The latest title in the Onimusha series, Dawn of Dreams, arrived promising greatness. What it did bring, however, was more in line with an improvement on an already great PS2 series. For those familiar with the Onimusha series, playing Dawn of Dreams is like meeting up with a friend who's just come back from a long holiday. At first you may feel slightly uncomfortable, and more than a little in awe of their newfound impressiveness. However, 6 hours into the holiday stories (or the game as the case may be) you realise they are the same old friend you know and love, but with a glowing tan and a few new tricks up their sleeve.
When a bright omen star appears in the sky one night, the fragile peace that held Japan together breaks, bringing with it a mad and possessed leader, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and, curiously, a lot of evil cherry trees. After surviving through some intense and furious cut scenes, you'll start out in the shoes of a mysterious blue-clad warrior known as Soki. (To confuse anyone not paying enough attention, Soki is also known by a multitude of other names throughout the game including The Blue Demon and The Oni of the Ash.) As Mr. Blue-Soki-Oni-Ash, you set out across 16th century Japan to destroy the sinister cherry trees that are sprouting across the land, bringing with them a wave of evil Genma demons intent on destroying everything in their path.
Fortunately, you won't have to defend the entire country alone. Along the way you'll join up with a number of other characters who, opportunely enough, don't want the country crawling with Genma either. On the downside, each of these characters won't trust you an inch when you first meet them, so to add to your growing worries, you'll be fighting your friends before they join your party. Using your huge broadsword to subtly convince them is well worth the effort though, as once they ally themselves with you, you'll be able to strategically swap control at times and use each characters strengths to suit different situations.
Newcomers to the series will be pleased to find that no prior knowledge is required. Any vital background pieces are discreetly hidden within the narrative that flows throughout the game, and a tiny tutorial box appears at the very start of the game to help you get on your feet. And newcomer or no, you'll probably need all the help you can get. Like the previous titles, there's a whole range of unlockable difficulty levels. The bad news? From the normal setting, the only way to go is up. With no easy setting, this game gets very hard, very quickly, which may be off-putting to the easily frightened or the elderly.
Any Onimusha greenhorns will undoubtedly fall into the trap of thinking they can hack and slash their way through the game. At first glance, the game does appear to be a simple hack and slash adventure, but that strategy will last approximately 2 stages at best. The game is unmerciful when it comes to throwing in a boss fight at the worst possible time. Occasionally, and only if you're really well behaved, you might even be rewarded with a boss fight straight after a boss fight. Aren't you excited? The technique that is eventually made obvious is the vital need to use your 'Oni' magic to create a Matrix-style battle. Tapping your attack button at the right moment before an enemy strikes lets you perform a deadly critical strike which you can then link to a chain of critical strikes in the blink of an eye. Depending on the weapon, up to 5 or 6 enemies can be slaughtered in one blurry-fast move. It's feudal Japan's version of bullet time, and without it, Neo's a dead duck.
Dawn of Dreams may seem frustratingly hard at times, but the game is less about raw skill and more about having a strategy. Some of the boss fights are so epic, you're likely to use every healing potion you've managed to store away just to stay upright. In true age-old style, each boss has a weakness that can be exploited to the point where careful thinking can save you the need for any potions at all. Simple trial and error will quickly give you a good idea of how you should deal with each and is far more preferable to using up your supplies in one drawn out failure.
Another snare that can hold you back on the way to victory is the weapon system. While not outwardly as flashy as the weapons in Onimusha 3, they can still deal out a heap of stylish damage if you upgrade them properly. No matter how much it pains you, ditching favourite weapons in favour of newer (and ultimately more powerful) weapons is essential, even if you've spent half the game pouring souls into that bad-ass wind katana or shiny broadsword.
Combat fans will be charmed with the new moves that can be mastered by the 5 different characters you'll control, but logic enthusiasts can also bring out the sparklers and cake. Dawn of Dreams is packed with puzzles that range from small treasure boxes to open and lock sequences to decipher, to huge and complex level stages that require not only brain juice but a good deal of character co-operation. That said, it's important to remember that you will have to play as the other characters to progress through the game, so don't neglect them too much when it comes to upgrading weapons, special moves and armour.
The graphics are done immaculately, and are at the top end of the PS2 - but with the recent release of a certain next generation console, they don't seem quite as impressive. The CG cut scenes are fantastic, and the in-game graphics are detailed and thorough, but will ultimately fail to make an impression. The soundtrack and sound effects also fall into the category of good, but not amazing. The orchestral scores help to squeeze extra emotion into the story, but aren't distinctive enough to have you humming along.
With a storyline that weaves together 5 playable characters, and a host of creepy villains, there's more than enough content to keep you happy with your purchase. As Dawn of Dreams is a 2-disc game, you can expect a little over 20 hours of gameplay featuring betrayal, revenge, a love triangle or two, and a dash of humour. Chances are by the time you've fought your way through to the end, you'll be so thrilled, you'll start a new game right there and then. Don't get too smug though. Starting again might seem like a walk in the park with all your well practiced strategies and superior skills, but each new difficulty level is likely to chew you up, spit you out and have the gall to look pleased about it.
Onimusha Dawn of Dreams is definitely the pick of the series. No matter how much you try and cling to your past favourites (and you will) there's no stopping this game once it starts to grow on you. Although it may have room for improvements, there's plenty of time for that with the arrival of the PS3.