The Top Shelf: The Second Round 001: Onimusha Warlords

Welcome to the Second Round of The Top Shelf! If you're not familiar with this feature, I'm looking to narrow down what I believe to be the PS2's cream of the crop, at least out of all the games I own, and that means some vigorous testing and the liberal application of science. The first round, which is currently in progress over here, is more or less a series of snap judgements based on my enduring memories of each one of its batch of games: since I have around 180 of them, there's no time for anything more in-depth until we thin that herd. However, I have been moving games ahead based simply on the fact that I never played much of them at the time and they deserve a more comprehensive appraisal before their dismissal.

Common sense would dictate that I should've waited for the first round of eliminations to conclude before moving onto the next, but right now I'm giving myself an awful lot of work to do for the latter half of the year so it makes more sense to incrementally process games that made it to round two concurrently with the round one eliminations. Games that make it to round two will get a more in-depth look, up to and including a full playthrough, and their own individual blogs. Like the one you're reading here.

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The first case file for round two is Capcom's 2001 historical Japanese action-adventure game Onimusha; Warlords. I'd never played it before this week, but I was for a time sweeping up every Onimusha in the series so I could marathon them all at a later date. However, by the time I'd found the fourth and final one, I'd already moved onto the PlayStation 3 and beyond. The other three sequels will also likely get their due as they appear in the first round of eliminations - that queue is based on chronological order, however, so it'll take a while.

Onimusha is a surprisingly important game, in my opinion. Important because it sits as a conduit between the atmospheric but stiff Resident Evil franchise and the balletic flow of the "character-action" Devil May Cry series, having been directly inspired by the former and a direct inspiration to the latter in turn. Surprising because I so rarely hear people talk about it, nor has it seen any attempt at a HD collection like many other beloved Sony franchises. Originally conceived to be "Sengoku Biohazard", Onimusha is based in feudal Japan but built like a traditional Resident Evil game. That means fixed camera angles, tank controls, a whole lot of ostentatious keys and doors to unlock, a foreboding palatial estate filled with dark secrets and deadly traps, enemies that you're sometimes better off running past than engaging directly, and a generally creepy vibe. It's only in the game's combat that it feels like a departure from the Resident Evil mold, incorporating lock-on, sidesteps, backsteps, guards, animation priority, and instant-kill parries. However, the game does stay true to its RE roots somewhat with its ranged weapons, each of which offer a chance to eliminate enemies at a safe distance but with the caveat of having a very finite amount of ammo to play with. Healing items are finite too, and there's no currency or store system to speak of to procure more. You simply have to be perceptive of sparkles in the environment and to pick your battles to preserve a comfortable stash until the game's conclusion.

Yet, there's an abundance of Devil May Cry touches too; the game that was created alongside Onimusha in Capcom's studios and presumably shared a lot of design notes as a result. The most overt of which is the game's use of colored souls: red souls give the player an experience pool to spend on upgrading their weapons and magic orbs however they see fit, the latter of which powers up magical attacks and allows the opening of additional doors locked by color-coded demonic forces. Blue souls regenerate the protagonist's mana, while yellow souls regenerate health. With the necessary XP boost and the possibility of recouping health and mana losses through collecting souls from fallen enemies, you have more incentive to fight your way through areas instead of running past everything. The combat is challenging not only because getting hit hurts a lot, but because it also requires sharp reflexes to evade/block attacks in time and a decent sense of finding and utilizing any openings that might present themselves, and the punishment for doing poorly can have dire consequences; it's possible to blow through all your healing items on one nightmarish boss if you're not frugal enough and have little left over for the challenges to come. As with Resident Evil the game's short length isn't so much based on the developers running out of content too quickly, but more to do with how the game seeks a prohibitively high level of skill, especially in terms of item optimization, that may take players a few practice tries to reach. I beat it in one playthrough, even including the multi-floor challenge dungeon that unlocks the best weapon in the game, but it was a close run thing. I only had a single health item left when I finally completed the game, and I'd saved so often that my final result was an utterly average "B" grade.

And then you have the fact that there are two protagonists. This is also another Resident Evil carryover - up to and including the fact that the heroine is physically weaker but given greater access with her lockpicking skills - but rather than creating two distinct game-length scenarios, the game has you switch between the two as the story decrees. The stalwart and oni-powered samurai Samanosuke can tear through most demons but tends to get caught in traps a lot. That's when his partner, the crafty kunoichi Kaede, has to quick-step in and take care of business. Kaede's segments are almost entirely about springing Samanosuke from whatever situation he's wandered into and then looking after helpless NPCs while he goes off to be a big hero, but they offer a more traditional Resident Evil experience: Kaede lacks Samanosuke's link to the oni and cannot absorb souls like he can, so fighting monsters while controlling her is not only more dangerous but entirely pointless with no means to collect or use the upgradable red souls they provide. Therefore, the player is encouraged to use her enhanced speed to simply run past everything. It's a clever bit of genre-switching, affording the player the occasional glimpse at the same locations and monster encounters from a different gameplay perspective.

For a game that will turn sixteen a week from now, Onimusha holds up shockingly well. I'd much rather play it again than any given Resident Evil (except perhaps 4) because its emphasis on elaborate combat mechanics really adds a lot, even if all the strafing and lock-on doesn't always gel with the tank controls and fixed camera angles particularly well. I now find myself anticipating the sequels more than I did previously, especially the third game with Jean Reno (the Japanese love that guy; check out the daft but fun Franco-Japanese action movie Wasabi if you haven't seen it).

Result: Qualified for round three. (Though, spoilers, I do have another feudal Japan-set action-adventure game I like a whole lot more...)

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