If you thought the Onimusha series had reached its conclusion with its third installment--which featured the likeness of none other than Jean Reno--think again. Capcom has just released the fourth installment in the popular samurai action game, Dawn of Dreams, in Japan, and we grabbed an import copy to see how this ever-evolving series has changed this time around. After playing through the first few levels of the game we've found a whole lot of demon-slashing and a surprising amount of room to customize our character, weapons, and attacks.
After the defeat of Nobunaga in the last game, the villainous Genma army disappeared, and it seemed that feudal Japan was finally restored to some semblance of peace. But we all know peace doesn't last long, right? And a game about peaceful samurai wouldn't be very interesting, either. Nobunaga's retainer, Hideyoshi, is back on the scene in Dawn of Dreams, stirring up trouble alongside the renewed Genma. To top it off, natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanoes have begun ravaging the country. It's pretty much a bad day for everyone. You'll take control of a new warrior named Soki--for the first time in the series, a fictional character not styled after a famous Japanese actor--and, along with some friends, you'll attempt to defeat Hideyoshi and the Genma and restore order.
As you'd expect if you've been playing Onimusha for a while, the action in Dawn of Dreams is straightforward hack-and-slash. You start out with a simple sword that you can do some basic combos with, and you've got a super attack that charges up as you kill enemies. Like in the last games, slain foes release soul energy that floats around until you hold the X button to absorb it. As you collect more soul energy, you can power up your weapon and armor to make them more effective, and you'll find new types of weapons as you progress through the story. The equip screen has five weapon categories--broadswords, katanas, firearms, gloves, and staves--and quite a few slots in each category, so it looks like there will be plenty of combat options as you go along.
In fact, new weapons aren't the full extent of the variety of attacks in the game. You'll also gain upgrade points as you go along that you can use to purchase and then upgrade a whole bunch of new combat moves. You can gain thrust, kick, and finisher attacks, for instance, as well as evade and roll maneuvers, and even ways to absorb enemy attacks. If it seems like all this stuff is a lot to keep up with, don't worry--you'll be able to ask for information on all the game's systems from Minokichi, a precocious little samurai-in-training who hangs around and yaps at you about where you should be going next, as well as dropping little tidbits about the storyline.
Perhaps the biggest update in Dawn of Dreams is the inclusion of AI-controlled secondary characters that will run around with you and help slay the demon hordes. Not long into the game, we met up with the first of these: a small, lithe female ninja named Jubei. You can issue commands to these allies as you fight that will govern their combat strategies, and they'll have life and special bars just like yours (so you'll have to keep up with their health as much as you will your own). The AI characters' weapons and armor can even be improved just like Soki's, though since your currency is finite, you'll have to decide who's more deserving of the upgrades.
Onimusha has always been a nice-looking series, and Dawn of Dreams is no exception. The look here is a little more stylized and over the top than you might be used to--Soki's decked out in some wild regalia, and one of the first scenes of the game has him flying through the air while taking on a handful of giants wreaking havoc on a town. Those gnarly skeletal samurai that have populated the previous games are back for more punishment, and the feudal-Japan tone is prevalent once again. This is still unmistakably Onimusha, but it's nice to see that the visuals are going in a fairly fresh direction.
The game's got some nice production values, too, what with its lavish CG cutscenes and impressively dramatic Japanese voice acting. We were initially a little vexed by the enormous amount of Japanese text (heavy on the kanji) in the game, but you would-be importers are in luck--there's an option to put all the text and speech in English, so you'll have no trouble at all plowing through the game. Of course, you'll still need a Japanese PS2 to play it on, and the US release is slated for mid-March. But if you can't wait that long to bust some zombie-samurai heads, you'll be square with this import. We'll bring you more on Dawn of Dreams in the coming weeks. For now, check out our new gameplay footage of the import version.