Submitted by: Retro Gamer
Onimusha: Warlords proved an early hit on the PS2, and in an era where Capcom would often swap development teams between instalments – as seen in Resident Evil and Devil May Cry – Onimusha 2 was built by a mixture of series veterans and all-new staff. The aim was to flesh out the universe of the series in Onimusha 2, doubling the number of cut-scenes and incorporating adventure-style elements, which Samurai’s Destiny bolstered by using motion capture in what was then a revolutionary way.
In a unique move, Capcom used the likeness of deceased actor Yusaku Matsuda, who starred in the Ridley Scott movie Black Rain, to be the face of brand new protagonist Jubei Yagyu. Matsuda had posthumously been used in commercials prior to this, and his likeness was selected for his resonance with Onimusha’s primarily Japanese audience.
The resulting title shifted a million copies in Japan within two weeks, six weeks faster than the original, but, unlike its predecessor, it didn’t do amazing numbers in the West. This lack of commercial success led to the third instalment using a renowned Western actor, Leon star Jean Reno, to try to gain the series traction once again.
Working against the conventional wisdom of sequel-making, Capcom ambitiously chose to make Onimusha 2 as much about character interaction as it did about hack-and-slash combat. Though the latter was built upon with a suite of new elemental weapons, better controls and other mechanical tweaks, a unique trading system completely rewrote the structure of Samurai’s Destiny.
Early on, Onimusha 2’s vengeance-driven protagonist encounters four different mercenaries of various skill sets in a mining town, near the mountains where most of the game takes place. For the first three hours, players can swap items with these NPCs, receiving tools that can either be traded on or used in battle. It’s not quite as simple as it seems, however, as the four warriors will react warmly or negatively towards you depending on what you choose to hand over.
You begin to understand that each character has a set of personal preferences: gunsmith Magoichi likes to learn, the monk Ekei enjoys eating, the ninja Kotaro is into 16th Century trinkets, and fencer Oichi values jewellery. This determines several key factors that shape the remaining six hours or so of Onimusha 2: the cut-scenes you’ll see and which characters will turn up to assist in battle, but most crucially, which of their side quests you’ll actually get to play in a departure from the main narrative.
There’s more than a touch of the RPG genre to it – and in contrast to some modern choice-based games, this one rewards you with tangibly different playing experiences, rather than just tacking on a cut-scene to remind you which box you ticked. Each character’s side quest lasts about an hour, offering different scenarios and contrasting playing styles to Jubei’s own, and reflecting the positive relationships you build up with them due to the trading. The ending changes, too, and gaining one ally may cause another to turn against you.
Take Magoichi, the gunslinger. If you relentlessly court him with shiny objects, his storyline will intersect with Jubei’s, taking the protagonist out of action for a spell while you play a third-person shooter version of Onimusha. If you’d traded the machine gun found earlier in the game with Magoichi, that weapon will be in his inventory when you take control. Better still, these choices are not binary, nor are they signposted. There’s no meter that says which NPC likes Jubei the most, and very strategic players can win the affections and side quest content of more than one character, creating a unique and unpredictable story structure that accounts for the randomness of your actions.
It’s a genius story paradigm, and one so unexpected in a Capcom title. Jubei’s battle with Nobunaga is a one-off within the series’ continuity. This genuinely rewards experimentation in a way that filters down into the minute-to-minute gameplay, a feat for which it was never properly credited in an era of only linear action titles.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Despite being rated highly, the original Onimusha carried the stigma of being known as Resident Evil with swords – and the second instalment, more than any other, proved that this franchise had its own identity. The inventive trading solidified the player’s connection with the four main NPC companions, creating a brilliant ecosystem that fashioned each player’s experience into something unique, not to mention the obvious replay value that enhanced Samurai’s Destiny.
Between four main instalments and three spin-offs in five years, Capcom over-exposed Onimusha to the point where it killed the series, yet nestled in that brief streak of its popularity was one very strong attempt to break away from a typical action-adventure structure, into territory with which the Japanese publisher isn’t usually associated. Onimusha 2 is evidence that innovation can emerge from unexpected places.