Nearly five months after its North American debut, it's starting to mean something to have a Sony PlayStation 2 as game developers hit their groove with the hard-to-find machine. Titles such as Capcom's "Onimusha: Warlords" highlight the kind of swift, sweet play largely missing from PS2's early months.
An action adventure full of swordplay and magic, "Onimusha" follows the warrior Samanosuke Akechi as he searches for Princess Yuki, who has been kidnapped by an undead warlord and his demon army.
As the story hints, there's not a lot new to "Onimusha," which might remind some players of "Resident Evil," set in 16th century Japan. Like "Resident Evil," perspective is third person with a static camera that changes angles as characters move across the screen. And Samanosuke uses an inventory system very similar to the one used in "Resident Evil."
But given that the "Resident Evil" series offers some of the best fun on a game console, these similarities only enhance "Onimusha," making it easy to pick up and play without learning a whole new system of control and inventory.
That's good because it's tough enough to get through "Onimusha," which leads players through creepy castles and dank caves in search of Princess Yuki. Monsters and demons gang up on Samanosuke and refuse to die easily. Plus, just as one batch of creeps gets dispatched, another pops up in its place.
Consequently, players spend much of the game madly tapping the square button that sends Samanosuke's sword slicing through the air in search of flesh. Some of the down-and-dirty battles with low-ranking demons get a little tedious because there's not a lot of finesse to Samanosuke's basic swordplay. It's pretty much slash, kick and block.
But face-offs with more powerful beasts require all the skill the game allows. At the beginning of the game, Samanosuke receives a special gauntlet from a tribe of ogres that allows him to swipe the souls of those he kills. As all this soul power builds up in the gauntlet, Samanosuke can use it to make his weapons or magic orbs more powerful.
When fighting a big, nasty creature, for instance, Samanosuke has no hope of winning with basic combat moves. So players have to ration their powers and use them wisely to strike enemies when weak or exposed. It's this more complex fighting mode that makes "Onimusha" stand out as something more than just another third-person slasher.
Add to the action some phenomenal graphics. Cut scenes zip along fluidly, and designers must have had a great time seeing how many details they could slip in. In one big battle scene, for example, the action explodes from a single drop of sweat rolling down a warrior's cheek into full-scale carnage.
Despite the coolness of the cut scenes, "Onimusha" tends to depend too heavily on them. Every few minutes, players find themselves sitting through another clip that looks great--but requires nothing more than sitting there and taking it all in.
During actual play, characters move smoothly and backgrounds look great--a testament to PS2's ability to handle images drawn on the fly almost as perfectly as those rendered beforehand. How many times has a game featured detailed backgrounds only to have blocky characters? In "Onimusha," the difference is negligible.
The result is a game that stays well within the limits of its genre but pushes the technical boundaries for an experience that's second to none. It's finally time to start getting serious about finding a PS2.
'Metropolis Street Racer'
Racing fans have always been treated well by Sega Dreamcast. But as the ill-fated machine begins its slide into obscurity, a new title gives race enthusiasts yet another reason to be thankful.
"Metropolis Street Racer" combines many of the best elements from simulations and arcade racers to offer an experience that's tough to beat. Literally. This is not some Sunday cruiser in which players tool around and look at scenery. It's hard-core racing across San Francisco, Tokyo and London in a tasty fleet of roadsters--from Mazda Miatas and Alfa Romeo Spiders to the sleek Audi TT Coupe.
Even before they start racing, players have to prove their worth by winning their first car. It sounds simple enough: Speed around an empty course in a set number of seconds, and you win the car. It takes many, many attempts, and some players might get frustrated spinning their wheels before they even get to race.
But once the real racing begins, "MSR" reveals so many nifty details that it's impossible to hold a grudge. For instance, radio stations change from city to city with announcers speaking Japanese or British or American English.
Courses are tough and varied--although a little short in some cases. Missing from the game is the ability to just noodle around courses once they've been unlocked. It would have been nice, for instance, if designers had allowed players to cruise the streets of every circuit unlocked in each city.
Other than that, "MSR" is a driver's dream.
Aaron Curtiss is editor of Tech Times.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Genre: Sword fighter
Platform: Sony PlayStation 2
ESRB* rating: Mature
The good: Fast
The bad: Repetitive action
Bottom line: Sweet
"Metropolis Street Racer"
Platform: Sega Dreamcast
ESRB rating: Everyone
The good: Challenging
The bad: Short courses
Bottom line: Not bad
*Entertainment Software Ratings Board