While Capcom is busy remaking the Resident Evil series’ first and most memorable entries, one of its lesser-known (or perhaps less commonly recalled) series is also getting the revival treatment. Sure, it's more of a HD rez-up than a full-blown recreation, but Onimusha: Warlords is a faithful port of a PS2 classic that benefits from some much-needed improvements to its control scheme and more. The result is the subtle restoration of a semi-historical action adventure that still plays as well as it did way back in 2001.
While it might take a few cues from the Resi series – well, quite a few really in the form of fixed camera angles, the use of environmental puzzles and the occasional dips into survival horror – the Onimusha games have always walked their own path with a greater emphasis on hand-to-hand combat and exploration. By embracing actual figures from Japan’s long history of feudal politics and weaving in a supernatural thread inspired by Japanese myths and folklore, Capcom produced a game that dipped into multiple genres without ever feeling thinly spread.
As the first game in the series, Onimusha: Warlords introduces long-running protagonist Samanosuke Akechi, a noble samurai fighting a war against the forces of real-life feudal lord, Oda Nobunaga. While Nobunaga is seemingly killed during the Battle of Okehazama in 1560, Samanosuke receives a letter a year later from his cousin Princess Yuri, explaining that monsters have begun kidnapping people from her home in Inabayama Castle. Our hero arrives a moment too late, but in enough time to learn that demons have indeed infested the land and it’s clear your old foe isn’t quite as dead as he should be.
Handily granted the power to vanquish and consume the souls of his new demonic foes, Samanosuke and ninja companion Keade head out to rescue Yuri and stop the tide of monsters sweeping the region. It’s all very dramatic and takes itself seriously at every turn – just check out the opening cinematic with its peak early 2000s CG animation – but by going all-in with its own lore, Onimusha sets a tone that’s a world away from the slapstick theatrics of the equally historically-inspired Dynasty Warriors games.
While there’s a handful of different ranged weapons to uncover and utilise, you’ll be doing most of your demonic butchery with the classic samurai katana. It might look simple with only a single button for strikes, one for blocks and another for magical attacks, but therein lies Onimusha’s hidden complexity. Magic is tied to three elemental weapons – Raizan, Enryuu and Shippuu – which can be used for wider and more powerful attacks, or for unlocking doors tied to a particular element. Killing foes will drop souls which can be used as currency to purchase upgrades as well as restoring magic and health, depending on their colour.
Every enemy in the game has its own unique attack patterns, movement speed and weaknesses, and Onimusha reveals just how deep its combat goes when you start using your block to parry strikes, leaving foes open to further strikes. Holding ‘R’ will enable you to sidestep and evade enemy hits and ranged fire, and holding ‘Y’ will allow you to permanently kill a downed enemy and stop them reentering the fight. Learning when to dodge vertical and horizontal attacks is key to victory, even if the lack of a more contemporary action-RPG 'dodge roll' stands out like a sore thumb in 2019.
If you’re new to the games in this series, the mix of lightning-fast sword fights and those mostly fixed camera angles will grate quickly. Each battle is often a case of learning where the camera shifts in each room so you’re not left open to an attack you can’t see. Once you’re accustomed to it, you’ll see why Onimusha became such a cult hit on PS2. You’ll learn to read the attack animations of undead samurai, running in to strike and dashing out before being hit. You’ll know to block as soon as you hear the blade ping of a monstrous ninja about to strike off-screen. The three main games that followed enhanced this core setup, but the original still shines thanks to the simplicity of its combat.
Being 18 years on from the original release – and the first time the game has ever appeared on a HD console – returning players will appreciate the improvements Capcom has made. Tank controls are available on the D-pad, but the analog sticks do help give you more agency even when those camera angles are working against you. Visually, Onimusha’s character models look noticeably better, but plenty of background textures really don’t hold up to the clarity modern TVs and monitors reveal.
The background scrolling feature does help address the camera issue somewhat, transporting the game to a widescreen setup in a way that actually reveals more of a given area thanks to the new aspect ratio. You’re also getting access to an easy mode right from the off and a re-recorded soundtrack – have a look into why Capcom was forced to drop the original score, it’s a crazy story. However, while it does the job, it’s not quite as memorable as the one that accompanied the 2001 original, which is a shame.
Almost two decades on, Onimusha: Warlords lives again thanks to a handful of truly impactful changes. Those tank controls are lighter to the touch and the improvements to the visuals help take the edge off those clunky PS2-era looks. The updated soundtrack might be a little inferior, but even it brings an extra layer of authenticity to a game that draws from Japan’s rich history of warfare. Hopefully, the rest of the series will get the same treatment because this classic swashbuckling adventure (with the occasional moment of horror) has just re-sharpened its blade, and we're happy to have it back.