A historical drama best left as a piece of history.
It’s difficult to judge Onimusha Warlords in 2019. Originally released on Playstation 2 in 2001, Onimusha was an incredible showcase of what a new generation of video games could be with full voice acting, motion-captured cutscenes, and pre-rendered backgrounds. These were huge achievements at the time, but almost 18 years later they’ve lost a bit of their luster. Nearly two decades of advancements in technology and game design have left this early technical showcase feeling a bit bland and underdone.
Onimusha is set in Japan during the Sengoku Jidai and stars Samanosuke Akechi, a samurai fighting a demon army led by the historical warlord Nobunaga Oda. Throughout the story, Samanosuke encounters other historical figures from the Sengoku Jidai as he attempts to rescue the princess Yuki with the power of a demon gauntlet that enables him to absorb the souls of his fallen foes. The plot is mostly just an excuse to facilitate some classic demon-slaying action. In combat, Samanosuke’s sword skills can be augmented with magical attributes powered by demon souls. Along the way, you'll collect three different weapons that each carry their own unique combat stances and magical elements.
The combat isn't bad, but it's pretty simple and gets old quickly. While switching weapons on the fly (a new feature in the updated rerelease) definitely keeps fights a little fresher, there’s only so much you can do when each weapon is limited to the same two attack combos. I can’t blame one of the earliest 3D action games for lacking the dynamic combat stances and combos we’ve come to expect from the genre nowadays, but it stands as another reason Onimusha struggles to hold up in 2019. Full 360-degree movement has been added to the analog stick for the rerelease, and while it’s a welcome change from the original’s D-pad tank controls, it still can’t save Warlords from showing its age.
The presentation fares even worse when compared to modern games. Instead of a full makeover in the style of Resident Evil 2’s upcoming remake, Capcom chose to retain the fixed pre-rendered backgrounds. While they’ve been cleaned up with a higher resolution and full widescreen support, the backgrounds still aren’t crisp enough to blend with the in-engine models. It’s easy to tell when part of the environment is going to move in a scene just from how different it looks from the background. Once upon a time this was a clever trick to make graphics look better than anything the PS2 was actually capable of, but nowadays it doesn’t look as good as other games on Switch.
The fixed camera angles needed to keep up the illusion of depth in the backgrounds also get in the way of gameplay. When exploring the world, camera changes get disorienting as each shot’s angle can be drastically different from the last, and it can often be confusing figuring which way you’re supposed to be pointing the analog stick in between shots. Things get worse during combat as enemies aren’t programmed to take the camera angles in mind, so they’ll often be entirely off-screen or stuck in a spot that’s not clearly visible at any angle. This is most noticeable during the first boss fight against an ogre that moves around an arena with four camera shots. Because the arena can only be seen from four specific spots, you’ll end up spending half your time in the fight guiding the boss toward an area where you can clearly see what’s going on to avoid its attacks and connect with your own.
Onimusha Warlords made the jump to Switch almost entirely intact. If you loved the original and want the chance to go back to it, you won’t be disappointed. The old control scheme is still available on the D-pad, and every cutscene is kept exactly as it was before, voice acting and all. With the only changes being an excellently redone soundtrack, this port is the perfect way to relive your memories of the Playstation 2 classic. However, if you’ve never played Onimusha, this port’s only real value is as a simple way to experience a piece of history. Over the course of 18 years, other games have improved on everything that once made Onimusha great.