Replay Value: 9
Enter Soki, aka Yuki Hideyasu, Aoki, Blue, the Blue Oni, the Oni of the Ash, etc. The hero of this story goes by many names (whether that's a translation issue or what, I don't know), but he's also quite handy with a broadsword. He's joined by one of the last remaining members of the Yagyu clan, Akane (who has inherited the title of “Jubei” from her grandfather, the protagonist of Onimusha 2), Ohatsu, Soki's love interest who wields a combat rifle, Tenkai, a monk from Mt. Hiei who possesses the Oni Gauntlet, and Roberto Frois, a genetically-altered Jesuit priest who specializes in fisticuffs. Evoking the multi-character mechanic of Onimusha 2, you'll be able to switch between these five heroes most of the time and each has their own unique fighting style making the variation well worth the effort.
The level of customization present in Dawn of Dreams is unprecedented for the Onimusha series. Always one to allow you to upgrade three or four weapons, the wealth of options found here exceed that ten-fold. There are well over 100 weapons spread amongst the five characters, all of which can be upgraded 10 levels and have unique properties. This is not to mention the ability to combine found ingredients into new items and the veritable trove of stat-enhancing accessories that you'll discover as you play. Though the original Onimusha was billed as something of a “Samurai Resident Evil,” the series has matured into something of an elite action-RPG. The likeness becomes even more apparent when you consider that not only do you receive souls with which to upgrade equipment from downed enemies, but experience points which allow you to increase your individual character stats. Hell, they even leave gold on the ground when they die that can be used to purchase items at shops. Other conventions like unleashing your Oni form and the infamous puzzle boxes return.
Control is just as good (if not better) than it was in Onimusha 3, once again shirking the tank controls of old. This time around, you also get control of the camera most of the time, so you aren't stuck with prescribed views.
Despite all this, Onimusha sometimes gets overlooked, but I'd bet any gamer would turn their head at the mention of series creator Keiji Inafune, who has also overseen the legendary Mega Man series, Shadow of Rome, and last year's blockbuster, Resident Evil 4. All are exquisite action titles with a fair amount of depth and Dawn of Dreams is no different. If you liked any of those other titles, Onimusha is definitely worth a shot.
If there's one area in which to criticize the game, though, it's that the first few stages are a little misleading in terms of length and difficulty. The second mission is, quite literally, a single battle, and the difficulty doesn't seem to ramp up immediately like it did in previous games. Nonetheless, give it some time and it really shines. Later levels can be quite difficult, throwing some really tough enemies and boss fights in the mix. There are plenty of the latter, of course, with the final mission having a total of eight in succession! You can also spend hours running around in the Dark Realm, a feature that returns from previous Onimusha titles. In this one, though, you can access it at any time in-between stages instead of having to seek out hidden locations. DoD's Dark Realm is 100 levels deep and you'll have to plow through all of them to retrieve the most powerful weapons in the game. You'll have to really practice your Issen techniques (quick and powerful counterattacks that can be chained) to pull it off .Whether you decide to take on that challenge or not (I did, and it was suitably taxing, taking up several hours of my time with Ohatsu on her last ropes by the final fight), it's a good place to gain some experience when you're having a hard time with the main quest.
As it seems to be a trademark of Inafune's games lately, Dawn of Dreams is replete with extras and replayability. It's quest is lengthy the first time around (25-30 hours or so), but once you know the story and how to go about things, the game's well accommodated for a speed run. You can also unlock harder modes, a two-player Arena, and hidden costumes based on Street Fighter characters amongst other goodies.
From a presentational point of view, there's really nothing to complain about. The graphics are crisp , smooth, and detailed. Unlike many other action games these days, the framerate constantly runs at a brisk 60 fps no matter how much carnage is on-screen. This is no doubt due in part to the small areas which can be a pain due to their discontinuity (constantly moving to new rooms means you can lose your bearings easily). The loading between them is somewhat annoying, not due to the length, but the frequency induced by this microcosmic approach. The trade-off is ultimately worth it, though, as the framerate lends a lot to the speed and fun of the action. The art direction should be commended, as well. Character and enemy designs are generally creative and the set pieces are quite beautiful. Near the end, as you travel through a Genma-twisted Kyoto, you can't help but stop and stare at the blooming Cherry Blossoms or the looming castle in the distance silhouetted by the intense glow of the falling Omen Star.
The sound work is also quite nice. Dawn of Dreams features new opening and ending songs both from Japanese pop star Ayumi Hamasaki which are both quite wonderful. The rest of the OST is rounded out by a mix of traditional Japanese instrumentation and modern rock music. Sometimes it recedes into the background (though it does compliment the epic pace of the on-screen action), but some songs, like Roberto's theme, are really quite noticeable in a good way. All of the sound effects are extremely solid and the grunts of enemies will usually cue their next attack, making them integral for gameplay. Striking an enemy feels and sounds meaty, essential for a great action game like this. Voice acting is pretty good, if a little spotty. If the English voices irk you, Capcom has graciously included the full Japanese audio track, something that few companies bother to do.
The overall package is wonderful and there is little to really complain about. The puzzles are a kind of chintzy, mostly of the “Find the Blue Lion Key” variety that Resident Evil popularized (of course, considering the series' aforementioned producer, this is little surprise). Also, cutscenes are of variable quality. You've got some really beautiful CG sequences, some pretty-good in-game stuff, and then you've got the between-level hideout conversations where the characters only use canned animation and their mouths don't move. Honestly, though, that's a small price to pay for entry into, at least in my opinion, one of the best action games to grace the industry in years. It's fun, lengthy, beautiful, and really, really satisfying. Onimusha 3 started disappearing off of store shelves pretty early and even a price drop from most retailers couldn't help it. Dawn of Dreams may be headed for the same fate, so buy it while you can!