Onimusha: Warlords and its immediate sequel were always kind of anachronistic: a pair of samurai-themed action games that seemed to belong in some way to the PS1 era, yet slashed an incisive path deep into the next generation and became defining PS2 titles.
Originally conceived as ‘Sengoku Resident Evil’ for the doomed Nintendo 64DD, before significant development on the PS1, Onimusha: Warlords eventually launched for the PS2 in 2001. Set in Sengoku-era Japan, it threw you into a feudal palace filled with puzzles, and beset by demonic samurai forces who seek to rule the mortal realm with the help of resurrected Japanese general Nobunaga Oda (yep, he actually existed).
The game’s previous-gen roots were palpable in the fixed camera angles, painterly pre-rendered backgrounds and advanced-yet-awkward tank controls. It was still a pretty impressive game during the nascent stage of a console that no one really knew the full capabilities of, and felt like something of a spiritual bridge to the golden era of survival horror games on the PS1.
A trailer for the unfinished PS1 version of Onimusha
Just a few short months after Onimusha’s release, technically more advanced games like Silent Hill 2 and Devil May Cry arrived and began really showcasing the PS2’s capabilities with 3D environments, dynamic shadows, and combat mechanics. But Onimusha held its ground and its 2002 sequel more or less matched the sales of Dante’s best-selling adventure, Devil May Cry 2 (let alone the criminally underselling Silent Hill series).
Maybe that’s because, in this strange blend of old-school survival horror and methodical slashy action, Onimusha offered something other games didn’t.
It directly brought many of the original Resident Evil trilogy’s quirks into the new generation, from potted medicinal herbs to the exploration of a large space that you gradually unlock and interconnect via shortcuts and puzzle-solving. Combat was simple but satisfying, allowing you to lock onto and circle enemies, block and dodge their attacks, then counter with your own. Slash an enemy while they’re right in the middle of an attack animation, and you’d kill them instantly. Against the tide of increasingly hyperactive action games that forced you to memorise 20 different combos (or just spam about two of them), Onimusha felt refreshingly restrained.
Naturally these strengths are tied to its context, and aren’t directly transferable to a re-release 18 years later. The version of Onimusha: Warlords that I’ve played through on PC isn’t much of a remaster either, more an HD re-release with widescreen support, unlocked resolutions and refresh rates.
There’s also newly recorded music, and voice acting for those who choose to play the game with Japanese dialogue. Improvements have also apparently been made to the character models and backgrounds, though jumping between this and the PS2 original doesn’t reveal any discernible differences.
At their best, the pre-rendered backgrounds turn each scene into a vignette, providing elegant framed settings for your scuffles against the demons. I particularly like the sporadic loops of animation on these backgrounds, such as clouds outside a window drifting through the night sky, flickering candles, or water perpetually rippling in the palace pond. Warlords and its sequel really felt like the pinnacle of this aged aesthetic, though my nostalgic reverie while playing was occasionally broken up by ugly pixelation and blotchy colour depth in the background, dulling the illusion that upheld so many great games in the late 90s.
The combat still feels good, and I’m pleased to report that the coup de grace you can perform on a downed enemy by driving your sword through them is just as crunchy as I remember. Aside from the three magic spells you eventually unlock, there are few sparkles or fancy effects when you hit enemies, but that’s fine. Satisfaction is instead derived from perfectly timed blocks and strikes, or circling around bigger enemies to hit them from behind after evading their lumbersome attacks. Chuck this patient form of combat in with the reticulated map and absorption of demonic souls to gain experience, and Onimusha starts to seem a little like a distant progenitor to the Souls series or Nioh.
But don’t get too carried away by that comparison. Onimusha is much easier than either, and at four to five hours in length probably ranks among the shortest mainstream single-player games I’ve ever played. There is a pretty obscure Ultimate Mode to unlock after you complete the game, as well as bonus costumes, but it lacks the depth and accessibility that made Capcom’s own Resident Evil 2 such a joy to play through repeatedly.
Then there’s the fact that the fixed camera angles bring obvious and pretty much insurmountable problems to character movement. Capcom mercifully added full analogue support to this version, at least removing the bugbear of tank controls, but things can still get messy when you unexpectedly move into a new camera angle and are forced to recalibrate your internal compass. The amount of times I turned a corner into a new camera shot, only to have a brainfart and run back from where I came, is dizzying.
This can get especially baffling when you’re circling an enemy during combat and suddenly transition into a new pre-rendered shot. You have the choice to either stop moving for a second, then re-direct your analogue relative to the new fixed camera angle, or just keep holding the direction you were moving in originally, then change directions relative to the camera angle of the previous shot you were in.
It can all descend into a maelstrom of directional relativity, compounded at times by a confusing sense of depth that can make you feel like you’re playing the game with an eyepatch. None of this will be news to those who have played any old-timey Resident Evil game, but Onimusha is more combat-oriented and demands a level of precision that the fixed-angle format struggles to accommodate.
Yet I can’t help but like Onimusha. It’s obviously not a seamless world (seams are bloody everywhere with fixed camera angles), but the way the different paths of the fort link back with each other through shortcuts, and racking your brain to remember where this key or that ceremonial dagger might go, makes it a fun vertical slice of a bygone era.
At one point early in the game, I mindlessly slashed a rope, causing an item to drop down a well onto a seemingly out-of-reach ledge. Having forgotten all about it I was delighted when, later on, I worked my way through an underground area and found myself on that ledge, grabbed the item, and used a ladder to climb back up the well. Something about this elliptical structure gives me a soothing feeling of satisfaction that is best known these days as ‘the Dark Souls effect.’
There’s enough mastery to the combat that Warlords may be worth playing through a couple of times in pursuit of higher rankings, though this admittedly doesn’t offset the brevity of a single playthrough. Perhaps Capcom didn’t want to risk investing more time into a long-dormant IP than it needed, but bundling Warlords in with its much more substantial sequels (as with the Devil May Cry HD Collection) would have made for a far more tantalising package.
Unless Onimusha tingles your nostalgia senses like it does mine, it’s best approached as a historical artefact; a glimpse into a crossroads video-game era where one series stood by the old way of doing things (until its third iteration starring Jean ‘Leon’ Reno, at least). Warlords is a brief but noble display of an outdated code: a samurai standing defiant, sword poised, against an aggressively modernising world.