Did you know that Onimusha was originally conceived as a Playstation 1 title? The Playstation 2’s launch was drawing near and the growing excitement within the development team led to the half-complete game being shifted. It was moved to the groundbreaking new console, leaving its original home behind in the dust.
So, for those who either haven’t heard of Onimusha, or know the name but have yet to check it out, it was actually created by Keiji Inafune, famously known for bringing up Mega Man. Coming off of the success of the Mega Man franchise, Inafune felt like shifting away from The Blue Bomber towards something new and fresh. Somewhat surprisingly, he wanted to make a game that captured the spirit of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films.
Kurosawa’s films were no small feat. He had a reputation for going the extra mile when it came to production, even putting his own actors in danger. Most notable in Throne of Blood, specifically the death scene of Washizu played by Toshiro Mifune who was a longtime collaborator with Kurosawa. At first glance, it’s easy to assume that he did an authentic job acting scared. In reality, trained, choreographed archers were genuinely firing arrows at him. They were hollowed out to run along wires while the actor would follow a chalk line but even still, a few arrows just barely missed him. Mifune even admitted to having suffered nightmares afterwards.
Now, it wasn’t exactly possible for Capcom to go to those sorts of extremes what with the issue of videogames being a digital medium. The next best step towards authenticity was choosing to employ the use of motion capture to make characters more lively and animated. It’s not something we tend to give much thought to but Onimusha was only released in January 2001. Much to my own surprise, the introduction of motion capture is credited to SEGA’s Virtua Fighter back in November 1994. That only gives a gap of about 4 or 5 years between its first implementation in the game industry and when it was integrated during Onimusha’s development. Don’t forget that, sure, it might have seen wide adaption during the mid to late 2000s but back in 2000? I imagine without the widespread adoption ushered in by the Playsation 2, it would have been expensive at the time to hire out the specialised equipment along with the required technicians.
Character animations were performed by Takeshi Kaneshiro, a Japanese film actor and singer who was both the character model and voice actor of the protagonist, Samanosuke. Inafune stated the reason for choosing Kaneshiro was because his fanbase were predominantly women who he hoped would play Onimusha. Composer Mamoru Samuragochi even managed to persuade the producers to let him bring in a 200-piece orchestra to conduct a soundtrack befitting a samurai epic. I think from all of the above so far, it’s pretty easy to see that a decent amount of production value was instilled from the beginning. It did all pay off as Onimusha: Warlords was the first Playstation 2 game to reach one million sales and was widely considered to be one of the best titles on the system at the time.
Onimusha can simply be described as Resident Evil with a focus on action while still keeping the puzzle solving. The basic setup is still the same from the controls to the camera except this time around, you have a sword and experience meter to go with it. As you slice your way through the creatures before you, their souls float up into the air which will be either red, yellow or blue. Red acts as a form of currency while yellow restores health and blue restores magic. The red souls can be used to upgrade the various swords and other items you find through the game such as healing herbs. Each sword, lightning, fire and wind, has a special attack to match their respective element but they aren’t each without their own drawbacks. You’ll be swapping between all three to exploit their strengths and weaknesses as you progress.
The game opens with a highly detailed CGI cutscene showing the Battle of Okehazama. In an alteration of history, 16th century warlord Nobunaga Oda is killed in the battle. One year later, protagonist Samanosuke receives a letter from his cousin Princess Yuki informing him that the servants and maids of her castle have been disappearing and she requests his assistance in saving her. The game doesn’t mess about at all. You head straight to the castle which is where you’ll be spending most of the game. It’s very quickly unveiled that demons are behind the disappearances so naturally, a range of small and large enemies will be standing between you and the princess. The castle, and its grounds, are set up like one large level. The player gradually visits each location, uncovering items that will enable progress to another section of the castle. You’ll have to do a fair bit of backtracking here and there but the majority of it is just to get items that make life easier but are fully optional.
In particular, I really enjoyed that the castle courtyard you first enter is the main hub with the rest of the game branching out from the middle. It allows the game to be linear with its story while still letting you revisit previous locations with new skills to unlock doors or uncover hidden areas. There are plenty of concealed books that flesh out the lore of the series detailing the battle between the Oni and the Genma which makes for an interesting read. Onimusha is quite short clocking in at around 4 or 5 hours and can be a bit of a grind if you want to max out every weapon. One challenging, but optional area will award you with an overpowered sword. It is a reward so late into the game that you can only use it on the final boss but it does carry over into New Game Plus.
I found that since 1080p is pretty common in 2015, the pre-rendered backgrounds can look pretty ugly while playing. They don’t ruin the experience but some of the items are hidden in background scenes which are nearly impossible to see, short of just examining every object in each room. Perhaps the biggest annoyance I had was that the game kept referring to ogres and the ogre clan. What I didn’t realise was that the localisation team opted to translate Oni as Ogre. It’s not uncommon but I kept imagining western ogres as opposed to Japanese Oni, when reading the optional books, which are a bit different. It’s also worth mentioning that the Oni are the good guys. While they technically are demons themselves, they are a different class than the demonic Genma who you fight in the game.
Onimusha is definitely a fun hack and slash title although I can’t say it has aged well where the backgrounds and game length are concerned. While I personally don’t mind the game being short, I imagine a few people out there would be disappointed that it wasn’t more towards the 8 – 12 hour bracket. The gameplay is still enjoyable making it a worthwhile visit. It’s easy to compare it to Devil May Cry as is sometimes common but that’s not entirely accurate. Hideki Kamiya had actually found a bug in the game that allowed enemies to be juggled. Kamiya himself stated that it resulted in the creation of juggling, both via gunfire and sword slashes which are a major mechanic in the Devil May Cry series.
There’s no way I can’t give a brief mention to Onimusha 3: Demon Siege before closing up this article. Jacques Blanc, one of the two main characters who happens to be a French officer from the future was motion captured by Jean Reno. Go look up the cover art for it, I’ll wait for you. It just seems so ridiculous that you get to play as Jean Reno more or less, facial likeness and all, while cutting through hordes of demons. If you wanna get to that part of the trilogy though, you gotta go through Onimusha: Warlords first.
Developer / Publisher: Capcom
Released in 2001
Platforms: PC, Playstation 2 and Xbox