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Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams (PlayStation 2) artwork

Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams (PlayStation 2) review


"It's a return to grace for a series in danger of losing itself, and in a way, reaffirms the belief that only Capcom know how to deliver a solid, third person slash'em up. You can have your 3D Castlevanias and your weak as piss American imitations, the real action however, once more belongs to Keiji Inafune and the Genma hordes."



Jumping the shark - you're cool, you know what that means, right? Apparently it's the moment when something goes from ultra cool to uber lame, and was first diagnosed in Happy Days when the Fonze quite literally, jumped a shark. Wikipedia defines it as a term related (though not strictly limited to) TV programs that "fundamentally and permanently stray from their original premise, and may involve the departure or replacement of cast members, a character, or a significant change in setting". It's the point where everything begins to suck, and according to some, that moment came for Onimusha when its leading man found his way to modern day France.

With fans already dissatisfied by Capcom's treatment of the series, it's good to know that Dawn of Dreams (Onimusha 4 to you and me) has adopted a back-to-basics approach. The big, modern day set pieces associated with the third installment are nowhere to be found, and in their place a more traditional setting, complete with feudal, Japanese castles and dank, smelly dungeons rule. It's a return to grace for a series in danger of losing itself, and in a way, reaffirms the belief that only Capcom know how to deliver a solid, third person slash'em up. You can have your 3D Castlevanias and your weak as piss American imitations, the real action however, once more belongs to Keiji Inafune and the Genma hordes.

But first, there's the end of a trilogy to discuss. It may be hard to believe, but when Capcom originally announced that the Onimusha series was over, they were in fact being completely honest. Where Samanosuke's feud with the evil Oda Nobunaga represents the first three games, Dawn of Dreams is a new beginning of sorts, and is mostly free of established continuity. It's a great jumping in point for those new to the series, and though the story sometimes over complicates matters, it's 16 hour quest entertains in full. Picking up approximately 15 years following the last game, Dawn of Dreams details the Blue Demon Soki's struggle against the new Shogun, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. We've got the camaraderie of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, a dash of spine chilling horror, and a number of tormented cherry blossom trees, each howling with the pangs of eternal damnation.

Now tell me, are we back on track yet or what?

Of course, saving the world is too big a job for just one man, and our new hero is soon joined by five additional characters, four of which are fully playable. From the hulking, punch happy gaijin Roberto, to the gun totting Ohatsu, and a mysterious warrior priest (could it be?), there's a style of play for every occasion. And if that isn't enough, players are encouraged to work with the friendly AI in order to overcome particular situations. The nimble Yagyu Jubei for instance, is well versed in the art of distraction, and can keep the guards busy in moment's of dire need. On the other hand, Tenkai the priest may chant mantras that positively influence the player's strength. Just the thing for those outrageously over-powered boss encounters!

OK. So new & improved seem to be the keywords of the day, but that's not to say that fans of the series are going to feel left out. Returning innovations from Onimusha 3 include full analogue controls, spectacular 3D backgrounds, and an improved Issen counter system that feels totally bad-arse. A quick, jab of the button has Soki sliding through the approaching ranks of Genma foot soldiers, running his blade across their gullets and moving onto the next in the blink of an eye. And when his chain of potential victims comes to an end, a quiet second of dramatic pause gives way to a dozen cries of pain and a fountain of blood. Strike a pose, you deserve it, then move onto the next room and do it all again. Combat has always been an important part of the Onimusha series, and with a huge range of upgradable weapons, as well as an increasing number of techniques to learn, players will be feeling the part long before they've truly mastered it.

Let's back up for a moment though, what was that about a 16 hour quest? It might be said that Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams is Capcom's way of apologizing for past indiscretions, and if that's the case, they can consider themselves forgiven. Boasting more playable content than your average third person action adventure, and spanning not one, but two discs, Soki's cinematic battles and memorable encounters will leave you sweating profusely one minute, and smiling inwardly the next. Generally speaking, the difficulty level is well paced throughout, though having to fight seven boss encounters in a row was a major bummer...

A word to the wise people: make sure everybody gets powered up evenly.

Onmiusha: Dawn of Dreams though, isn't a hard game, and veterans should have no problems slashing their way through everything this installment has to offer. Those that do find themselves hitting a brick wall however, can take solace in the fact that Capcom have provided a means with which to return to earlier levels in order to ferret out additional weapons and bonus experience points. An erstwhile un-passable pit for instance, may be overcome once Ohatsu is added to your party, while Tenkai can speak to the recently departed for additional hints and items. It's a system that ensures the game's longevity over and above its main quest, and in a way, makes up for an obvious lack of unlockable extras. The hidden Street Fighter 2 costumes and a bonus difficulty level not withstanding...

The rest of the package then, reads like a check list of must hit, Onimusha targets. CG maestros Robot have once more handled the game's various cut scenes, and have packed a stupefying amount of detail into each and every segment. The problem is however, Dawn of Dreams lacks the same kind of visual punch that made its predecessor's opening minutes a treat to remember. But then again, how could you top that? Instead of trying, Capcom have commissioned Jpop sensation Ayumi Hamazaki to record an opening theme that neatly side steps her usual blend of saccharine infused crap. It's catchy, energetic, and a whole lot of cool. And that alone lends the sequence some considerable weight.

If I were to describe Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams in a single word, it would be weighty. From the extra heft of adding a second disc, to the way Soki swings his black sword, obviously straining under its massive weight, Capcom's latest journey to feudal Japan feels right. Certainly, the expectations fans had for this release were immense, and for once their excitement has been justified. Dawn of Dreams is exactly what Onimusha should be, fast, technical, and knee deep in the walking dead. With this release, Capcom have established a bench mark from which all future Genma battles will be judged. And if they do their job right, that's going to make the next outing very special indeed. Check it out...


Pros
----

* Dawn of Dreams marks a new beginning for Onimusha
* Engrossing 16 hour quest
* Awesome, tightly responsive controls
* Combat requires some serious technique
* Five playable characters
* Tons of hidden weapons to uncover
* Being able to return to previous completed areas is a welcome plus
* Ayumi Hamazaki has recorded two new songs for Dawn of Dreams
* Wait a minute, was that... ?

Cons
----

* Occasionally uneven pacing
* What happened to the introduction sequence?

Rating: 9/10

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Staff review by Michael Scott (February 24, 2006)

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