Throughout the last few years, Capcom has focused more and more on creating games for the survival-horror genre and less on the fighting games the company was once so well known for. The headliner of that genre is Capcom's Resident Evil franchise, a series so distinct that the company's other survival-horror line, Dino Crisis, was once commonly referred to as "Resident Evil with dinosaurs" (although it later distinguished itself with a more action-oriented sequel). Capcom's latest entry in the genre, Onimusha, has critics remarking that it's a "Resident Evil with samurai," but--like Dino Crisis 2--it manages to stand on its own.
In Onimusha, you play as Samanosuke Akechi, a masterless samurai dedicated to destroying a group of demons who have kidnapped a princess. To aid Samanosuke in his quest, a group of ogres has given him a magical gauntlet that devours the souls of the creatures he kills, providing him with special powers. The story and the way it's told are perhaps the weakest links in Onimusha. The premise is clichéd by both US and Japanese standards, the dialogue is either badly translated or just poorly written from the beginning, and the voice work behind the in-game cutscenes fails to match up with the characters' lip movements, making them appear like scenes from a shoddily dubbed movie. The result doesn't inspire as many laughs as the original Resident Evil, but it's very disappointing, especially in light of the game's otherwise high production values.
The most noticeable of these is the game's graphics. Without a doubt, Onimusha is the best looking game of its type yet. It has the most varied and impressive rendered backgrounds we've seen in any game to date, the most incredible CG sequences seen since Resident Evil Code: Veronica, and in-game story sequences that look better than the CG sequences you'll find in other games. The characters were designed with great style, and they come to life through excellent motion-capturing that you'll notice in watching their basic movements as well as their facial expressions. Numerous graphical effects complement the game as well, such as enemies exploding into bloody smoke when they die or the green glow that trails the eyes of the zombie ninja. The graphics may not be as much of an overall achievement as those in, say, Shenmue, but they are in the same general class.
Onimusha features the same basic camera and control systems as any Resident Evil game, although they're attuned to the game's more action-oriented style. For instance, a backward-movement command makes you leap back a few feet, while a back-and-attack command adds a kick that can either repel enemies or just knock them down to the maneuver. The camera angles are positioned so well that enemies only rarely block the view of your character. It does happen from time to time, but not often.
Though Onimusha somewhat feels like a Resident Evil game, it has much more in common with Dino Crisis 2's action-based gameplay. For instance, the puzzles in Onimusha are built for speed. In one scenario, two paths are presented. One way has a door that requires a green key. The other is a path that ends in a room containing the green key. This may sound too straightforward--and perhaps it is, a little--but it's very refreshing to not have to constantly backtrack or deal with inventory boxes as you spent most of your time doing in Resident Evil games. One of the criticisms leveled at Onimusha is that it's not very long. While it is short, not having to backtrack nearly as much as you would in similar games makes up for a lot.
The main difference between Onimusha and the Resident Evil line lies in the game's combat mechanics. In Onimusha, when an enemy dies, it emits one of three types of soul energy that your gauntlet can gather up and process. Yellow soul energy restores your health, blue refills your magic meter (which you use for special attacks), and red lets you enhance items using a magic mirror (which double as save points). Powering up one of your swords will increase the damage it metes out, and enhancing an orb will make it able to break down the wards that lock certain doors. It's also possible to enhance basic items like herbs and arrows to make them more effective. This soul energy system makes you less reliant on having to use items than you are in Resident Evil, since you can recharge your character through alternate means. There are even magic fountains that fill your magic meter and an area called the Dark Realm where you can get special items if you can defeat enough monsters. This means that you don't have to be as much of a miser with your items as you do in Resident Evil, where you sometimes have to play the game over again because you didn't have enough shotgun shells to defeat a boss. It's still important to save your special items for boss fights, but it's possible to beat some of them without using any items at all--if you have enough patience and skill.
Since you don't have to worry about conserving bullets (or their equivalent), you can focus on beating up monsters, which is a lot of fun. The controls are very responsive, and your character targets the closest enemy automatically. Battles are very quick and decisive because of this. Your controls are composed of attack, special attack, kick, and block. Some of the larger monsters' attacks are unblockable, but they move slowly enough that you can avoid them if you're wary. If you can manage to knock an enemy to the ground, you can unleash a finishing move that kills it much more quickly than normal, though doing so will leave you momentarily defenseless. New enemies will often continue to appear several times before a room can be considered cleared, but this doesn't get repetitive. The fighting system is simple enough for you to get down quickly, yet it's deep enough that it never gets old.
Where the game does fall down a bit is in its length. While its fast pace and lack of backtracking make for more enjoyable gameplay, Onimusha is a game that you can complete in two or three nights of play. Some entertaining extras open up upon completion of the game, enhancing its replay value, but those used to being able to play through the game as a different character (as in most RE games) might not find them to be enough.
In the end, Onimusha's focus on action and its lack of tedious backtracking allow it to break away from the Resident Evil mold. While die-hard Resident Evil fans will be turned off by the game's length, others will find it to be the survival-horror game for people who don't like survival-horror games.