The curse of being a game critic is that you have to play all games with as little prejudice as possible. As you can probably imagine, reviewing games you like is easy, but even covering games you despise isn't as hard as you might think. At least you know where you stand with the title and there's a sense of satisfaction you get from warning the public and extracting you're revenge for time wasted with a scathing review. What make this job tough are those games that are more middle-of-the-road—games with too many problems that keep you from loving it, but at the same time there are just enough good qualities for you not to hate it. The best way to describe these "gray" titles is you tolerate them, and that's largely how I felt about the highly touted and often delayed title, Oni by Bungie for the PlayStation 2.
When first announced to the public, Oni had no shortage of innovative ideas. Players are assigned to assume to role of Konoko, a hot heroine babe in a sci-fi setting. This was a game that was to be the ultimate hybrid. A game that combined all the intense action of a first-person shooter (FPS), the exploration aspects of a third-person game like Tomb Raider, and the hand-to-hand combat of a fighting game like Tekken. To top it off, the whole thing would be packaged in a hip and trendy anime theme. But somewhere during the course of its development, what sounded like a formula for success became a recipe for mediocrity.
Right from the start, I sensed something was wrong. I think in any game, if you find yourself dead within the first five minutes of playing, that's a bad sign. That's exactly what happened to me in Oni. Despite the wonderfully crafted training tutorial stage for players to get accustomed to the complex controls, the minute the actual in-game mission started, I still found myself ill-prepared and dying and restarting quite frequently. If the developers wanted to immerse me in its world early, it failed. Oni is a tough game to manage, and it certainly doesn't earn any kudos for progressive and intuitive design.
Presentation-wise, Oni isn't a knockout, either. Extensive background music is surprisingly absent. The game for the most part is musically silent with the exception of some key locations. Character models and stage architecture seem a bit too bland and unremarkable considering the PlayStation 2's renowned graphic capabilities. All and all, the visuals were passable, but not enough for me to lose myself in its beauty.
Still the main problem isn't its difficulty setting or its form. The main problem with Oni is that all the different parts of the game never leads to consistent and refreshing gameplay. The sum of its parts never quite equals a whole. The control scheme, lifted from the keyboard and mouse FPS standard, seems needlessly strenuous to master. I quickly wondered if a more unique or console-like control scheme would have been more effective. Mission designs reek of age-old conventions that date back to the earliest FPSs with little or no adjustment to the new concept. But perhaps the worst part is that the supposedly innovative hand-to-hand fighting just doesn't feel particularly special. One of the major problems with the fighting portion is that the distinctions between hand-to-hand and firearm combat isn't really apparent or even logical, which makes switching back and forth between them perplexing. You would think that hand-to-hand combat would be inappropriate against an enemy with a machine gun, but what I found was that most guns were ineffective at disposing of most enemies efficiently. Instead, I found myself using hand-to-hand tactics more often than not to disarm enemies rather than shooting it out. This didn't make much sense to me.
I think Oni has such discrepancies because this is a case of function following form rather than vice versa. The developers seem like they had an idea for an interesting game, but never came up with a game design that made sense and naturally exploited the concept. Instead, gameplay situations feel contrived as if they were intentionally setup just to take advantage of Konoko's unique abilities. Perhaps what would explain why some security guards are armed and while other others aren't.
I don't doubt that Oni is a game that has grand ambitions, but regardless of the writing on the wall, Oni feels more like a MOD; like a first-person shooter trying to grow past its original design. This title looks and plays more or less like what you would expect. There are simply no surprises. You can see the story, enemy AI, and mission layout coming a mile away. Oni doesn't defy expectations. It revels in them. That doesn't necessarily make Oni a bad game, but that doesn't make it a revolutionary or a good title, either.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.