2019 looks like a killer year for Capcom. The highly anticipated Resident Evil 2 remake is just days away from launch, then shortly afterward gamers have the one-two of Devil May Cry 5 and a mammoth expansion for Monster Hunter: World to look forward to. Surely then, a gaming feast like this deserves an appetizer? Well, Capcom certainly seems to think so, as it’s treated us to an entree — a surprise remaster of Onimusha: Warlords.
While Onimusha has faded into obscurity now, when it debuted in 2001, this Sengoku-era take on Resident Evil was far from a mere morsel. Quickly becoming the PS2’s first million-selling blockbuster, Warlords was technologically ahead of the curve, combining system-testing visuals with high profile Japanese voice acting. While he may not be much of a name in the West, the likeness and movements of samurai protagonist Samanosuke Akechi are actually brought to life by renowned Korean-Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro – and for those in Europe, this surprise remaster finally lets players hear that performance in all its glory.
Yet. despite its cult status, Onimusha became lost to time — unlike Devil May Cry, another Capcom series that began life as a Resi mutation. Why? Well, the questionable follow-ups probably didn’t help – can you jump the shark more than a bizarre Smash clone or a time travel plot taking us out of feudal Japan to modern-day Paris with Jean Reno?
Regardless, the original’s been given another chance to impress. And with Nioh, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Ghost of Tsushima on the horizon, samurai are truly back in vogue, so it makes sense for Capcom to jump on the bandwagon it arguably started.
The Sam(anosuke) in the High Castle
Take away the backdrop of feudal Japan’s warring states or the archaic save-the-princess plot, and Onimusha: Warlords is fundamentally a classic Resi game. From its pretty pre-rendered backgrounds to a mysterious castle keep in the mountains, it’s a setup that would make anyone who’s explored the Spencer Mansion feel strangely at home.
The main difference here is that instead of surviving on limited supplies, you’re a samurai given supernatural strength to hack and slash away most of your troubles. If that’s not unfair enough, you can also unleash special magic attacks from each of the three weapons you find, making combat against demonic foes even more of a cakewalk.
The remaster also includes the option to use the analog stick to move freely in 3D, which naturally feels far more instinctive and responsive for a swift katana-wielding samurai than tank controls. Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword once you realise how it adds to the game’s real challenge – those damn fixed camera angles.
They may create a more striking cinematic scene, but it often means you can’t actually see where you’re going or which direction an enemy is coming from. The sudden jolts from one fixed viewpoint to the next just adds to the irritation. It makes you either incapable of running in a straight line or you’re suddenly not facing a boss the right way.
Then there’s the fact that clicking the stick is actually a shortcut to the map screen, all too easy to accidentally click when making a sudden sharp turn under duress. We haven’t brought up a map in error this much since Splatoon 2’s remapped jump button messed up everybody’s muscle memory.
Pull That Soul Trigger
If the combat doesn’t measure up to the challenge or fluidity of Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden, Onimusha: Warlords nonetheless acts as a precursor to FromSoftware’s soul mechanic. Every foe you cut down leaves behind souls as glowing red orbs, which can be used to upgrade your weapons. There are other colors too – white souls refill your magic while yellow souls restore your health. It’s the latter that makes managing healing items significantly less arduous than in Resi – you can even use red souls to upgrade your herbs into medicine that restores you 100%.
These souls don’t just come to you though. You need to hold a button to absorb them into Samanosuke’s special demon gauntlet, which also leaves you completely open to attack. If there’s a horde of enemies coming for you, you might think it wise to clear the room first, but in reality you actually need to strike a balance because honestly, these souls don’t hang around forever.
Fortunately, there are always opportunities to absorb more souls, because in Warlords, your undead foes are pretty relentless. Forget about Dark Souls resetting enemies at bonfires, just leave a room and you’re guaranteed that more will return – and just when you thought you cut them all down, sometimes they just keep jumping in. While these never-ending assailants can be a massive pain in the arse, their relentless raids are actually necessary as you need to upgrade your weapons to certain levels in order to get past certain doors.
My Shinobi Valentine
Thankfully, this game doesn’t only task you with cutting up demons. In classic Resi fashion, this castle is also filled with puzzles, from your classic ‘ finding an item that acts as a key’ to attempting to navigate some of the keep’s more elaborate death traps.
Unlike Capcom’s creepier cousin, you’re not a complete one-man army here either, as Samanosuke is accompanied by his female ninja ally Kaede. She’s also a playable character, which technically makes her the game’s Jill Valentine – hell, she’s even a master of lock-picking, using a Shinobi Kit to access certain doors that Samanosuke can’t.
Sadly, Kaede is only playable in several brief instances (more of a snack than a Jill sandwich then) and there’s really little incentive to play her for long. Without Samanosuke’s fancy demon gauntlet, Kaede lacks the wherewithall to absorb souls and as such has no unique abilities, making her sections a bit dull. We quickly realised that most of the time, it was just easier to run through her sections than put up a fight. So much for Warlords.
Yet, if you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, you might not want to sprint ahead. Even after factoring in Kaede’s sections, after three or five hours tops, you’ll see the credits roll. In all fairness, that’s about the same length as the first Resident Evil, but Onimusha: Warlords’ brevity was even criticized back in 2001, and in today’s content-hungry climate, that’s felt even more acutely – but at least you’re not being asked to pay full-price for it this time.
There are a few concessions for completionists, from a collectible challenge that unlocks a bonus mini-game to a gauntlet challenge in the Dark Realm. It’s just disappointing that this remaster isn’t really the ‘definitive’ version, that honours goes to the enhanced Xbox port Genma Onimusha, which added more content as well as a couple extra mechanics.
Is Onimusha: Warlords any good?
Onimusha: Warlords was an intriguing and successful spin-off of the Resi formula in a Japanese setting. But despite being enjoyable, this is still only a polished remaster of a nearly two decades-old game. That state-of-the-art face and performance capture obviously doesn’t impress as much now and if you had a hankering for a taste of samurai action and Souls-like gameplay today, there are better choices on the menu, like Nioh.
Switch owners may be more comfortable with playing older games than Nintendo’s less portable cousins, but even this feels a bit too short-lived and dated to satisfy our Capcom cravings, especially when there are more exciting oldies to come to Switch, from Resident Evil 4 to the recently announced Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen. For everyone else, the budget price just about makes Onimusha: Warlords a welcome curio to whet our appetite before the full-fat main course of the Resident Evil 2 remake.