Trilogies are all the rage in the movie biz these days and audiences just can't seem to get enough of them. From The Matrix
to Star Wars
or The Lord of the Rings
to American Pie
, the sheer amount of stories out there with three chapters is overwhelming. As of late, the videogame industry appears to be headed in a similar direction too, with games like Jak and Daxter
and Ratchet and Clank
leading the way here in America. Of course, of those titles mentioned above perhaps none of them are as different from their forbearers as Capcom's own Onimusha 3: Demon Siege
; The third and reportedly final installment of the company's surly Nobunaga line.
Now while most of those other games and movies above have simply changed the scope and technology of their existing source material, Onimusha 3 has taken it a step further by rebuilding almost everything from the ground up. Truthfully, nearly every aspect of the Onimusha series has been evolved or changed in some way, with it's pre-rendered backgrounds (gone), NPC bartering and trade system (eliminated), and two-dimensional digital control (replaced by 3D analog) all meeting their ends.
But just as any good closing chapter of a trilogy should do, Onimusha 3 also brings familiarity and closure to the stories that came before it. International character actor Jean Reno may have joined the cast as French policeman Jacques Blanc, but Takeshi Kaneshiro's popular alter ego Samanosuke Akechi has returned as well. And while the methodology and technology behind the mechanics of Demon Siege have indeed been transformed, the same hack and slash action and RPG-like upgrade systems have been retained as well. In short, Onimusha 3 is even more of a perfect sequel than Samurai's Destiny was in 2002; and could very well be one of the best overall games for the PlayStation 2.
The story of Onimusha has always been an intriguing one and it's a stellar example of how to weave a seemingly small plot thread into a much grander revelation for the conclusion. Warlords and Samurai's Destiny both did a terrific job of doing this by moving its supporting characters, idle dialogue, and even its puzzles into surprising places by the time the storyline had come to an end. Suffice it to say, no one has ever accused the series of being predictable, and rightly so. That's always been one of the franchise's unsung qualities, really; that is, it's tendency to give you more than you expected while leaving you wanting more at the same time. This third and supposedly final chapter of Onimusha keeps that tradition going with Demon Siege and it turns out to be more complicated, surprising, and satisfying than its introduction first hints.
Wisely shifting its focus to the hero of the first game Samanosuke Akechi, Onimusha 3 boasts a wide range of storylines that are occurring simultaneously. Whether it's Akechi's mission to stop the evil inventor Gildenstern from invading modern day France, the new character Jacques Blanc's task of defeating Genma in 16th century Japan, or the turbulent relationship between Jacques' son Henri and his fiancée Michelle, the story really does have a little bit of everything, with personal change, time travel, love, sacrifice, demonic infestation, hate, passion, and several other conventions all finding a way to somehow work their way into the narrative. Though the biggest overlying plot being the destruction of the evil ruler Nobunaga Oda and our two heroes desires to return home.
Regardless of their placement on the totem pole, however, all of these events play an important role in Demon Siege's flow and presentation. Yet despite its plot-heavy overtone, these scenes unfold in a way that compliments the action instead of slowing it down. If more action games could provide a backdrop as compelling, structured, and exciting as Onimusha, the videogame world would be a better place.
Veteran fans of the Onimusha franchise should be more than familiar with the game's mechanics by now. Best described as the action version of Resident Evil, the game has always been defined by its combination of puzzle solving, undead slashing, and deep storytelling elements. On many levels Demon Siege still subscribes to that philosophy even today, and provides plenty of narrative cut scenes, an assortment of puzzles, and a mob of evil creatures to destroy along the way. But where Onimusha 3 begins to differ is what ultimately makes it the best game in the series and one of the most exciting overall experiences on the system. For change, dear friends, is good.
To start, the cumbersome trade-system that took up so much of our time in Onimusha 2: Samurai's Destiny has been almost completely nixed in favor of the occasional item-for-item trade. The reason, of course, is because Onimusha 3 is now almost completely a straight-head action title with a much faster pace and a smaller importance on the game's adventure elements. But rather than overwhelm its players with wave after wave of mindless goons ala Crimson Sea or Dynasty Warriors, Onimusha 3 opts instead for smarter enemies and more aggressive behavior.
Now that doesn't mean that you're going to get the advanced stalking behavior or ability to hear you before you're coming that you'll see in games like Manhunt, or be treated to a reactionary A.I. ala Rainbow Six. But what the intelligence improvements do mean is that you'll now see enemies working together in groups to take you out. Flanking your hero, timing attacks at different intervals between groups of enemies, and varied levels of hostility are all multiple ways in which Onimusha 3 keeps you on your toes. Granted, it's not going to be very difficult in the beginning -- but on some of the higher difficulty settings (unlocked by beating previous challenge levels) it can be nightmarish no matter how many power-ups you have.
The most important change to Onimusha's mechanics, though, is the long overdue inclusion of analog control. Since all backgrounds are now rendered in real-time and the environments are considerably bigger (the fixed cameras are smarter about character movement too), Capcom was finally able to do away with the previous game's biggest shortcoming. Old-school players will be able to feel the difference in freedom of movement immediately too, as the switch to analog not only allows for quicker reaction times and better turning radiuses, it also makes it a lot easier to perform hit and run tactics.
And tactics are what you'll need, as the wide selection of enemies has a laundry list of things that will or won't bring them down. Though most of the early foes succumb to every type of strike, the later opponents have specific attack methods that must be used in order to defeat them. Proper implementation of the game's several kinds of weapons and elements can mean the difference between life and death too, and the surprise inclusion of new enemies for the American version of the game should shock Japanese importers who thought they already knew everything. But honestly, the real beauty of Onimusha 3 is that it tricks you into thinking that it's a mindless sword game when it really isn't; as a proper mastery of blocking techniques, magics, special maneuvers, and quick turns are more important to your survival than you think.
Another big plus is the actual difference between characters Samanosuke and Jacques. While they control identically in terms of how they operate, their move set, skills, and uses are completely different. In instances of sword-to-sword battles, for example, Samanosuke is unrivaled and can really expose an enemy garrison at close quarters. But at the same time, Akechi is also prone to getting picked apart by long-range archers or magic users that can strike without needing to approach. It's in this respect that Jacques is handy, as his long-range chain weapons can are much more effective and accurate than Samanosuke's own bow and arrow. Additionally, Jacques can latch onto special golden insect icons that Akechi can't reach; making him further useful in areas you may have already thought you explored.
Luckily, Onimusha 3 takes this complimentary approach towards it heroes beyond that of the battlefield; as both heroes are also assisted by a time hopping Tengu (fairy) named Ako. Serving as the only bridge between the two characters and their respective time periods, Ako is an important figure when solving some of the game's more interesting puzzles (though the tile-sliders from earlier editions are back too). In fact, it's not uncommon at all to see the mischievous sprite grabbing one item from Samanosuke in modern day France only to hop back to ancient to Japan to deliver it to Jacques. Not only does it add one more interesting aspect to the gameplay, it also serves as a reminder of Jacques and Samanosuke's connection with each other as well.
But connections are what Onimusha 3 is all about; be it the connection between its characters, the connection between events and puzzles, or the connection between the game and the player, the whole thing just feels like it was built just for you. Whether you want to be upgrade your armor and weapons, utilize Aku's special abilities for improved soul collection, or hunt for all the secret bonuses that unlock the huge list of mini-games, Demon Siege rarely disappoints. Our only real complaint is that enemies can occasionally nail you off-screen before you can see them because of the constantly fixed position of the camera and that it's still a bit on the short side when compared to other action games like Samurai Warriors or Crimson Sea. But pound for pound, the excellent far outweighs the "too bad."
When news of Onimusha 3's move to real-time backgrounds was first announced there was a great deal of speculation as to how the game would hold up to the look of its predecessors. Sure it would be able to allow for more characters and special effects, but what about the elaborate backgrounds and intricate textures that were previously used so well in order to bring the characters to life? How would those particular aspects hold up in the grand scheme of things? Well to put it quite honestly, the answer to that question is that its ends up looking much better than just about anything else on the PlayStation 2.
In fact, not only has Capcom retained almost as much detail with its real-time backgrounds in comparison to the old pre-rendered stuff, it's even managed to make the majority of the environments better. The beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral, for instance, has an absolute throng of visual envelope pushing going on inside of it. And the great collection of shadows, terrific lighting effects, more subtle layer changes, and realistic use of space are just a few of the many new additions that older Onimushas just couldn't lay claim to. Granted, there is more aliasing and patented PS2-shimmer going on with Onimusha 3 than previously, but the overall product is no less stunning. With Onimusha 3 as the prime example, it's easy to see why Capcom has already chosen the exact same engine for Inafune's next big-name project, Shadow of Rome.<
But details and effects aren't the only visual stars of Onimusha 3 as it does just about everything else strongly too. Facial recreations of actors Jean Reno and Takeshi Kaneshiro are dead-on likenesses with mo-capped animations that are far and above that of its prequels. Additionally, each and every enemy type has a different means of moving, reacting, and attacking and you'll be hard-pressed to notice an abundance of overused movements over the course of your playthrough. As a special treat for American audiences, Capcom has also included gorier kill sequences with enemies being sliced in half, drawn and quartered, or totally beheaded should players time the attack correctly. In the off chance it's too much for some to handle, however, the producers have also included a self-censoring option that allows players to tone the bloodshed down or change the color of lost plasma from red to green. Sadly there is a little slowdown in a few selected areas, but it doesn't pop up enough to be much of a problem.
Of course, we can't speak of Onimusha 3's gorgeous visuals without referencing its incredible CGI cut scenes. Though there aren't that many to speak of (most of the storyline is told through the in-game engine), the few examples of pre-rendered animation we do get are utterly brilliant; with some of the most realistic, detailed, and exciting direction that we've ever seen. The team at ROBOT that created these mini-films have to be commended, and there's no better way to do it other than to say that the introductory movie is the best of its kind since the Liberi Fatalli opener to Final Fantasy VIII. Yes, it's that good.
Authenticity fanatics are definitely going to be disappointed with the fact that Capcom has opted to remove the original Japanese language track in Onimusha 3 just as it did for Onimusha 2. The curious thing about this omission, however, is that Capcom did not remove the original French-speaking dialogue at all. Because of this interesting decision, Jean Reno's character of Jacques sounds incredibly bizarre once his voice switches over to English -- as the two vocal patterns aren't even close to matching. The outcome is a very strange thing indeed, and one that leaves us wondering why the producers didn't seek out a closer sound-alike or why they didn't use that same type of language transition for Samanosuke.
Befuddlement aside, the rest of Onimusha 3's audio presentation is phenomenal. While the quality of the English voice acting isn't as strong as what we've seen in previous translations like Final Fantasy X or the Resident Evil remake, it's still among the better dubs we've heard recently; even if it is a bit overacted. Happily the sound effects are much more dominating with a strong collection of audio from the first two games and a couple of new samples as well. As an added bonus gamers can even select which direction the Dolby Pro Logic II surround sound effects resonate from: allowing players to customize their base as either the camera location or their character's position relative the source of the noise. That's very cool.
Owners of the Japanese import may also want to take note that Capcom has remixed the foley track and brought the volume on the sound effects and vocals upward while downplaying the music a bit; the end result makes for a much more dramatic audio mix. But that doesn't mean that the score in Onimusha 3 isn't noticeable, because it definitely is. Overly Japanese in inspiration, the game's flute-heavy orchestral soundtrack is absolutely terrific and probably the best in the series. One listen to the dramatic opening theme or the background piece for the Notre Dame level and players will likely want to run right out and buy the CD independently for their portable audio devices.
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