Oni is a single-player third-person action game from Bungie Software, which is best known for its Myth real-time strategy series, as well as its old Marathon first-person shooters. Oni is certainly a departure for the popular developer, which was recently acquired by Microsoft. Though die-hard fans might catch a rare reference to Bungie's other games in Oni, the game has nothing in common with any of its predecessors. Instead, its influences can be clearly traced to Japanese science-fiction-themed animated films and series, such as Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and Bubblegum Crisis, as well as Japanese 3D fighting games such as Tekken and Virtua Fighter. The game stays true to its roots: It features fluid, dynamic animation, some exciting combat sequences, and a fairly involving story that links everything together. However, Oni suffers from a few very noticeable problems and several smaller ones, which all serve to prevent the game from being entirely successful or enjoyable.
During the course of the game, you play as Konoko, a young woman with purple hair and a mysterious past. She is an expert in martial arts and is also proficient with various firearms, and you'll have to guide her through more than a dozen levels filled with treacherous enemy fighters who lie in ambush around virtually every corner. The game's story unfolds mostly through text memos you find, as well as dialogue in brief cutscenes that usually occur at the beginning and end of each mission. The dialogue is accompanied by close-up portraits of the characters doing the talking. These are generally well drawn, and the voice acting (which is in English) is generally convincing, such that you get a fairly good sense of the characters' distinct personalities. Even so, it's disappointing that both the hand-drawn character close-ups and the 3D character models themselves are so static. Neither the portraits nor the 3D characters' faces are animated, which can be distracting since many other games already feature 3D characters that are much more articulate or that at least move their mouths and blink their eyes. Nevertheless, some of the more action-packed cutscenes can be quite entertaining.
The game's animation is much more impressive during the actual combat sequences. Konoko realistically dashes around, backpedals, flips, leaps, punches, kicks, blocks, and more. Some of her more difficult combat moves, such as brutal backbreaker and a spinning chokehold that leaves the enemy slumping to the ground with a sprained neck, look great. Likewise, her enemies move about believably for the most part, and they will even sometimes stop to taunt Konoko in battle. Actually, these enemy characters often look much better than Konoko. Many of the enemies are wearing full suits of shiny, metallic battle armor, and since they're also typically wearing helmets or masks, you won't be distracted when they don't wince as you're beating them up. But Konoko's static facial features and her blocky, metallic-looking hair don't come across very well, although at least you'll see her wearing several different outfits over the course of the game, for variety's sake. The game has a few nice visual effects, most notably how large panes of glass shatter dramatically when hit by errant gunfire; but Oni also has a few graphical glitches, like defeated enemies that tend to clip straight through nearby walls and obstacles. There's a good variety of different enemies to fight, and you'll even notice that similar categories of foes still have several variations in stature and uniform color. Even so, you'll quickly find that most of the enemy characters in Oni use the same exact combat moves on you, not to mention the same exact fighting styles. So, regardless of their subtly different appearances or the difficulty you'll have in beating them, you'll find that most of the combat with enemy fighters maintains a fairly consistent form.
Fortunately, this form is quite good, though it can be very challenging. The game's default controls let you move Konoko with the keyboard, as well as look around, turn, and attack with the mouse. You can change these controls if you edit a configuration file in the game's directory, but the default setup is actually ideal once you get used to it. Even so, it is surprising that the game doesn't offer a more convenient means of configuring your controls, and it is still more surprising that the game doesn't support PC-compatible gamepads, especially since the game was developed simultaneously for the PlayStation 2 console. Nevertheless, once you remember the key layout, you'll find that you can make Konoko move about and attack with finesse.
You'll need all the finesse you can muster as you try to take on the superior enemy odds and firepower you'll face throughout the game. Typically, you'll come across between one and three or four opponents at a time. One or more of these will probably be toting a gun. There's no good way to avoid enemy gunfire except to keep moving, so you'll learn to either make a beeline for the gun-toting assailants or to fall back and lure them around corners. Your enemies are very aggressive, and they will always come at you - so you can often help even the odds by using defensive tactics and environmental obstacles. At least you can relieve your foes of their weapons fairly easily once you get up close, and you can use these and whatever limited ammunition they have remaining to your advantage. Oni actually features a rather diverse and interesting variety of weapons. The arsenal includes conventional pistols and submachine guns, as well as stronger plasma and beam weapons, an incredibly powerful grenade launcher, and a very deadly sniper rifle weapon that must spend several seconds freezing over between firing its chilling mercury bolts. Unfortunately, there are no melee weapons in Oni, and though the ranged weapons are interesting, they do start to get repetitive toward the end of the game.
Oni gives a good, clear indication of what's happening in combat. The collision detection is convincing - your punches and kicks register as you'd expect them to, and hard-hitting sound effects help get the point across - and after each successful hit, you'll see brightly colored sparks, which correspond with how much vitality the character on the receiving end has remaining. As the hit sparks go from green to yellow to red, you'll know that your enemy is getting weaker. Likewise, the game's minimal onscreen interface provides a useful indication of how much ammo you have remaining in whatever weapon you're carrying (if any), how many spare ammo clips and health power-ups you have, and where you're supposed to go next. This compass feature is very handy - it tells you the general direction you should be headed, but also whether your next destination is above or below your current position. The availability of this information is justified in the game, and, likewise, at certain key points in the story, this information is taken away from you, which makes for an interesting twist.
Unfortunately, Oni doesn't have very many interesting twists to speak of, because although virtually all its levels are quite long, virtually all are also very similar. For the most part, they're also similarly bland, even though their pacing occasionally picks up when Oni's effective techno soundtrack kicks in at specific times. Most of the levels simply consist of gigantic, nearly empty rectangular rooms, separated by corridors, smaller rooms, and staircases. Some of the levels are noticeably better, such as an early stage in which you must fight through a civilian airport under siege; however, most of the other levels take place in bases, hideouts, factories, offices, industrial facilities, and so forth. The layout of all these levels - even the more interesting ones - necessarily relies on Konoko's having to use computer terminals to unlock doors. Later in the game, you'll encounter doors that require not one but three terminal switches to be opened. In between the locked doors, you'll invariably take a beating, and to make up for this, you'll need to locate health hypos that restore some of your health. These are either dropped by fallen foes or found in not-very-well-hidden corners. Or they are given to you by civilians. Likewise, the few power-ups in Oni consist of ammo clips, a rare invisibility item that's practically useless because of its short duration, and a lifesaving energy shield that protects you from weapon fire. Besides the invisibility, you will find all of these fairly often and will come to rely on them along with the health hypos and computer terminals.
Oni's rare attempts at gameplay twists - including an occasional jumping sequence, the rare opportunity to try a stealthy approach, and the necessity for some fancy footwork in avoiding infrared tripwires - all fall flat. The infrared tripwires trigger static defenses to start firing on you, which in most cases isn't much of a problem since you can simply outrun the attacks. Stealth is totally unnecessary in Oni, though if you can muster enough patience to creep up to an unsuspecting foe, you might be able to lay him out before he can retaliate. The jumping sequences in Oni are frustrating, because it takes a moment for Konoko to get up to a running start, and, unlike most other leading characters in third-person action games, she can't grab onto ledges if she falls short. These jumping sequences can be even harder to deal with because you can't save your progress whenever you want to. Instead, the game automatically and instantly saves your progress at anywhere between two and four specific points during a level. It can take a long time to get from one save point to the next - and, usually, there's an especially tough battle right before each one. So, invariably, you'll end up having to replay many sequences multiple times, until you finally figure out a pattern for getting through. Even then, you might be forced to restore earlier saves - because if you reach a save point with low health, you'll be out of luck when you try to proceed.
Though three different difficulty levels are available, the uninspired layout of the levels and the fairly redundant action all mean that there's not much point in replaying Oni once you finish it. Chances are you'll be more than weary of the action in the game by the drawn-out finale. Though Konoko has many different fighting moves, as well as a few keen tricks (like being able to snatch up dropped weapons and items during a roll), you'll probably find yourself relying on the same few moves throughout the game and, rarely, if ever, using the others. The game's few one-on-one battles between Konoko and a powerful boss character are tedious, as it's only a matter of time before you find a simple pattern to win these bouts. Even the plot in Oni could have been better, as the story starts to allude to a darker side of Konoko's character, which unfortunately isn't properly explained or justified by the end of the game. And, so, besides a few interesting sequences and a whole lot of fights, there really isn't much to the game. Oni has no multiplayer mode, nor does it offer any kind of skirmish option that could let you get to the heart of the game and simply have at it against one or more enemies. Once you finish the game, it does give access to some interesting cheat codes, which let you play as different characters and more, but these are mostly for novelty.
In the end, Oni is a fairly plain third-person action game that contains a more robust combat system than those found in most similar games. Its graphics, particularly the environments' graphics, aren't noteworthy, and its story isn't fully developed. Yet, despite these shortcomings, along with the game's lack of a convenient save system and the absence of a multiplayer option, Oni will still appeal to players who like the material that inspired the game. If nothing else, these players would be hard pressed to find any other recent PC game that's influenced by Japanese science fiction.