PS2 Review: Onimusha - Dawn of Dreams

If Mega Man were to die tomorrow, Capcom would figure out a way to revive him. If the Street Fighters all succumbed to some obscure international plague, Capcom would find a way to make sure the tournament continued. And if Capcom decided to end a series themselves, we're guaranteed a sequel. That's what happened with Onimusha, and Dawn of Dreams proves why the promised ending after Onimusha 3 was the right way to go.

To their credit, Dawn of Dreams does try to separate itself. There is little mention of the previous games, and if they didn't exist, there would be no problem following the plotline here. The mission structure has changed; putting the gameplay inside strict levels instead of the open world we're used to. They've also implemented a hit or miss squad control that mostly ends up being a miss.

The key issue here is that these new additions defeat the point of calling this Onimusha. The linear levels are the largest complaint, restricting the player significantly, and causing a failure when attempting to refer to the gameplay as a "quest." It's hard to miss anything here.

Stages generally revolve around a puzzle, sometimes large in scope. With such a strict restraint on the player (levels rarely open up or branch out), the solution is generally easy making these feel like work rather than entertainment. Given the game's epic and completely unforgettable opening, figuring out which switches to flip is a definite step down.

Re-spawning enemies curse what action is here. While a usual staple of the franchise, the puzzles here require the player to enter and exit countless doors, and bring with it more foes. This cheaply pushes the difficulty higher, and as one of the first in the franchise not to offer an easy mode, you'll be crushed.

It's even worse when dealing with multiple boss fights back-to-back. Without the ability to regain some health in-between, rare yellow souls (which restore health as in previous Onimusha's), and cheap shots, winning is secondary to losing. What epic boss fights are here only become so because the developers made sure anything less than an hour spent slashing is a glitch. Many require the slaughtering of hundreds of Genma before the boss falls, simply because one or two attacks from the level guardian will drain an entire life bar.

Combine that with the large problem of respawning, and you have a 20-hour game that's screaming to be cut in half. While two discs of Onimusha sounds like a great idea, that would only ring true for any other game in the series. Production values seem to have been slashed too, inserting still pictures with text in place of CG, while the in-game cinematics are unforgivably muddy and washed out. It's in jarring comparison to the jagged yet acceptable engine used everywhere else in the game. Repeated locales, enemy models ripped from all three previous games, and character designs that go way off base make it difficult to accept this as something new.

Dawn of Dreams does do things to earn some commendation, just not enough of them. The leveling up process is the deepest in the series, offering superb customization. It's enough to make the player feel like they're making progress, even after they've taken down the 1,000th base level enemy.

That extends to the other playable characters too, all ready to be equipped and upgraded as needed. This system allows for new characters to be brought into the action at save points, and with varying abilities and skills, they can make their way into spaces other characters can't. Sadly, for completeists, this will cause far too much backtracking. Things that are impossible to reach will need to be revisited later via the stage select when the new characters are unlocked, only adding to the repetition.

When the player is not in control, the character tagging along can be ordered to perform certain commands. It's a simple system that fails to connect because the AI has no common sense. If it's ordered to attack, that's all it will do. Blocking only enters into its mindset when you tell it. You'll need to swap character control in the middle of a battle to fix what the AI has broken, though only when the game says you can. Certain areas don't allow for switching.

The final change is the free camera. While Onimusha 3 was the first to offer full polygon backdrops, Dawn of Dreams is the first with a partially player controlled camera. There are jarring moments where the control is suddenly out of the player's hand for a fixed perspective, but these moments are kept to a minimum… sadly. The new system is awful, making it impossible to assess an entire armada of enemies as they spawn. Boss fights are doubled in difficulty when you can't see them, especially when they're mobile. Taking your finger off the attack button to constantly re-adjust the camera simply isn't acceptable in Onimusha. The targeting system is an inadequate solution.

While it's commendable that some steps have been taken to change this series, it's arguable that no changes were needed in the first place. A great, wild, and fun combo system is the only true improvement. Capcom needs to stick to their promises and let their franchises die where appropriate. Dawn of Dreams is proof of that, and it's going to be difficult to get excited about the next entry after this.

(** out of *****)

Comments (1)

LKM:

I have a serious question, and I am wondering what you think.

I used to be a gamer back when the NES and the first Gameboy came out. I kind of dropped out of the scene somewhat after the first SNES, so I missed most of the PS1/N64 years. Back before the PS1, Konami and Capcom simply made the best games. It didn't matter what games you bought, if it said "Konami", it was awesome. Even the worst games from Konami (like that dracula kid one on the Gameboy) were usually rated about 80%

On the other side of the coin, we had THQ and Bandai. I can't remember any THQ game getting more than 50% or 60%. They were usually based on movies, poorly programmed, buggy and no fun at all.

Skip a few years to the PS2 era. THQ and Bandai are the ones making games which are usually of high quality, while Konami makes the turds (Castlevania 3D, omg!) and Capcom is hit-or-miss - but more miss than hit.

Has anyone an at least somewhat realistic sounding theory for what the hell happened here? Are Konami's programmers simply not capable of making the switch to 3D? Had they some kind of brain drain during the PS1 era?

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