Genji: Dawn of the Samurai is the first project from developer Game Republic, the company formed by former Capcom executive Yoshiki Okamoto. The relation is immediately evident if you've played any of Capcom's Onimusha games, because Genji looks and feels very much like those. If you're a fan of flashy cut-'em-up action and Japanese mythology, you'll be glad to know that Genji doesn't stray from that path. Unfortunately, that path is a short one, and it ends just as soon as things really start to get interesting.
The story of Genji carries a mythical theme that revolves around rare magical stones called Amahagane. These stones let their bearer harness the power of Kamui, which lets a single fighter slay dozens of enemies in the blink of an eye. The game is set in late-13th-century Japan, where a powerful family of warriors known as the Heishi have taken control of land. The Heishi generals are endowed with godlike powers, thanks to the Amahagane they wear, and as a result, they easily slaughter any resisting forces. As you might expect, the Heishi aren't exactly kind, fair rulers. The Heishi are on a quest to collect all of the Amahagane so they can increase their power even further to achieve immortality and absolute rule. That won't do at all, so you have to set out to free Japan from the grip of these power-mad tyrants.
The main character of the game is Yoshitsune, a young warrior with an Amahagane of his own. Your job is to find all the remaining Amahagane and use them to bring and end to Heishi rule. You can expect to fight plenty of faceless goons and powerful bosses on your quest, and as you collect Amahagane your power will grow stronger. Early in the game you'll meet Benkei, a lumbering giant of a monk who is dead set on taking down the Heishi with his insanely oversized smashing weapons. Benkei joins you in your fight, and you can switch between the two characters at certain points throughout the game. For the most part, which warrior you choose is entirely a matter of preference. However, sometimes you'll need Benkei's strength or Yoshitune's agility to access certain areas or retrieve hidden items. For example, there are sturdy doors in the game that Yoshitsune isn't strong enough to open but Benkei can shove open with ease.
Since this is your basic action game, the majority of your time will be spent killing drones, collecting treasure, and facing a series of grandiose bosses. The combat in Genji is quite satisfying, and the fact that you can switch between the two different characters is just icing on the cake. The combat controls are simple but effective. Hitting the square button initiates a basic strike, which can be chained together to form combos. The triangle button performs a powerful but singular strike. There are also leaping attacks, and when using certain weapons, you can hold one of the strike buttons to perform a charge attack that inflicts heavy damage but leaves you vulnerable as it charges.
Combat is quick, flashy, and fun. You can slice enemies in half, knock them off bridges, or just send them flying with a swing from Benkei's club. In fact, Benkei can actually knock a guy's torso off his legs--although the animation is the same as when Yoshitsune cuts an enemy in half. These effects are exaggerated and silly, but they're effective in adding to the illusion that you're a superbadass warrior who can take out scores of evildoers without breaking a sweat.
The best part of the combat in Genji is the Kamui power. As you defeat enemies, you'll charge up your Amahagane. When you have one full bar of energy, you can tap L1 to activate your Kamui power, which basically slows down time to sharpen your reflexes. When you do this, all of the enemies in the area will attack. At the appropriate time in their attack, a small square button icon will pop up on the bottom of the screen. If you hit the square button before that icon goes away, you'll dodge the enemy attack and launch a powerful counter of your own. This can be tricky, since some enemies are faster than others. Sometimes you'll only have a split-second in which to hit the button, so you have to pay more attention to the enemy attack animations rather than relying entirely on the icon. It can be tricky at first to get the timing down, but once you do, it can be a tense and rewarding experience to dodge and counter several attacks in rapid succession. Most enemies will die after a single one of these countermoves, but it can take half a dozen or more of these dodge-strike sequences to take down a boss.
As you fight, you earn experience and your health, defense, and attack stats will increase. You can also earn and find essence of Amahagane as you play. If you have three of these, you can increase the level of one of your attributes. Yoshitsune and Benkei gain experience independently, so if you neglect one of the characters, he'll remain relatively weak. When you kill several enemies in a row you'll get a combo. If you manage to string together several kills, your efforts will be rewarded with an experience bonus. In addition to buffing your character with experience, you can find all kinds of items, weapons, and armor hidden throughout each level that will give your character a significant stat boost. You can also find pieces of these items, which you can take to a blacksmith, who will create the item for you as long as you have all of the required ingredients.
The only problem with the combat in Genji is that it's delivered in short bursts that always leave you wanting more. The pacing of the game is interrupted by frequent in-game cutscenes that are decent enough, but they occur so often that they impede gameplay. Sometimes it seems that you have to watch three or four cutscenes for 10 minutes of game time. It isn't a glaring problem, but it's frustrating when the fighting stops just as soon as it starts.
Cutscenes are great as long as the story is interesting enough to warrant them. Unfortunately, the story isn't particularly compelling in Genji, and just when it does start to get interesting, the game ends. You can easily beat this game in less than seven hours, and if you consider that there's more than an hour of cutscenes in the game, Genji ends up feeling way too brief. When you beat the game you unlock two new difficulty settings, as well as a "new game plus"-type mode where you can start the game over from the beginning but keep all your stats and items. These bonuses don't do much to enhance the replay value of the game, though, since you'll see everything there is to see on your first play-through.
You'll enjoy what you see, though, because the graphics and art design in Genji are excellent. The characters and environments have a distinctly Japanese feel to them, with elaborately dressed characters, ornate environments, and mystical otherworlds. Although the levels are for the most part completely noninteractive, they provide excellent backdrops for fighting a group of enemies or one of the many supernatural bosses in the game. The world is filled with great-looking scenery, including shimmering koi ponds, crumbling ruins, misty waterfalls, and forest paths lined with all kinds of vividly colored vegetation. The characters are fairly detailed, as well. All of the armor you equip is represented cosmetically, and the ornate designs and bright colors look great. The problem with having such great visuals is that you really want to look at them but you can't, because the game employs fixed camera angles. You have no control over the camera, and the view will often change rather jarringly when you move from one screen to the next. It can also be frustrating when you're stuck in a fight behind an object or off in the distance and the camera angle prevents you from seeing what's going on. Another graphical hitch occurs in the form of a falling frame rate in Genji. Often, when there are three or four enemies onscreen--or one huge boss--the game will slow down for a few seconds. It doesn't happen all the time--and it can be masked with the slow-motion effect--but you'll definitely notice when it does occur.
The sound in this game is great, as well. There's a ton of spoken dialogue in the game, and just for authenticity, it's all delivered in Japanese with English subtitles. The music in Genji fits the theme perfectly. The fully orchestrated tracks sound powerful and dramatic, like something you'd hear in a big-budget film. The sound effects work well here, too, although they aren't particularly striking. You won't be rocked by any loud explosions, but the sword slashes, footfalls, and ambient noises all fall right into place.
This is a decent first effort from Game Republic, but it doesn't do much to distinguish itself from all the other third-person action games. The story isn't particularly engaging, and the characters aren't developed enough to make you really care about them. Genji looks and sounds great, and the play mechanics are solid enough; but the game is way too short to make it worth more than a rental.