In Japanese, the word Oni means demon, and Bungie's new PS2 game, Oni is a bit of a demon in its own right. The game blends a twisty plotline with some excellent character animation and complex controls into one of the better action based PS2 titles to date. Although the game is in 3D, the mission-based gameplay reminded me a lot of a couple of old-school NES games and a bit of the first Tomb Raider. It's one of those games that'll make you learn how to master is little quirks until you can do everything its heroine, Konoko, can and more.
The story is pretty much a blend of any number of popular anime and manga titles you've seen, but the game was developed here in the States. In a way, it reminds me of an anime-inspired game called Shogo, which came out a few years ago for the PC. This game also had a load of good ideas, but a few things didn't gel as well as they should have in the final product. Anyway, Konoko is a highly trained supercop with a dark secret or three, and as you're making your way through the game, you find out (in true anime fashion) things aren't all what they seem. The same could be said for the game. Microsoft bought the developer, Bungie, while Oni was being made and it seems as if the game suffered a bit during the transition. The environments are a bit bland and repetitive and the story nearly vanishes at one point late in the game. If you pay attention to the plot, you get the feeling that the game was rushed and padded out just a little here and there.
Still, the fighting engine is really great- you start out playing Konoko in a training area, and here, you learn some basic and advanced moves. It's best that you not only listen to the instructor's commands, but also try and learn as many additional moves on your own before the first mission. The enemies aren't so tough at first, but in the later levels, you don't want to get surrounded or trapped in a corner with no combo skills learned. Konoko can give herself a hypo shot to boost her strength somewhat- this is good against multiple enemies and some bosses, but the effect is limited to a few seconds. Weapon management is also pretty important as you can only carry one weapon at a time, which is a lot more realistic than toting a whole arsenal around like in other action games. Running out of ammo in a firefight isn't a good thing though- you'll have to make every shot count. There are a number of jumping puzzles here that make the game play like a more acrobatic version of Tomb Raider, but it seems a bit trickier to make Konoko jump from time to time. Then again, I've played Tomb Raider to death, so I'm biased a bit toward that game's control scheme. In any event, the game still seems to be a bit unbalanced, but again, if you master the controls, it's not impossible to beat.
Graphically, the game looks pretty plain, but I'm guessing that Bungie was going for a flat cartoon-style look for the backgrounds. If you compare the visuals here to Rayman 2 or even X Squad, they seen a bit dull. But whoever heard of an exciting looking warehouse/military complex anyway? Personally, I think the overall effect would have been better served if they went with a cel-shading look for the figures, like in Sega's Jet Grind Radio. This would have made the characters pop a bit more off the screen, and make the game look closer to the animated movies that play throughout the game. The music and sound effects are also very anime inspired and do a good job of carrying the action along.
Of course, there are a few issues- There's no lip movement during the many cutscenes, and it simply looks silly seeing heads bobbing about when people are talking. After all the time spent making the game, you'd think that they'd go that extra mile and include this. As the action in the game is quite dynamic at times, the game camera can sometimes swing about a bit much, but the walls and other objects go transparent when this happens, so things never get too awkward. Although the first few times it happens you'll think there's a hidden item or area behind a piece of machinery, which has you punching, kicking, or shooting at walls from time to time. Most of the hidden stuff is, in fact, on top of larger items or out in of the way areas, so you have to scour the levels thoroughly. That is, once you get rid of any enemies in your path- there's nothing like getting shot in the back or beat down as you're running/jumping for a health pack or ammo!
There was also suppose to be a multi-player feature that unfortunately got cut out of the finished version. It would have been nice to see how it stacked up against Squaresoft's much better-looking (and a lot more disappointing) Bouncer. If anything, i'm sure that a lot of people will hate the game because it's very unforgiving if you just try to jump into it without any training, but Tomb Raider was exactly the same way if you think about it (with the exception of the killer level design). I just hope that if Bungie ever does a sequel, they give Konoko some better-looking and more inventive areas to play around in- she's got far too many good moves to be confined in such a limited world.
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