Odds are, if you could suck the DNA out of an Onimusha game and splice it with the genetic code you lifted from Sega's Shinobi, the resultant offspring would look a lot like Genji: Dawn of the Samurai. Yet, in the same way that two average human beings can combine to create a Tiger Woods or Mario Lemieux, Genji takes the gifts of both parents and turns them into something transcendent—something that resembles its parents, but exceeds them in a lot of really important ways.
At its core, Genji is proof that a game doesn't have to do something new to be great—instead, it can take elements from other titles, refine them to near perfection, and create an experience that is at once familiar but at the same time uniquely satisfying. In this case, the game takes the fluid combat mechanics of Bujingai, the samurai aesthetics of Onimusha and the bullet-time effect made popular by Max Payne and melds them into a gaming mélange that is more satisfying than any of the original games that provided the inspiration. In this regard, the guys at Game Republic are a modern day Dr. Victor Frankenstein—only instead of creating a monster, they've crafted one of the most satisfyingly playable action games to come along in quite awhile.
The game, which drew inspiration from an 11th century Japanese romance novel, has players taking charge of Yoshitsune and Benkei—two heroic warriors who can control the power of a set of mystical stones called Amahagane. The Japanese countryside has been besieged by the evil Hieshi clan, who can also use the Amahagane, and it's up to the two heroes to become legends and free the land.
The story itself isn't anything special, but the presentation is top-notch. Like a novel, the game is broken down into chapters—each opening with an overview. The rest of each segment's tale is told through in-game dialogue (which is presented in the original Japanese with English subs throughout) and some truly beautiful CGI cut-scenes. I've seen my fair share of cut-scenes in the day—to the point where they rarely impress me anymore—but believe me when I say the work on display in Genji is truly impressive.
More impressive, though, is the in-game graphics engine. Genji is, quite honestly, one of the prettiest PlayStation 2 games I've ever seen. The environments are lush and gorgeous featuring cherry blossoms that seem to literally float right off the tree, babbling brooks, atmospheric temples, and numerous other locations that all add to the game's impressive immersion factor. This is one of those games wherein gamers will often stop just to admire the scenery in each area—and it certainly adds credence to the argument that the next gen machines are coming too soon. If a game can still look this good on the "antiquated" PS2 hardware, then the full potential of this generation of consoles has not been truly tapped.
Yet, for all the beauty on display in Genji, what really makes the game so compelling is the gameplay. As mentioned earlier, players can switch between Yoshitsune and Benkei for most of the game. The two characters are night-and-day in terms of mechanics, meaning gamers can choose the one that best suits their style or particular situation and go from there.
Of the two, Yoshitsune seems to be the one the game was designed for. Like the lead characters in the Onimusha and Shinobi games, the character is fast, lithe, and lethal with his swords. Acrobatic moves abound and can be linked into a series of satisfying combos with a few presses of the button and a flick of the analog stick.
Benkei, on the other hand, is a brute. He's slow and lumbering and can't jump over even the smallest of obstacles, but what he lacks in mobility he more than makes up for in raw power. Whereas Yoshitsune might require multiple hits to dispatch a foe, Benkei can often kill guys with a single swing. With his high attack and defense, this is the character for those players who want a tank to take into battle.
However, this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the combat mechanics—the real meat of the system lies in the Kamui gauge and using it effectively.
The Kamui system is basically Genji's answer to bullet-time. When a gauge is filled (players will have up to four gauges by the end of the adventure), the onscreen character can enter "Kamui mode". In this state, time slows down and enemies attack only with a preset move—as the enemy attacks, a square icon appears onscreen. Hit the square button at the proper time and the character does a major counter move that kills regular enemies in one hit and devastates bosses as well. Linking attacks and Kamui moves without getting hit increases a multiplier that gives an experience bonus for each enemy killed, making it easier to level up in short order.
The real beauty of the whole Kamui thing is that it's just totally cool. The slow-motion animations are stunning and the feeling of power as Yoshitsune slaughters horde after horde of enemies without taking a single hit is intoxicating. It takes what is a fairly average action game and bumps it up to the next level. It is possible for a skilled player to go through the game without ever taking a hit with proper management of the Kamui power—which is one of those things that strikes me as really cool about the system.
All that being said, the game is not without some flaws—one of which involves the Kamui set-up that I just gushed over. Yes, the Kamui system is powerful, but at times it's also too easy. Since enemies only do one specific attack while the gauge is active, it's easy to figure out the pattern of the attack and counter it every time. A little more variety in the number of attacks that had to be countered would have been nice. This is particularly true of the game's boss battles, which tend to rely on the gauge to the exclusion of all else—making what could have been some truly epic struggles a lot less fun than just slaughtering the hordes of nameless foes the game throws in the player's path.
The other flaw is that the game is incredibly short—like Danny DeVito sitting on a beanbag short. Players will run through Genji in under eight hours, even with the backtracking to look for extra Amahagane essence and other hidden goodies. I've been pretty vocal in my appreciation for shorter games that end on a high note and don't wear out their welcome, but paying the full price for an experience that ends so abruptly is sure to annoy gamers who expect a longer experience for their $40. The title does offer a new game + feature that carries over stats, weapons, and items into a new game (wherein some unlockable challenges are now available) and a "difficult mode", but honestly it's not the kind of game you'll want to run through numerous times. Players will pull it back out to goof off with the cool combat system, but once the game is beaten it's essentially going to be shelved.
How much these particular issues bother the average gamer remains to be seen, but they were relatively minor to me. I would have liked a longer game with a little more challenge to it, but at the end of the day Genji does so many things well that I found myself willing to live with the flaws. Ironically, many of these complaints were leveled at the original Onimusha as well—and the second game in that franchise wound up being pretty close to classic. Here's to hoping Genji follows that same trajectory.