I haven't even begun writing this blog, and already, I'm getting severe nostalgia pangs. Not for my last blog; that would be premature. Instead, my nostalgia is taking me back to my Koudelka blog from a couple of months ago. Remember how that game proved that Resident Evil-style gameplay doesn't mesh well with RPG mechanics?
Well, Onimusha proves that it doesn't mesh well with action game mechanics, either. Unless you happen to be Devil May Cry.....or Resident Evil 4. But those games worked because of how heavy they were on the action mechanics. If you're Onimusha, you hedge a lot closer to the Resident Evil formula than those other games ever did, introducing concepts that have no Earthly/Moonly business being anywhere close to a combat-heavy action game.
And B movie corniness. Have I mentioned that? Our story begins with a pervasive bug fetish that's never quite explained. Moving right along, we find out that a princess has been captured by demons. Or Nobunaga. Or maybe both. Who's to say? Now it's up to you, bland samurai Samanosuke, to rescue her from evil. Oh, and some fire demons give you a magic gauntlet early on for barely explored reasons, and all the demons have European names despite being in a Japanese setting. Are you getting a sense for what the story's like? If not, let me spell it out clearly: it's ridiculous, over the top, and probably not doing any of that on purpose. Every time I was confronted with a dumb flaw in this game, it felt less like Capcom capitalizing on Onimusha's potential campiness and more like the result of incompetent design. For instance, Samanosuke reading somebody else's lines.
Also, the horrible lip syncing. I'm not even convinced the animators were even trying to match the voice work. From what I remember, characters would flap their mouths open when words were being spoken, but would make no attempt to match those flaps to their vocalizations. (I'm aware that my emulating this might have something to do with it, but it perform much better on an actual console, for what it's worth.) Now this could possibly be redeemed if placed in a comedic context, maybe by noticeably drawing attention to itself or by dragging out the flaps long past the characters speaking (or long before, too). You know, just one little thing that would let me know the developers meant to include this in the game. If it's in there, I didn't see it. I only saw characters performing mouth exercises while telepathically communicating their poorly translated messages.
Oh, did I mention the translation? Turns out it isn't good. Half the time, the script reads like the translators went out of their way to screw things up. Take this linevery early in the game. She's not asking that somebody try to understand something; she's acknowledging that she understands something. From what little I understand of English, the proper term would be "understood". The same as it would be in Japanese. This isn't the type of thing that gets lost in translation; it's the type of thing that's left alone in the unfamiliar woods during translation. Of course, this is only the bottom of the barrel. The rest of the time, the incompetence is the result of unintended mistakes. Other people may find some value in said mistakes, but I sure as hell certainly didn't.
Normally, this would be the part where I transition into something positive about the game. But first, I need to get the puzzles out of the way, for two reasons. First, they're absolutely everywhere. While there were parts of the game where I wasn't fighting demons, there was nary a time when I wasn't solving a puzzle. They're (presumably) Onimusha's pride and joy, something that is much harder to understand when you consider reason the second: they have no good reason for existing. Half of them amount to "go grab this item from somewhere" (one of them being a load of misleading tripe), and the other half are insanely cryptic nonsense that make no effort to integrate themselves into the world. Not the most engaging material, is it? How did these puzzles even come to be? Demons clearly can't be responsible, as I doubt demons would refurbish an entire building with arcane locks and number puzzles. I'd doubt the Japanese people living there, too, but, well, they did design the puzzles in this game.
Although to be fair, that may be the result of this game very clearly aping Resident Evil than the result of its own design. It's just a thoroughly awkward fit that even drags down systems that otherwise might have been satisfactory. Like the combat. The first thing I noticed about it was perhaps its most important aspect. No analog controls. OK, there are analog controls when aiming the bow you get later in the game, but if you want to move, it's just the tank controls of the D-pad. How clumsy and ill fit for combat. But don't worry! The game will sort of automatically lock on to enemies for you, making precise movement less necessary than it would have been otherwise. Granted, this makes it a little difficult to interact with enemies you're not locked onto, but....wait, what's the redeeming factor, again? This auto lock-on only flattens the combat and robs it of depth it might otherwise have. Why bother with combos or involved enemy patterns when most of them fall to a sluggish "bash, bash, bash"? Why even have those features in the first place? Now they may not have worked in lieu of Onimusha's other design choices, but that should probably tell you when something isn't a good idea.
But that's not to say that the game has no good ideas. You get a few weapons to switch out during combat, all of them playing very similarly........Bad example. A much better example would be the magic tied to those weapons. These actually are noticeably different, with their own individual quirks, so there's at least some strategy in using them. The story also has brief periods where you switch from Samanosuke to his poorly translated partner Kaede, so at least there's that to keep things from becoming too repetitive. Yet is any of this enough to alleviate any of the game's much larger problems? Of course it isn't! This is still an action game jammed into a format that won't ever allow action games. Who even thought this was a good idea in the first place?
- Thank you Samanosuke! But our princess is in...the exact same castle, really.
- She's just hidden behind a ton of bullshit puzzles.
- And combat that could be much better than it ends up being.
- Fun fact: Onimusha loosely translates to something like "Demon Warrior". Man, how I wish the title was Insect Warrior, instead.
Note to self: play Space Channel 5 one of these days. And remember to make a Pingas joke during it.
Maybe I should've been nostalgic for seven days ago after all. This is essentially my last blog in reverse and also upside down. I begin with a bad samurai game and wrap things up with a fairly good ninja game...sort of. If we're looking at Ninja Spirit in terms of gameplay, then it would only fare somewhat better than Onimusha up there. But this isn't "Compelling Gameplay Spirit", is it? This is "Ninja Spirit", and damn you if you don't feel the spirit of a ninja flowing through your very being as you play this game.
But it won't be because you're playing the game, if that makes any sense. At its best, the game is competent; at its worst, it's wonky and lacking depth. I think this is best explained with your ninja jump. You know how a lot of fiction depicts the deadly ninja leaping through the air with the utmost grace and control? Throw that shit out the window right now, because the particular ninja you're controlling is a finicky little bastard who stubbornly resists your every attempt to control his jumps. Oh, he'll move in another direction mid-jump, but only very little and after thinking about it over a cup of tea. It can be annoying in the game's tenser situations, like the boss battles, but not by enough to hold it against the game too much. Besides, how can you hold the jumping against Ninja Spirit when you can leap twelve times your own height? Who wouldn't love something that ludicrous? There's also combat, but what do I even say about it? You can slash with reasonable accuracy, and there a few decent power-ups to mess around with. Basic stuff, really, like an extra hit or a more powerful attack or ninja clo-wait, those are amazing. But ninja clones and their madness aside, the combat's simply OK. Not bad, but not outstanding, either.
This is most unlike the game's application of its own mechanics, which hedge more toward the "not outstanding" clause. The vast majority of the game's seven-ish levels amount to moving forward and slashing enemies. Sometimes, you get an enemy that can withstand multiple hits and must be avoided, but for the most part, you'll plow through both enemies and levels relatively quickly. That's probably why I feel so disconnected from the levels: there's not much to them other than running to the finish line. This isn't enough material for an entire game, so it's no surprise that it eventually becomes repetitive. (Not as fast as you'd imagine, mind you, but still, it gets there.) If this is sounding overly reductive, blame the game's utterly random layouts. They just make it so hard to be anything but reductive. Discounting a few areas near the end, the levels simply drop enemies around you on a whim. No rhyme or reason to any of it; just baddies to kill for their own sake. Of course, "for their own sake" becomes a weak explanation when emerging the victor amounts to pressing button 2, so I feel less like I'm accomplishing something and more like I'm simply occupying time.
Until we throw ninja elements into the mix, that is. Turns out a game's a lot more fun when you buy into the whole "ninja" thing. The graphics are partly responsible for this. The way they announce their presence and draw attention to themselves makes it easy to get in the mood. However, I'd say a lot more of it's simply down to the scenarios you're flying through. Remember what I said about the levels just being flat expanses of nothing that throw enemies at you for no reason? Set that in a forest you can jump around, and suddenly, it all makes sense. Ninjas besetting you upon all sides, jumping from tree to tree and slashing just as often, it's all just very easy to enjoy. And that's just one level. Imagine what kind of ninja trickery the others throw you into. Hell, it even gets some stuff right that I never knew I wanted. I don't think anybody can say that they ever anticipated Werewolf Ninja, but that's the game's whole premise. A ninja dies and then presumably becomes a werewolf. Could you ever ask for anything more?
- ninja. That is all.