It’s no shock to see gaming mascots in different video game roles. Over the years, publishers have lent their most popular talent to walk-on in other projects.
Mega Man has tried everything from racing, to fighting, to playing in board games – among others. Mario, the king of moonlighting, has been: a golfer, tennis ace, boxing judge, go-kart driver extraordinaire, tennis umpire, doctor, role-playing hero, and even a plumber on his off-days. It’s no secret that game publishers pimp – I mean farm, yes, farm – out established heroes to make more money for their corporate masters.
These ventures are most successful when there is a combination of star power and-gasp-a good game. However, these two qualities are often missing from franchise offshoots. For every Smash Bros. Melee, there are dozens of Mortal Kombat Mythologies and Mega Man Soccers. Seeing the popularity of their Onimusha series, Capcom – doing what they know best – decided to rent out their feudal fighters in a side-story game of their own. Onimusha Blade Warriors is the bastard child of Smash Bros. and Power Stone, with a little bit of Onimusha thrown in for the heck of it. Unlike those games, however, OBW also has a deep fighting system that benefits from Capcom’s experience. While this is a welcome departure from the simplicity of other party-fighters, it’s one of the glaring problems keeping this game from joining the top-tier genre-leaders.
Each character in OBW has an underlying storyline, but most are similar in nature. Nobunaga stands between you and destiny. You, and your chosen character, battle through ten stages, overcome the impending obstacles, and slice through your opponents to victory! OK, so there’s not much of a storyline, and if you’re looking for one, you’re probably expecting a little too much from a semi-fighter.
In comparison to the previous Onimusha games, the graphics of Blade Warriors is slightly uneven. The character models look as if they were ripped from their respective games; most have a good amount of detail with nice texturing. Some – like Zombie – are on the bland side. Character animation is good, with moves – although often slow to execute – flowing smoothly. Lighting and shadow effects are also nicely done.
The stages, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. Many of the battlegrounds are lushly rendered; flowing grass, thickets of trees and sun-drenched temples sport some nice visual details. One stage in particular is breathtaking, looking like an animated traditional Asian painting. Battling on top of a wooden vessel, crashing water waves, gliding clouds and other nuances have a picture-book quality to them that is just awe-inspiring.
On the flip side, there are several stages with little-to-no flair; simple backdrops with the sole purpose of staging fights. These backdrops lack the care that the others benefit from. One thing they all have in common is the lack of background activity. Most stages only show the sway of grass or fire, and could profit from more style. And with said lack of action, you would think the environments would be a little more gussied-up. But, with up to four characters having it out at once, it would start to tax the hardware. There are hints of slowdown when battles get too chaotic, but they are rare.
A more noticeable weak spot is the game’s presentation. Looking overwhelmingly low rent, the pre-battle screens do not represent a big-budget game. The text is often hard to read, stage screens involve a two-second still, and the menus have the pizzazz of a Goodwill clothing department. The in-game camera is accommodating for the feudal fury, but tends to restrict movement on occasion.
The audio of Onimusha Blade Warriors is equally unremarkable. The serene music has a traditional Japanese style, but fades into the background during fights. While it’s nicely composed, a self-professed fighting game needs more bump in its rump. The sound effects are solid and match up well with the action. Voice acting is typical Capcom fare; meaning that it’s pretty bad. Characters like Jubei have the conviction of wooden Native-American carvings. You’d think that, with the option of subtitles, a Japanese language track would actually be in the game. OBW desperately needs one.
At least the controls of Blade Warriors weren’t overlooked. Utilizing almost every button in some fashion, the nuances lean towards skilled play – an oddity in this genre. The slash button is versatile, and can be combined with other buttons for both offensive and defensive maneuvers. Holding slash charges your weapon for powerful attacks. The kick button disables enemy defenses. Absorbing souls – an Onimusha trademark – has a separate button assignment. The directional pad allows for jumping, dashing, and movement between different background planes. L1 blocks, L2 targets oncoming foes, R1 lines your fighter in a ready stance, and R2 discards weapons. Up and slash executes a shoryuken-type attack, while forward and slash – when charged – blazes a projectile at your enemy. Pressing R1 and kick – with special orbs – engages a powerful special attack. There are even more advanced moves to learn (such as expert “Critical” moves), but they’re almost overkill for the casual fighter.
Gameplay is where OBW can’t make up its mind. On one hand, the deep control scheme suggests a party-fighting game with delusions of grandeur. On the other hand, the repetitive nature of such a game confines the fighting engine and moves to mere window dressing.
OBW features a dozen characters from the start (with spots for an additional dozen). Veteran Onimusha players will recognize stars Samanosuke, Jubei and Oyu, as well as other characters. Each one has their own distinct attributes (i.e. slow and powerful, fast and weak, etc.). Although each hero has slight variations of the same attacks, they’re all different flavors of vanilla.
There are only four modes of play in Blade Warriors. The story mode is a one-player romp through ten stages. Versus mode is for one-to-four players fighting on various levels, either solo or in teams. Custom versus mode is an expansion of the multiplayer mode, allowing you to modify everything from the amount of onscreen players to the amount of lives and the frequency of items that appear. The tutorial mode is a practice ground to learn the controls, and emphasizes learning the skills.
The story mode is one of OBW’s main draws – picking a character; you chart their progress across ten levels. Each stage has a particular objective; absorb a certain amount of souls in a given timeframe, defeat a set amount of foes, etc. These objectives must be met in order to advance, and this adds some variety to the action. Unlike most fighters, OBW allows you to power up your player using the souls and weapons you collect. You can also trade your souls for items to heal and strengthen your fighter.
Onimusha Blade Warriors was clearly designed for multiplayer action, and redeems the tedious nature of the single-player mode. Going against CPU foes puts an emphasis on those advanced moves in order to succeed. Fighting other humans is a trickier affair. Mashing against your friends is good for a few fights, as is dueling with fellow blade masters.
Unfortunately, the single-player mode reveals one of the biggest flaws in the game. Remember that nice fighting system? Remember the effort involved in learning those painstaking Critical moves? They are almost useless. Aping the side-scrolling brawlers of the past, most of OBW is reduced to button-mashing mania. Even in the higher difficulty levels, you can get away with pounding a button to victory. It is only when facing a true challenge that you need to rely on those little-used abilities. Like the games it mimics, the single-player experience quickly grows tiresome.
Another sore area is the plane jumping. Plane jumping can be used strategically to gain the advantage on your opponent. However, you cannot plane-jump in all areas. Some levels require you to perform several plane-jumps to a ledge that is right next to you. Others move you a millimeter in space. While it is a good idea in theory, other games of this type make do – with better results – with a simple jump button scheme.
Alongside the traditional weaponry, are special items scattered through each level. As if to liven up the monotonous atmosphere, we get wacky bludgeoning agents like mallets, laser guns and baseball bats. Needless to say, they are out of place.
That is the biggest fault with Blade Warriors. The game does not know what it wants to be. Capcom fashioned it in the serious tone of its big-brother series, yet flirt with the fun quotient of goofier – and better – games like Smash Bros. The end result is a game that lacks the endearing qualities of both. The characters are only recognizable to Onimusha fans, and have no appeal to those new to the series. The action is simplistic and is more somber than silly-baseball bats and all. At least in Smash Bros., you could go along with the insanity of the mascots having it out. There is no such soul in OBW.
For patient gamers, the replay level of OBW is high. Throughout the story mode, there are dozens of extra weapons, items and outfits to obtain. You can unlock additional stages, more than twelve extra fighters – including Mega Man.EXE and Zero (from Mega Man Zero), and other goodies. I guess Mega Man really does get around. The multiplayer modes provide solid play long after the one-player mode wears thin.
With Onimusha Blade Warriors, Capcom tried to inject the multiplayer fighter with seriousness and a deep fighting system. Too bad their efforts pale in comparison to the games they studied for inspiration. The visuals and sound are solid, but fail to impress. The impressive controls and intricate fighting system are the highlight, but clash with the casual player Capcom is targeting. The gameplay is shallower than the serious tone suggests, and is uncomfortable as a party-game or a technical fighter. Perhaps a Capcom party-fighter with a few recognizable Onimusha characters would have sufficed. Building a whole game around a half-hearted premise and half-recognizable franchise did not.