When I first bought my PS2 (this was the large PS2 and not the tiny one I have today) one of the first games that I played on it was Onimusha. For a console title at the time, it was perfect. There was plenty of combat, a good amount of puzzle solving, an interesting plot and colorful graphics. I think I played it all night long.
Of course other people felt the same way and the game was a huge hit, with its Japanese-style fighting and characters. It was only natural that many sequels would be created. When the "third and final" Onimusha game came out a few years ago, players were finally able to help unite the many warring kingdoms of Japan under one, supposedly good, ruler. The demons that roamed ancient Japan were finally defeated and the nation was finally in a peace that would last forever.
Apparently forever is about 15 years, because Onimusha Dawn of Dreams is set in 1598, and comes to us as a surprising fourth title in the supposedly retired series. Just about everyone was surprised that this title came out, considering it was supposedly tucked away, at least until the PS3 is released. It is suiting however that one of the first titles I ever played on the PS2 will likely be one of the last as the console begins its end-of-life ramp-down.
The premise is that Japan’s ruler has gone insane and brought back the days of warring states. The Japanese demons – the Genma – are happy with the chaos and begin to reappear to fuel the fires. You will remember the Genma from previous games. They are pretty much what we in the West would call zombies. When you kill them you can absorb their souls which is used to both heal your character and also to cast magic spells.
You start out playing as Soki, a samurai type warrior whose mission is to destroy demonic cherry trees being planted throughout the land. Don’t let that guy near Washington DC! The trees in this case however are very evil, although only Soki at first can see it. If this were like previous Onimusha games, you would probably play the entire thing as Soki. But now you have access to new characters that can either come along on missions or even become your primary fighter.
There are actually four other characters that are both playable and upgradeable. Each character has a special ability or two that comes in handy as you travel, like Jubei, who is an extremely tiny young female warrior who can walk across planks and squeeze through passageways others characters cant. Some of the replay value of the game is that you can go back and play levels that you have already completed, but with new characters. Suddenly stone blocks can be pushed away or tiny planks can be traversed, depending on which characters you have brought along for the ride. You can normally have two characters fighting with you, with one being your primary controlled one and the other using their AI (and a series of commands you can give them) to either fight or stay out of trouble.
The gameplay itself remains very faithful to the original series with easy to master combo moves and fallen opponents spitting out plenty of souls. Certain souls can be used at special mirrors during the game to upgrade weapons and armor, sort of like money. Actual money can be found as well and used at shops to purchase new items. Almost every item in the game can be upgraded to provide more protection (for armors) or more attack power (for weapons.) Sometimes equipping the right sword against the right enemy can make all the difference.
Within each level there are several mini-challenges that need to be overcome. You might have to kill an opponent or a series of opponents within a certain time limit for example. You are rated based on your performance and can always go back and try again if you don’t get the score you want. Higher scores earn higher rewards like medicine or money.
And my old favorite, the puzzle boxes, have returned. Each box contains interesting treasures if you can figure out their locks, which can be done by rotating pieces until the right colors line up. You only have a limited number of moves to try this however, so you really have to think about what you are doing on the harder ones. If you get frustrated, you can simply break the box open, but the item you receive will not be identified, which causes you to spend money at the store so you can use the item. It’s the penalty for not solving the puzzle, but you at least still get the item.
There are many, many weapons and strange items that can be found as well. One sword might work against ice based or fire based creatures. And an armor type might have special properties or abilities if you upgrade it to a certain level. It makes it a real treat when you find things, because you never know what you are going to get.
The main mission takes about 20 hours to complete and the game actually ships on two PS2 disks, both of which have game data on them. I can’t remember another PS2 title that had to ship on two disks except when disk two was just a bunch of extras. Dawn of Dreams is so big it has to fit on two disks.
The biggest complaint I have is that sometimes the combat can seem endless. I guess with the original I was enthralled with it, so I did not mind constant fighting. Now however, it seems a bit like more of the same stuff. If you like to hack and slash your way through an endless parade of reasonably smart monsters, then you will get your fill here. Also, some of the boss battles are unbelievably hard. So expect a challenge.
The surprise fourth installment of the Onimusha series remains true to the originals, but also improves on them quite a bit with more items to find and upgrade and gameplay enhancements like a fully rotating camera angle. It should appeal to hardcore fans and newcomers alike. It earns 4 GiN Gems.