More of a "director's cut" than a straight port of last year's successful PlayStation 2 action/survival-horror hybrid, Genma Onimusha is such a refined version of the game that it's almost worth picking up even if you've already played through the original. In it, you play as Samanosuke Akechi, a masterless samurai dedicated to destroying a group of demons that have kidnapped a princess. To aid Samanosuke in his quest, a group of ogres have given him a magical gauntlet that devours the souls of the creatures he kills, providing him with special powers.
It's this mysterious gauntlet that provides the key differences between Onimusha and the Resident Evil line, the series that still acts as at least a general template for this subgenre of gaming. When an enemy dies in Onimusha, it emits one of four 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 with a magic mirror (which doubles as save points). Powering up one of your swords will increase the damage it metes out, and enhancing an orb will enable it to break down the wards that lock certain doors. It's also possible to enhance basic items, such as herbs and arrows, to make them more effective. New to the Xbox version of the game is green soul energy, which you must quickly devour before your enemies do. If you don't, your foes gain strength and turn blood red, but if you can, the energy adds to a power meter that provides temporary invulnerability when full. To make matters even more interesting, monsters can knock green soul energy loose from you if they score a solid hit.
This soul energy system makes you less reliant on having to use items as you would in Resident Evil, since you can recharge your character through alternate means. There are even magic fountains that fill your magic meter, as well as areas where you can earn special items. This means that you don't have to be as much of a miser with your items as you have to be in Resident Evil, in which 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 you can consider a room to be 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.
Genma Onimusha features the same basic camera and control systems that other Resident Evil games do, 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 Genma Onimusha somewhat feels like a Resident Evil game, it has much more in common with Dino Crisis 2 or Devil May Cry'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 bit--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.
While the largest change from the original version of Onimusha is the new kind of soul energy, there are a host of minor improvements. For instance, Genma Onimusha boasts new enemies, areas, costumes, and cutscenes; Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound; more enemies onscreen at a time; and a burst attack, which can be used to perform a charged-up super attack on opponents. Though graphical standards have been raised much higher over the last year and a half, Onimusha is still one of the best-looking games of its type, with its lush and varied rendered backgrounds, incredible CG sequences, in-game story sequences which look better than the CG sequences you'll find in some other games, and numerous impressive little graphical effects, like enemies that explode into bloody smoke when they die or the green glow that trails the eyes of the zombie ninja. The Xbox version of the game is sharper looking than its PlayStation 2 counterpart, but since it was ported rather than built from the ground up specifically for the Xbox, it doesn't quite push the system's graphical limits.
It may sound like a small change, but the addition of the green soul energy gameplay element makes Onimusha's battles both tougher and more entertaining than before, further refining a combat system that requires more skill and strategy than the spastic fighting of the similar Devil May Cry. However, although making the game more difficult does extend its length somewhat, you can still beat it within a few days. Some entertaining extras open up upon completion of the game, enhancing its replay value, but those who are 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. While it is relatively short, not having to backtrack nearly as much as you would in similar games makes up for a lot--and the improved battle system makes it more likely that you'd want to play through it more than once.
Whether this is the version of Onimusha that its creators had always intended it to be or if they simply spent their extra development time wisely, Genma Onimusha is an ideal port--one that significantly improves upon the original game rather than adequately adapting it. Xbox owners would do well to give this game a look.