When I think of the samurai, I think of the single slice that renders an enemy lifeless and the graceful way even death becomes art. An early definition for the samurai was "those who serve in close attendance to nobility," though if you've ever seen Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, then you know that they were historically treated with both honor and disgust, as many people did not know that besides being excellent fighters they were also very intelligent, using strategies of the mind to win battles. It is this precision of both body and mind that makes the samurai such popular mainstays in films, anime, and videogames.
In many ways, game designer Yoshiki Okamoto (who before forming Game Republic, helmed Flagship, an independent developer funded by Capcom) captures in Genji the beauty of the samurai world, just not the precision of it. You won't find many people wishing for the old days of adventure gaming, where controls were clunky and even if you saw a zombie headed your way, it didn't mean you could avoid having your neck removed by it. But I am going to be one of those people today and probably only for the duration of this review, but long enough for you to understand where I am coming from.
But we'll get to that in a minute. No one will argue that this game isn't gorgeous. The amount of detail Game Republic packs into the scenery is astounding and depending on whether you use the rather flamboyant, dread-lock sporting samurai Yoshitsune or the bulky and fearsome monk Benkei, how you interact with the environments will differ and plan to make return visits to locales, to find new enemies and items. Speaking of items, Genji boasts a full arsenal of weapons, armor, and accessories for both heroes to use. You can even earn pieces and combine them at smiths to create new armor and weapons. How you earn these pieces is the center of the gameplay: Kamui.
As I was saying earlier, the idea of precision, or single-strike kills, go hand in hand with the samurai, so Kamui attempts to replace the counterattack or critical chain offered in the Onimusha series. A replenishable bar denotes the amount of Kamui energy you hold, and as you beat bosses, you earn more levels of Kamui, culminating finally in a triple that is pretty much unstoppable. By tapping L1 you enter a counter state and then as enemies approach, the square button will flash and if you hit it at that right time, you will perform a counter. You can chain a bunch of these together and then will be rated once the Kamui state is over. As you fight, a combo rating system, very similar to Devil May Cry, will fill and the more you max this out, the higher experience bonuses you get. This experience translates into leveled-up strength, defense, and vitality and besides this you can find Amahagane pieces that will level up these attributes as well.
All this may seem rather complex right now, but trust me, at heart, Genji is a hack-n-slash title, and this is where I think it fails to elevate itself beyond the genre. Remember when I said I missed the early days of Resident Evil-style controls? Kamui is an interesting concept, but it lacks the feel of a precise, reflex driven counter system or the difficult chain counter system in Onimusha. Thankfully, Genji does have an instant kill feature, where just as the enemy is about to strike, you can attack--the screen goes black and white and the enemy falls in one stroke. But normal combos float you all over the screen, and even with the lock-on feature and rolling, well, it isn't as nice as being able to tap sidestep while locked in position as you can in the more rigid control scheme of old.
If it feels like I am comparing this title too closely too Onimusha, it's because it really feels like the same game, minus the puzzles (remember that accursed Water Puzzle? Argh!). Even the brevity of the adventure matches the first Onimusha; a length I have no problem with. Sure you can beat the game in less than 10 hours and there are few elements to warrant a replay (extra trial stages open up in hard mode), but this is mindless, fast-paced fun. It is a great first entry of a series that already has a sequel announced for the PlayStation 3. Considering that the next installment of Onimusha has supposedly done away with its previous control system, it may be a toss up as to which will be the definitive samurai series.