Onimusha Tactics was originally released 12 years ago, in 2003, for the Game Boy Advance. Developed and produced by Capcom, the same company that made the Onimusha series on the PS2, Tactics's gameplay and individual story deviates from the originals but retains a similar plot (involving the Onimusha and battling against the Genma, controlled by the evil Nobunaga). Unlike the other games, Onimusha Tactics is a tactical RPG, and plays more like Final Fantasy Tactics (though a stripped down version).
Now, that's not to say that a stripped down Final Fantasy Tactics is a bad thing, of course. Like the Fire Emblem series, Final Fantasy Tactics shared a permanent death feature. If your character was defeated (and unrevived) in battle, they are dead. Done-zo. A distant memory. Where Onimusha Tactics shines is it's approachability and reduced difficulty. When a character is defeated (save for the main protagonist), they are merely absent for the rest of the battle; after the battle happens all of your KO'd players are back in your party.
Onimusha's battles consist of the classic isometric top down view with a grid laid out. At the beginning of each match you're given a handy run-through of the level layout, and a view of where your characters will start the match. Then you're brought to a character selection screen, reminiscent of Fire Emblem for the GBA (another game from around the same time). From there, you can decide equipment for each party member, and you have a chance to fill the two slots that they have for items. This is one piece that will have you strategizing more so than other RPG of the era. Rather than a shared inventory system, or the ability to carry multiple of the same items, you're left with two slots, which means two items total.
Maybe you're stuck in a particularly hairy battle against a swarm of Genma demons, too bad. Just don't get separated from the herd, or your two healing herbs per match won't do you much good. It's a nice trade-off from the permanent death to a bigger emphasis on item strategies. Another fantastic battle feature is the crafting. By combining Genma stones using recipes, both that are acquired through battle, you can create new weapons, armour, or accessories. Then from there you can further enhance them, using the souls of the dead Genma you've defeated thus far, with a weapon from early game ranking higher to match your level.
Between all of the hectic grid-based fighting, you're following the story of Onimaru, his sister Oboro, from the legendary Oni Clan. Onimaru returns home from training to find that his hometown is being ransacked and destroyed by Genma demons, led by Nobunaga Oda (you mean Oda Nobunaga, the feudal samurai warlord that fought for the unification of Japan in the 1500's? Yes, the very same… except with demons. He now wants to unify Japan with demons. At least he's consistent, right?). Unable to protect his village, Onimaru and Oboro set out after Nobunaga to try and stop his destructive plans and save the lives of his future victims. It is along this trip that he learns of the 4 animal spirits that are destined to help his clan defeat the evil Genma.
The plot, although rudimentary at times, is still quite enjoyable. With a mix between famous Japanese historical figures and folklore, the story can be captivating (and especially interesting to history buffs that enjoy seeing “real" people in fictional video games). The dialogue, however, leaves much to be desired. Although likely a result of weaker translations at the time, you're left with a script that can induce a lot of cringing. Early into the game, when you meet up with your sister and you're given the Oni Gauntlet (armour passed down in your clan), she says “If you weren't my brother, I could totally go for you". There are more examples besides, though these issues aren't uncommon in RPGs from this era.
Although this is a review for the Wii U eShop Virtual Console game, the music still retains its Game Boy Advance glory. The music paces the story and battles extremely well, and borrows from classic JRPG styles of musical composition. The sound effects, on the other hand, can disrupt this flow. Smacks, swords, and the stereotypical Japanese gong are loud and disjointed during cutscenes. This is likely due to hardware limitations on the GBA. Battle sound effects, however, fit well with the classic music and gameplay.
There are a few other things that Onimusha Tactics does quite well for a retro handheld game. The first one is the ability to jump back through conversation. The text moves quite slowly in the game, so if you find yourself trying to skip ahead to read it and accidentally taking yourself a bit too far through the dialogue, you can tap the L button to jump back; more games nowadays should take advantage of a feature like that. Another minor plus is the dual save slots. Especially helpful when you're crafting, playing with different character combinations, sharing your game/console with a friend or family member, or if you like to have multiple saves just in case. Although not uncommon 10 years ago, it's a nice feature to have in a GBA game.
Onimusha Tactics wasn't exactly innovative when released, but it certainly doesn't feel stale when played today, either. With an interesting story, several unique characters and a satisfying battle system, it's a welcome addition to the Wii U eShop's ever growing Virtual Console. You can also take advantage of some of the Wii U eShop VC features to enhance your experience. Saving your state makes it easy to pause and resume your game at anytime, and the GamePad screen gives you a bit of portability (playing to the nostalgia of using a Game Boy Advance for this title).
You certainly get a solid experience for a low cost.