If there ever was a game series that defined the PlayStation 2 era, it was undoubtedly Onimusha. Sporting cutting edge polygonal graphics, tight action, and some of the best cutscenes in the business, Capcom’s take of the samurai adventure genre was one of that generation’s greatest series that sadly saw little to no attention once the dial turned to the next. Samanosuke and co.’s epic spanned four PlayStation 2 games, starting with the more horror-focused and straight to the point Onimusha Warlords, which has just gotten a re-release for current consoles and PC.
Warlords starts after the downfall of Nobunaga Oda, the legendary general who almost managed to achieve his dream of forming an unified Japan. Shortly after his death, a demon cult managed to take claim of his mortal remains and brought him back to life in order to carry out their nefarious plans. Counting on his cunning and merciless nature — which is historically accurate, giving him fame for either being heroic or positively evil, depending on where you look — they found their mark with Oda, who now only needs a drink of a fair maiden’s blood in order to become all-powerful. That’s where protagonist Samanosuke comes in, following up on a letter from Princess Yuki, who was abducted and whose blood will fill that role if no one comes to her rescue.
Considering the time of its release, it’s easy to see why Onimusha played the way that it did originally. Capcom was starting to move away from the horrendously impractical tank controls that have since become synonymous with Resident Evil. Even though the (at the time) latest entry Resident Evil: Code Veronica didn’t exactly change things up much on that regard, it was the point where the franchise finally moved into the next generation, giving way to analog controls and better visuals. Onimusha Warlords benefited from similar advances in technology, and albeit it still used plenty of the tricks seen in Capcom’s undead hits, it managed to play somewhat differently, thanks to the fact that you fought with swords, even though you still had to deal with puzzles and having to look for items in order to progress further.
Only later on would Onimusha move on to a more character action style of gameplay, which saw a lot of releases during that moment in time. Warlords stuck with a slower paced, more methodical gameplay that while noticeably more contained than its sequels, still managed to deliver a very tight, no-nonsense experience that didn’t take too long to finish, but that invited you to replay it more than once. Yes, the game feels rather dated when compared to today’s offerings — the fixed camera angles and the lack of directional transition from moving from screen to screen don’t help matters — and even with a fresher coat of HD paint on, it’s still the same adventure you might have played in 2001. Character models have gotten a touch up in sharpness, but the pre-rendered environments look conspicuously blurry, which strike a weird contrast when juxtaposed during gameplay, especially on HD displays.
Progression comes in the form of enemy souls that are spent powering up the handful of different elemental swords that Samanosuke picks up along the way as he explores a besieged samurai castle. These weapons not only help him take down demons quicker, but also open up paths further into the map, with doors requiring more and more levels the deeper you make it into the game. Unlike a time hog of a game like say, the latest God of War, though, Onimusha Warlords dispenses with having you grind in order to continuously level up — every so often, you pretty much have enough points in order to bump one of your powers up regardless of how much fighting you’ve done, so there’s rarely a point during the game’s limited run where you’ll feel forced to partake in grinding.
Aside from the cutthroat pacing, Onimusha should feel familiar to anyone who’s played an action adventure game. Although a little more involved in its exploration than the usual brawler, it’s deliberately so — if you weren’t required to backtrack every so often, there wouldn’t be much to do, given just how small the overall game map is, straight shot from the beginning to the end of the game, there would be only a few screen transitions without all the back and forth that Capcom throws in your way.
Regardless of nostalgia, though, it was a blast reliving it in 2019. There’s something about a game like this, that you can potentially finish in a single sitting, that’s missing from current releases. Onimusha eventually grew into something way more ambitious and crazier as the series moved into the sequels, and similarly to the original Resident Evil, there’s something that Warlords has that none of the later games do.
Maybe it has to do with how it was the first in line to do the things that it did, or like it was mentioned before, how quickly it can beaten thanks to its tight script, or even its crazy re-imagining of Japanese history. It’s undeniable that it carved the way for a franchise that helped define a generation of consoles, and if this re-release is any indication, one that should positively make a comeback.