Originally released in early 2001, Onimusha: Warlords was an important title for the then newly released PlayStation 2. It was not only a big third-party exclusive – though not developed from the ground-up for the hardware as it started life as an original PlayStation game – but also a game that design wise had elements in common with another Capcom franchise, Resident Evil, which had helped catapult the success of Sony’s debut console. The Onimusha series would see success in the sixth console generation, spawning two direct sequels, two spin-off’s including a Super Smash Bros. style arena fighter and a soft reboot, but the series has lied dormant since 2006’s Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams. Now, nearly close to twenty years since it originally arrived, Onimusha: Warlords is back, remastered with a few additions that make the game more palatable than what it was when it first arrived. For those who have nostalgic memories of the Onimusha franchise, this latest remaster from Capcom will be a fantastic way to relive those early days in the PS2’s life cycle, but newcomers will perhaps struggle to see what makes Onimusha special compared to other games that arguably do what this game does only better, even those from Capcom.
In Onimusha: Warlords, you play as Samanosuke of the Akechi clan who is summoned by his cousin, Princess Yuki, to Inabayama Castle to investigate disappearances seemingly related to the rise of monsters and demons. Upon arrival, Samanosuke is overtaken by demons commanded by the resurrected feudal lord, Nobunaga Oda, and Princess Yuki is taken to be sacrificed as part of a dark ritual meant to strengthen the demon’s hold over the land. In order to combat this supernatrual threat, Samanosuke is given a gauntlet from a clan of oni that can be used to seal the souls of the invading demonic force and aid him in his quest to save the kidnapped princess.
Onimusha: Warlords’ plot weaves in historical figures and places, as well as the likeness of actor Takeshi Kaneshiro who was used for the main character, but it never really escapes its overly simple “rescue the princess” story to get you invested in either the characters or the world that Onimusha presents in the way that something like Resident Evil did on the original PlayStation. As the franchise as a whole continued, it brought in more characters, locations and built a larger universe for itself – with no better example of this than the third entry – but Inabayama Castle is far from the Spencer Estate in terms of a standout location for a video game and Warlord’s rushed conclusion does little to get you excited for what’s to come next in this series if this is your introduction to it. Also you’re going to want to change the dialogue track from English to Japanese right off the top, not only for how authentic it makes the experience, but also because the localized voice over has aged about as well as that of the PlayStation era Resident Evil games which is to say not well at all and does little to sell the simple story.
Given the success they had with Resident Evil, Capcom tried to apply that formula in other areas to create new potential franchises like Dino Crisis which is essentially “Resident Evil but with dinosaurs” and Onimusha which is the same only with demons and samurai. At the very least a sword doesn’t run out of ammo so you don’t need to conserve resources, but you’re still playing as a 3-D character in a completely pre-rendered environment running from fixed camera point to fixed camera point. Even in 2001, Onimusha existed in an odd middle area, not being scary enough to be a horror game like Resident Evil or as fluid as something like Devil May Cry that came in the same year. Though, like Dino Crisis, it would eventually find a niche to call its own.
There’s little in the way of puzzles in Warlords, save some treasure boxes that you need key ciphers to open or combinations you have to figure out with progression mostly locked behind having to find an item or two that combine to open a door. The activity that takes up most of your time is slashing demons of various sizes and while Onimusha doesn’t have the deepest combat system, the constant fights are saved by how intimate the battles are and how customizable your arsenal is. Battles in Onimusha aren’t about flashy combos where you’re launching enemies into the air, but rather near one-on-one duals where reading your opponents and knowing when to block and attack are your key to survival. You’re not going to want to run away from fights either as Samanosuke has three different elemental swords: lightning, fire and wind that can be upgraded to more powerful forms by the souls you collect from fallen enemies, each with their own powerful elemental attack that are invaluable against larger demons, bosses, and the hidden twenty floor gauntlet challenge. These upgrades not only tie into your ability to fight off the hordes of demons that come your way, but also to your progression as certain rooms are inaccessible until your level up your various elemental powers so a pro tip is to sink points into your orbs before your weapons.
As it was late into the PlayStation’s life cycle and early into that of the PS2’s, Onimusha: Warlords opens up with a gorgeous looking cinematic that has survived the transition to the current generation of consoles very nicely, but the same can’t be said once you get into the actual game and you realize why developers moved away from pre-rendered cut-scenes. The environments that you traverse still look very sharp, though not quite as good as those from the remaster of Resident Evil and Resident Evil 0, but the same cannot be said of the character models. Prepare to get a shock when you see Samanosuke for the first time in-game compared to what you saw seconds earlier in the pre-rendered opening cinematic as he, and all of the human characters that make up this game have not aged nearly as well as the environments or the creatively designed demons you’ll plunge your sword into.
Though this remaster of Onimusha is untouched content wise, it does come with some improvements that you’ll wonder how you ever played this game without them. The biggest is that, unlike the original, you can control Samanosuke with the analog stick free of tank controls should you wish, and even if you’re a purist, this is the best way to play this game as it makes the combat that much more enjoyable, though there is some slight problems that come from moving from one fixed camera point to another but you get used to it rather quickly. The other helpful upgrade is that you can freely switch between your three swords when standing still with one trigger and your projectile weapons with the other and its far less cumbersome than having to go into a pause menu to cycle between your arsenal, especially when enemies start to show up that snipe you from the tops of buildings and for a boss towards the end of the campaign that hovers in the air while summoning enemies to fight you.
One problem with the original game that sadly has gone untouched is the ability to skip dialogue scenes which can make getting through certain sections a drag. In particular Onimusha: Warlord’s only real environmental puzzle towards the beginning where you have to switch between Samanosuke and his partner, the female ninja, Kaeda. You switch back and forth between the two navigating traps, culminating in a sliding puzzle that you have to complete in a strict time limit else you get a game over screen and are forced back to the beginning of the series of rooms and is easily the worse part of this entire game. This is made all the worse that the section starts off with a dialogue exchange that cannot be skipped, and this is true not only for this annoying puzzle, but also for several bosses you come across also.
Onimusha: Warlords is reasonably priced for what it is, but it also feels shallow in terms of content making you wish that Capcom had instead remastered the whole trilogy in one package like they did for Devil May Cry. Even when played on the normal difficulty, you can complete Onimusha: Warlords in a under a handful of hours and there are extra difficulties and a mini-game you can unlock if you meet certain requirements, but they’re really for die-hard players only. What’s surprising about this release is that Capcom chose the PlayStation 2 version over an update they released on the Xbox original dubbed Genma Onimusha which added new extras to unlock and gameplay modes and it’s become largely forgotten. Chances are there were a lot of PlayStation 2 faithful who never got to experience Genma’s upgrades so that could have been a big selling point for this largely unchanged remaster.
Onimusha: Warlords is still a fun game and its remaster is worth its low asking price, it’s just a title that has aged far worse than the likes of other Capcom games that have been remastered this generation like the exclusive GameCube Resident Evil games and Okami. If anything a play through of Warlords won’t take up that much of your time and this is not only the easiest way to play this game, but also the best with the movement and in-game weapon cycling upgrades. In terms of story, the original Onimusha doesn’t hold up as well as other titles built in this framework, but hopefully this sells well enough that players can experience the rest of the trilogy – especially the third chapter – or even a new chapter that could fully realize Onimusha’s world of samurai and demons.
Onimusha: Warlords Remastered is available now for Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. This review is based on a copy of the game purchased by the writer. Purchases are available here.