Review: Onimusha: Warlords (Switch)

2001 never looked so good.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 09/12/2019 21:00 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
1-Up Mushroom for...
Snappy hack and slash combat is augmented with engaging magic and dodging systems; period setting and serious tone serve to produce a compelling narrative; HD facelift has made the game look better than ever (but...)
Poison Mushroom for...
Some graphical blemishes are highlighted because of the bump to HD; fixed camera angles can make for awkward fights; combat is robust but also somewhat stiff

It’s been 18 years since Onimusha: Warlords made its debut on PlayStation 2. Despite the nearly 20-year span between then and now, Capcom’s hack-and-slash, semi-historical darling remains as compelling as ever. What originally began as a PlayStation title eventually transitioned to Sony’s more powerful successor in PS2. The new platform proved a fortuitous home for Onimusha to land, as the game’s unique blend of Resident Evil’s fixed camera angles and scares with puzzles and fluid combat proved a real match for PS2 and its audience. Now, Onimusha is back on Nintendo Switch with upscaled graphics and improvements to its controls. The result is the definitive version of Onimusha for both new and longtime fans.

As already noted, Onimusha takes many cues from the Resident Evil series. What helps to separate the two franchises is Onimusha’s emphasis on more varied and visceral combat, as well as exploration. Of equal importance is Onimusha’s fantastic blend of authentic Japanese historical figures with elements of that country’s mysticism and folklore. Set during the feudal era of Japan, Onimusha’s backdrop is a sumptuous tapestry of samurais and demons, tatami mats and katana, sunsets and gore. Onimusha takes itself seriously, which is a big part of the reason why it works as well as it does from a storytelling standpoint.

In this inaugural outing, players are introduced to Samanosuke Akechi, a samurai called in by his cousin, Princess Yuri, to assist with the seemingly resurrected lord Oda Nobunaga and his army of monsters. It’s a fun narrative that helps stitch together the seemingly disparate characters and elements that Capcom elected to combine. Between Onimusha and Ōkami, Capcom is one of the best in the business at utilizing Japanese antiquity as a springboard for turning delightfully zany interpretations of its country’s past into engaging video games.

When Nintendo was developing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it made a point of using the in-game graphics engine to render all of that title’s cutscenes. The goal was to help the player feel a greater sense of immersion and empowerment, as the design team felt that cinematics which are rendered separately tend to suck the player out of the experience. It becomes little more than a back and forth of watching movie segments and then playing chunks of the game in between, without a genuine sense of cohesiveness between the two. In some ways, Onimusha sadly falls into this rhythm.

The issue is that, in 2001 when Onimusha first launched, having gorgeously rendered, elaborate cutscenes was a big draw because it showed off how powerful the consoles of the era were. PlayStation 2 was a major graphical leap over what the first PlayStation could do, and titles like Onimusha incorporated pre-rendered cinema scenes to impress players with that platform’s processing power. That the actual gameplay didn’t look as elaborate or detailed was irrelevant; it was just so dang cool to look at. Flash forward to 2019 and there are many games that look as good as the cinematics featured here, if not more so, which makes their impact considerably softer.

What all that means is Onimusha, in today’s market, can’t lean as hard on winning fans over with pretty graphics as it did back in the day. Which isn’t to say the game doesn’t look good. The graphical facelift that Onimusha has received from its HD overhaul has made the transition from PS2 to Switch a smooth one. Some of the inherent imperfections in the textures and geometry are exacerbated by the graphical boost, but it is by no means a game-breaker. It’s pretty unreasonable to expect a game made at the turn of the millennium to be as technically impressive as one made today; that Onimusha is still so visually impressive is owed to the quality of its design.

A major point of emphasis is on the game’s combat. Onimusha’s samurai lead cuts through his opponents like a knife through so much butter, but at first glance it might not seem like there’s a whole lot of nuance to be found with a single attack button. Dig deeper and Onimusha’s rich attack system starts to reveal itself. Alongside swinging his katana, players can also employ Samanosuke’s handy dodge maneuver and his trio of magic attacks. There’s an element system tethered to his magic, and the dodging system becomes imperative to survival as foes with more complicated attack patterns begin to emerge. Onimusha, particularly this first installment, isn’t quite as smooth and polished feeling as a Ninja Gaiden or Bayonetta game, but it’s a rush nonetheless.

Interestingly, the way that Onimusha’s camera positions itself is a vital part of battles. When the camera shifts, it’s imperative to be aware of how Samanosuke becomes vulnerable as a result and immediately compensate. This HD version of Onimusha goes all out to make longtime fans feel welcome, right down to its optional tank controls, but the experience as a whole is much more enjoyable when played with a proper control stick rather than a d-pad. New players will likely need to adjust to the rigid framing of each shot, but it’s a low learning curve. All in all, Onimusha HD is a wonderful return to the first entry in a long and well-loved series. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if Capcom continues to overhaul these PS2 and GameCube era classics.

Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.

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