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Genji: Dawn of the Samurai (PlayStation 2) artwork

Genji: Dawn of the Samurai (PlayStation 2) review


"Genji: Dawn of the Samurai is special for many reasons, the least of which is its gold foil packaging. Seen as Sony of Japan's response to the US developed God of War, eager gamers have declared it a visual masterpiece with all the sword swinging hallmarks of an instant classic. Personally however, I think it's spectacular. Plain and simple like, capital S if you're still not feeling it."



Genji: Dawn of the Samurai is special for many reasons, the least of which is its gold foil packaging. Seen as Sony of Japan's response to the US developed God of War, eager gamers have declared it a visual masterpiece with all the sword swinging hallmarks of an instant classic. Personally however, I think it's spectacular. Plain and simple like, capital S if you're still not feeling it. Developed by ex-Capcom staffer Okamoto Yoshiki (Street Fighter 2, Devil May Cry) and inspired by the Japanese literary masterpiece "the Tale of Heike", Genji: Dawn of the Samurai is a classic story of two noble warriors set against the beautiful and elegant backdrop of feudal Japan. It's a third person action adventure of the highest caliber, never mind the one weekend challenge and general lack of difficulty...

Of course, such concerns aren't immediately obvious, and instead players can expect their first impressions to be of a positive variety. You see, Genji's visuals exist far beyond the curve, inhabiting a special place reserved for those that have created truly life-like experiences. Ignore the way the grass blows in the wind, and pay no attention to the leaves as they slowly flutter to the ground. Rather, why not throw yourself into the details and soak up the rich, tranquil beauty of an incredibly diverse color palette. Cherry blossoms fill the screen with bright, effervescent shades of pink, contrasting beautifully with the lighter greens and assorted browns of a nearby forest. Meanwhile a small, 12th century Japanese village feels every bit a must hit piece of gaming tourism. The circling hawks and baby chickens were a nice touch as well.

At any rate, it's having stepped into this picture perfect world that players will take on the dual roles of Minamoto Yoshitsune, and Benkei the warrior monk. The former is a lightweight whirlwind of action, capable of running circles around his opponents, the latter a powerhouse of brute strength and inhuman endurance. When not in use, Benkei's massive club rests casually across his broad shoulders, a constant reminder of how strong this holy man really is. Yoshitsune on the other hand has some playboy good looks, a dashing silhouette, and the charisma to spare. They're polar opposites of the gaming spectrum, yet you'll have to utilize their combined skills if the unholy armies of Heike are to be defeated...

... and that's where Genji starts to feel familiar.

Take for instance the way Okamoto has built upon established Onimusha trademarks, the Issen counters now being called Tates, though for all intents and purposes remaining the same. A flash of light, a flurry of movement, and your sword has claimed another victim. Yet as fun as they may be, it's the "Mind's Eye" focus attacks that invariably steal the spot light. Dubiously described as Samurai bullet time, these brief windows of opportunity allow players to slay upwards of 6 enemies with a single blow. Miss the split second timing required however and you'll take double the damage, no doubt feeling a fool in the process. But that's OK, this is one technique you'll want to master. Risk equals reward and all that jazz.

Before committing to a regime of self-improvement, please understand how Genji goes to the trouble of rewarding players for their effort. High combo counts earn experience points which are then in turn used to automatically level up your character. Furthermore, scattered around each stage are a number of mystical Amahara stones that allow players to manually improve their stats on the fly. A touch here and Yoshitsune's dual swords receive some added bite, a tweak there and Benkei will remain standing through all but the most powerful of blows. Whatever you do though, don't expect to earn any new abilities during the course of Genji's brief, 6 hour challenge. And just because you pick up a few new weapons along the way, it doesn't mean to say combat will be feeling any different. Oh, it's a disappointment to be sure, but that's just how this story goes...

The thing is, in the face of Genji's slick presentation and occasional genre improvements, none of that really matters. Of a far greater concern is the third and final chapter where many background elements have been recycled, albeit with a much darker tone. Luckily though, Okamoto is aware of this problem, and in a way he's compensated players by varying progress through the game depending on the character being used. Whereby Yoshitsune may leap to the roof tops in order to enter a locked building, Benkei takes a far more direct approach, preferring to smash in the front door and announce his arrival with a manly shout. Hidden items and extra weapons then force players to revisit each stage, further doubling replayability and making up for Genji's overall lack of challenge.

Through it all, what makes Dawn of the Samurai so difficult to judge is how it manages to entertain, even when it's busy falling flat on its face. The controls are smooth and flawless, performing perfectly even during the game's brief brush with the platform genre. Likewise the sound is a stunning blend of traditional Japanese folk tunes and war-like anthems, a heady mix that frames the picture perfect action to a tee. The only problem is how a few missteps have prevented Yoshitsune and Benkei from achieving true greatness, which is by far the biggest tragedy of them all. With a little more time in the kiln, Genji: Dawn of the Samurai would have been an event. Instead, it's a credible start for Game Republic, and an impressive sign of things to come...

Pros
----

* An outstanding debut for Japan's latest development studio, Game Republic
* Genji expands upon the classic Japanese literary masterpiece, the Tale of Heike
* The controls are smooth and flawless
* Most stages have been designed with the differing abilities of the two lead characters in mind
* Combat while simple, contains impressive hidden depth
* Imaginative character designs
* Truly, the visuals are without equal on the PS2
* An authentic soundtrack puts players in 12th century Japan
* It's no God of War, but damn is it close

Cons
----

* Genji: Dawn of the Samurai can be easily completed in under 6 hours
* It's hardly the most difficult of games
* The third chapter plays like a rehash of the first one

Rating: 8/10

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Staff review by Michael Scott (July 10, 2005)

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