Imagine, if you will, a game that's obsessed with Cherry Blossoms. You're probably thinking of a puzzle game, aren't you? Quite possibly involving some kind of pink heroine -- maybe even a Barbie licensed title. What you're less likely to think of, in the grand scheme of things, is a relentless and exceptionally lengthy hack and slash title set in ancient Japan with more evil spirits, zombies and glowing mystical swords than you can point a very pointy stick at. That, however, is exactly what you get with the fourth installment in the Onimusha series, Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams. Perhaps you have to be Japanese. Maybe it's some vile and perverse fetish, and "cherry blossom" is actually a heavily coded term for "ancient Viagra recipe". Or maybe not.
Leaving aside for the minute the vexing question of why exactly cherry blossoms are so important, you'll quickly realise what kind of game Onimusha is once you get past the introductory plot scenes... and the loading times.. and the next plot scenes.. and into the action. It's a straight up hack and slash title with strong anime overtones -- especially with all of the plot scenes. There are so many scenes -- and so much action to get through, to be fair -- that the game spans two PS2 discs, something of an oddity when you consider how much gameplay other developers (including Capcom themselves) have managed to cram onto a single disc. It's not even as if Capcom don't already have a few stock characters with big beefy swords strapped to their backs to fall back on, but once again you'll be playing as a prototypical "last man standing" character. He's called Soki, he's got the requisite so-large-it-would-take-a-week-to-sharpen sword, and he is eventually joined by a vaguely wacky cast of supporting characters as he vies to overthrow the evil Hideyoshi. If you're at all worried by the fact that this is the fourth game in the series and you might be a bit lost, you can rest easy. There's lots of background information to flesh out the game world, including the aforementioned lengthy loading plot scenes and supporting characters with stories of their own. Still, it's all rather peripheral to the hacking, slashing and hacking again, so novices can jump right in with ease.
Credit is due to the game's designers for keeping things interesting. You start out with a relatively limited offence, and that's good for the starting point, as it'll take you a while to get to grips with the combat engine's timing. That's sadly where many combat-centric action titles leave things off -- yes, Dynasty Warriors, we're looking sternly at you -- but Onimusha keeps your skill levels constantly growing and expanding. Even though you're learning new moves and implementing them, by the time that you notice that all ten of your fingers are performing a delicate fandango over the Dual Shock 2's buttons, it'll all seem like second nature. This is good game design, and something that more games should aspire to.
As your core team of heroes expands, you'll also hit a number of levels where you have team mates under your semi-control. This is performed via the directional pad for simple controls, although the AI of the supporting characters isn't all that flashy, and predictably there are situations where they'll get themselves killed just before you need them to finish a two-person puzzle. Still, the addition of additional characters, who you can also flick to full control of if the mood takes you, is a nice touch for this kind of game.
At the same time, however, it can't be ignored that there is an awful lot of repetitive hack and slashing, mixed in with some very light puzzling, seemingly because you can't have an action title without some simple puzzles thrown in for good measure. The puzzle sections vary in quality quite a bit, but those with more meat and fewer neurons between their hairy ears needn't worry too much, as some of the puzzles -- specifically those with some interesting power ups behind them -- are in fact optional.
Onimusha: Dawn Of Dreams does a good job of presenting its subject material in an anime style -- so there's lots of glowing weaponry, faintly ludicrous hair and a few characters who probably represent a terribly well known stereotype in the back streets of Sapporo but are somewhat more puzzling for a western audience. As PS2 games go it's hard to fault the visuals, although they're really not that impressive stood next to other recent action fare such as God of War or Resident Evil 4. Still, they're better than Urban Reign, and that's got to count for something.
There comes a point in playing Onimusha: Dawn Of Dreams when you realise that it's been somewhat lengthened via regrettably cheap tactics -- things like recycled game bosses, repetitive game sections and even some backtracking for the sake of making each of the game's chapters longer. Tie that into a game mechanic that, while better than many other action titles, still has a limited shelf life, and you're left with a game that tries very, very hard to justify its asking price and 2 disc status, but arguably doesn't quite make it. Onimusha's not a bad game, and the polish applied to it does shine through, but at the same time it just falls short of exceptional status.