One of the first games available exclusively for the PlayStation 3, Genji: Days of the Blade is the sequel to a PlayStation 2 action game from last year, which was inspired by the legendary adventures of a duo of warriors from Japan's ancient history. You don't need prior experience with the original to dive right into this one because some opening cutscenes set the stage for the many hack-and-slash battles to come. Genji features vibrantly colored, high-definition visuals and some exciting showdowns. But once you get past the pretty pictures, you'll find a conventional, simple, sometimes-frustrating experience that feels rushed in spots. It's as if the priority was to gussy up the graphics rather than flesh out the gameplay. Although the graphics really are the best thing about it, a decent story and pretty good combat system make Genji worth playing. So, as a technical showcase for the PS3, Genji's good; but as a game, it's just OK.
Genji: Days of the Blade picks up soon after the original Genji: Dawn of the Samurai left off, and the introduction summarizes what happened in the first episode. Once again, the hero of the story is Yoshitsune, an noble young master swordsman charged with defending the Genji clan, led by his own brother, against its rivals--namely, the Heishi clan. In spite of its apparent defeat the last time around, the Heishi return in Days of the Blade, complete with some unholy new powers, which cause its legions of soldiers to transform into hulking demonic warriors with these strange, pinkish crystals that jut out of them. Joined by his unflappable and very tough friend Benkei, Yoshitsune once again sets out to defeat the Heishi and its leaders. Eventually, his quest will be joined by two other characters that are new to this installment, including a pretty priestess and an intimidating man who's the spitting image of one of Yoshitsune's old enemies. The story in Genji: Days of the Blade indulges in a lot of predictable anime conventions but is delivered through some captivating, richly detailed cinematic cutscenes that help drive it forward. Although the story is mostly there to justify putting you through one battle after another, there's at least one interesting twist.
The game is quite easy to control using the PS3's stock Sixaxis controller, so if you've played Genji for the PS2 or any other games like it, you'll be in familiar territory. Gameplay mostly boils down to slashing away at droves of demonic enemies and sometimes having to slog through some environmental puzzle. These puzzles are made somewhat more confusing than they should be because of a fixed camera angle and a map system that gives you no feedback about where you're supposed to go. That is to say, on the occasions when there's nothing to fight in Genji, it can sometimes be difficult and tedious to figure out exactly what to do next. Thankfully, the combat is pretty solid, if unremarkable. You can easily string together moves to create different attack combinations. It's also possible to quickly attack in all directions, which is essential, because you'll be dealing with foes who'll constantly try to surround you. Although the game is at its best when you're fighting one of its boss opponents, regular opponents offer a decent challenge and get bigger and stronger as the game progresses. As for the bosses, some of these guys are pushovers, while others are quite tough. However, these battles provide some much-needed contrast and variety overall.
The four characters are also all quite different. Yoshitsune is the most versatile and overall best character because he can attack almost nonstop with his dual samurai swords. Benkei is slow to the point of being sluggish, but he can shrug off most enemy attacks and smash aside multiple foes with a single swing of his club. The priestess, Shizuka, is armed with a sort of grappling hook blade weapon, which has a wide attack range that makes up for her slight physique. And Lord Buson fights with a spear-like weapon, which he can rapidly twirl about to form a defensive shield. Even once you've met all four characters, some sequences will limit which of these warriors you may use. But when you can use them all, you'll probably stick to Yoshitsune, although Benkei's good at quickly putting the hurt on some of the game's bosses. Each character has his or her own health bar, so switching fighters is useful for when you're about to die (or you can use one of the many healing items that you'll find). Strangely enough, it's game over if any one character runs out of health, even if all your other characters are unscathed.
Interestingly, you'll find multiple new weapons for each character and be able to upgrade the attack power of the weapons you've got. The new weapons tend to give your characters completely different move sets, potentially adding a lot of variety to the combat. Unfortunately, the system just doesn't seem thought through because there's little tactical advantage from one weapon to the next, and they're roughly the same in terms of attack power. So even though you get a different set of moves with each one, you'll naturally be inclined to rely on your starting weapons because they'll be the ones you've used the most up until that point. Your characters also get somewhat stronger as you play. You'll be able to upgrade your maximum health and pick up a variety of useful items the further you go. The system for finding health power-ups is quite nice: The tip-off that one of these hidden items is nearby is that a trinket on your character starts to glow. Then, it's up to you to slash around to find the thing.
You view the action from a third-person perspective and use the left stick to run around in the environments. The face buttons, by default, are used for several different attacks and for jumping. You can hold down the right shoulder buttons to block and lock onto nearby targets, respectively. However, in practice, it's safe to ignore these moves and just concentrate on swinging wildly at everything that moves. Rather than control the camera perspective, the right analog stick lets you perform evasive flips, dodges, and rolls in any direction. The D pad lets you freely switch between any of the characters currently in your party. There are never situations in which more than one of your characters can be fighting at the same time, and the game is noticeably missing any kind of cooperative mode for two or more players. Yet the ability to switch between your characters on the fly adds a bit of depth and variety to the action.
The left shoulder buttons are used to instantly switch to an alternative weapon and to initiate your "kamui" power. Initially, switching weapons at any time seems like it'll open up a great deal of potential for unique attack combinations, but it turns out to be largely unnecessary. On the other hand, each character's kamui power is essential because it lets you quickly devastate entire groups of foes practically before they can move. This ability has changed since the first game, in which you unleashed defensive counterattacks against foes coming at you in slow motion. Now, just by dialing in button sequences as they're shown onscreen, you'll lay into one nearby foe after another. This will go on until you mess up, or they're all dead (or, at least, severely hurt). The effect of the kamui power is really slick at first, but it's roughly the same each time, which gets to be repetitive. Yet you'll still rely on this technique to efficiently mop up groups of foes or seriously injure boss opponents. Interestingly, a few late-game foes will turn the tables and use this same power against you.
Genji does support the Sixaxis controller's unique gyroscopic features by optionally letting you perform your evasive maneuvers by jerking or shoving the controller in different directions. This is somewhat novel at first, but you'll also likely find your character dodging around unintentionally once in a while. There's no sensitivity setting to try to fine tune this feature, either, so the motion-sensing aspect of Genji: Days of the Blade feels thrown in, like a gimmicky alternative to the standard controls. The option is tellingly set to off by default. Meanwhile, the Sixaxis' omission of a rumble feature probably won't go unnoticed here if you've played Genji for the PS2 or the many other games like it, with their dramatic clashes of steel that seem to invite some sort of tactile feedback.
It's too bad the motion-sensitive dodging mechanic wasn't implemented better, since this might have freed up the right analog stick for moving the camera angle around. Genji's fixed camera angles certainly help show off the game's detailed environments and character models, but they're often not ideal for gameplay. Examples of this can be seen in the many sequences in which your character will be running toward the screen while hordes of enemies await just beyond your viewing area. Ironically, you'll be forced to spend a lot of time looking at the ugly, plain minimap in the corner of the screen because it shows you nearby enemies and helps you remain oriented as the camera angles keep shifting on their own. Although the minimap is useful, it won't prevent you from getting lost because it doesn't clearly point you toward the direction you're supposed to go next. A larger area map is also available, but it's practically worthless because it doesn't reveal any landmarks or anything other than the most basic layout of each stage.
The level design in Genji is really the biggest culprit. In spite of the lush scenery, the minimap reveals these areas for what they are--a bunch of rooms interconnected with a bunch of corridors. You can smash barrels, crates, and things in the environments, but they're woefully noninteractive overall. Early on, the game sets you up for some puzzle-like sequences when it explains how Yoshitsune's acrobatics and Benkei's brute strength can be used to overcome different obstacles. But the implementation of these special moves feels completely contrived because Benkei is only capable of smashing down certain and very specific objects in the environment, while his club will cleanly pass straight through everything else. It's disappointing to feel so limited in what you can do within areas that look so lifelike.
Genji also appears to be missing some intended content in a few spots, including a couple of cutscenes that seem to promise some sort of horseback chase sequence is going to ensue. However, there are no such sequences, which probably would have helped add more variety to a game that gets really repetitive. Apart from the boss fights, the occasional jumping puzzle is what breaks up the monotony of fighting the same few types of enemies over and over in droves. Take Genji's often-bad camera angles and combine them with cumbersome, decade-old platform-jumping level design, and you've got yourself a recipe for those types of sequences that, at best, make you feel thankful that you'll never have to play them again once you finally get through them. Also, we even ran into a significant bug fairly early on in the game that prevented us from progressing any further because we managed to fight through a particular sequence without picking up a key that's ostensibly necessary to leave the area. When we returned to the area later, the key was gone. So we couldn't go back, which forced us to return to an earlier save file. While most players probably won't have this experience, the confusing level design prevented us from knowing that we'd done anything incorrectly by not finding that key.
It bears repeating that the game certainly looks nice. It saves some of its most dramatic-looking sequences for later, such as one level in which you must traverse the enemy's huge naval fleet by literally jumping from ship to ship. The brightly colored enemy ships set against the glow of the sun reflected on the surface of the ocean are really quite striking. Subtle motion blur effects, excellent motion-captured animations, and the overall level of detail in the different characters help make this game pleasing to behold almost constantly. It's hard to decide whether the scenery or the character animations are the best part of the visual presentation because both look great. This is especially true if you're running the game at its highest resolution of 720p on a widescreen, high-definition display. Although the graphics are impressive, they're not earth-shattering and have some rough edges such as how the game's frame rate will noticeably bog down when a lot of enemies are onscreen. Some of the battles in Genji really throw a lot of enemies at you, evoking a Dynasty Warriors sort of feel to the hack-and-slash action. But as good as these parts look, the game seems to struggle a bit to keep up with it all. Note that the frame rate drops are apparent even when playing the game in lower resolutions.
Genji also features some excellent audio, including a musical score that's filled with traditional Japanese instruments and haunting vocals. Some of the tracks repeat too often, but overall, this soundtrack is very well suited to the game. Although the repeated hacking of Yoshitsune's blades will be most of what you hear, the sound effects are solid. Cutscenes are all fully voiced in English by actors with rather thick Japanese accents, which fits the theme, though the quality of the voice acting isn't that great. Thankfully, the ability to switch to a Japanese language track is available (with optional English subtitles). Other extras include a hard difficulty mode and the ability to watch any of the prerendered cutscenes or listen to any of the music tracks from a menu, which isn't much. And although this seemed to have little impact on the game's fairly brief loading times or anything else, you have the option to install Genji to the PlayStation 3's hard disk drive if you want.
The limited selection of games available around the launch of a high-profile new console means that a bright spotlight is cast on each of them. Genji: Days of the Blade is an example of this effect because this really is an average, forgettable game that's only interesting because there aren't many other PS3 games to choose from yet. It's worth checking out if only as evidence of what Sony's new system can do from a graphical perspective; however, its 10-or-so hours of repetitive combat shouldn't be the tipping point for anyone who wants to justify getting a PS3.