extending a good six feet above their heads. It's an ominous visual, one that sticks with you long after the power button has been turned off.
As a standard hack-n-slash affair, the gameplay doesn't exactly light the world on fire. If you've played Final Fight, you basically know what the deal is here, though battles do occasionally require a bit more strategy than that old Capcom standby. You're granted a limited amount of magic special attacks, which are best saved for major battles, and the rest of the game is comprised of madly smashing the square button, retreating before the enemy can attack you, and repeating. Interspersed throughout the land are a series of rudimentary puzzles, which range from "not entirely challenging" to "simple." You'll find a special item, hold onto it for a couple minutes, and then find the doorway or puzzle requiring its use. Again, nothing to write home about, but something that'll keep you occupied.
My one major complaint about the game is its length. Perhaps I've grown a bit too used to RPGs that span upwards of ten, twenty, sixty hours before completion. I defeated Onimusha in four and a half, with relative ease. The end boss was a pushover, and I was never really concerned about being killed in that final battle. Though I did fall on three or four occasions, it was always due to my own stubbornness (I refuse to use potions and recovery items unless ABSOLUTELY necessary) and not any real difficulty built into the game itself. If you know how to press the "square" button and have retained any sort of knowledge from elementary school, you shouldn't have much problem defeating this one.
Though it's heavily reliant on one battle system, things never seem to become monotonous. The scenery changes often, new enemies are introduced at just the right times, and there's a real epic, cinematic feel to this that can't be put into words. For all my words about what this game could have been, I think it's silly to overlook what it is. A solid, entertaining little package.