Yoshiki Okamoto – if you recognize that name, you’ve already picked up Genji: Dawn of the Samurai.  If not, I’ll tell you that he is one of the producers behind some of Capcom’s flagship titles, including the Onimusha series.  Okamoto-san left Capcom and formed his own company, Game Republic, and Genji: Dawn of the Samurai, represents the first game from his new company. 

Genji kicks off with a young Samurai named Yoshitsune trying to learn the story of his past, the rise of the Heichi clan, magic crystals called Amahagane, (pronounced Ah-mah-ha-gah-nay, or close enough for Jazz) and how all of them fit together.  This story is actually an adaptation of 11th century Japanese folklore regarding the rise of the Heichi clan over the Genji clan.  The original story was expanded to include new characters, and layered on top of this is a story involving the crossing of common animals with demons to create super-weapons.  Obviously, some leeway was taken with the original text. 

The storyline jumps straight into the action, and Yoshitsune soon meets up with a massive fighter named Benkei.  Both fighters are determined to bring down the oppressive Heichi clan.  Legendary warriors will square off to determine the fate of the land, and only through the power of their Amahagane will they prevail. 

The Onimusha influence here cannot be denied.  The game features Japanese villages, expansive forests, lakes complete with koi,  waterfalls, falling leaves and flowers, and every other element to bring the scenes alive – it’s a shame that it didn’t work, but we’ll get to that later.  

Each character is as detailed as any PS2 game you’ve played to date, but even more so.  Yoshitsune’s cloak flutters in the wind, his sword strikes rip through the air with blue light contrails, and his armor is representative of what he is currently wearing instead of keeping one look throughout the whole game.  Benki is similarly detailed with arm straps, an odd chin cover, and his massive baggy pants.  The weapons carried by these two characters change their look – some weapons are more curved than others, or emit a glow.  Benki’s larger weapons are often clubs, but he can get spears and Halberds as well. 

The enemy characters in Genji were not overlooked.  You’ll meet up with odd little mages that wear colorful robes and odd mage hats.  The Samurai’s Oyoroi (chest armor) is fairly standard steel and bamboo, but the boss characters often have exotic Kabuto (helmet) and even more exotic Menpo (face masks).  The leather inserts and cloth lining are all represented, right down to the neck guard.  The attention to detail here put a smile on my face.

In between most of the major areas of the game is a beautifully rendered cutscene.  In fact, there is probably 30 to 40 minutes of it, and it is absolutely gorgeous.

The only thing I can think of that really hurt the graphics section is the Kamui.  The Kamui is a special power granted by your Amahagane that allows you to slow time to allow for precision strikes.  Often, the Kamui removes or fades the background, so it just baffles me why there would be framerate issues here.  The game was fine with rendering all of these people before, but now with less going on in the scene, there are dropped frames?  It’s a big mystery to me.

I’m a sucker for good voice acting.  When that isn’t available, just forget about it and give me the original Japanese voice work.  Thankfully Game Republic agrees, so they did just that.  The game features the original Japanese voice work, complete with all of the “!” sounds and especially all of the “…” sounds.  (Who knew that those forms of punctuation meant a sharp inhale of breath?)  Each character is well voiced, and other than the occasional sharp inhale, it works. 

The music in Genji is cinematic.  Not often does a game capture the environment through music properly, but I’m happy to report that Genji captures it nicely.  The sound effects are merely passable, but serve their function. I could have used with less ham-fisted overacting, but overall the sound is spot-on.

With a game focused on being able to take out dozens of enemies in a short chain of attacks, you’d expect a tight camera and a balanced system for taking out multiple enemies quickly – Genji has you covered.  Taking out your enemies is as simple as closing the distance and then striking with your weapon, but if you use that method you’ll miss out on the fun.  With a quick tap of a button you’ll execute a Kamui move, and with a flash you’ll be in slow motion.  You can move around your enemy, and at the moment when they strike, you can interrupt with an often-lethal move.  With a bump of the analog you can move to the next enemy without skipping a beat.  Sometimes you’ll pull off a carefully timed strike and behead your target.  If you execute a Kamui attack on a boss, you can occasionally make them drop an item that you can use in the game’s crafting system.  Unfortunately, the game isn’t long enough for this to become too repetitive.

Occasionally, and most often during boss battles, the camera in Genji feels like it is at an odd angle.  Overall, however, the static camera system serves the game well.

There are light RPG elements to the game.  As you collect fragments of Amahagane, you can use them to upgrade your health, attack, or defense.  I couldn’t readily feel any difference between the upgrades, but that could be a good thing – the game was just scaled properly with tougher enemies to match your increased power. 

As I mentioned in the graphics section, Genji is a beautiful game.  Unfortunately, it is similar to a painting – always several feet away and almost completely non-interactive.  It is beautiful to behold, but ultimately the game moves towards a pattern from which it never breaks free.  The areas are often just backdrops to guide you to finding the next person you need to speak with, or some key or switch.  You can jump on top of some buildings and such, but let’s not call that interaction.

Early on you get the power to activate your Kamui move resulting in an instant killing stroke.  The game latches on to this concept and never lets go.  Some enemies are almost prohibitively difficult without using the Kamui, and the later bosses will simply dodge or block anything less.  What this means is that there is almost no mystery to the boss battles.  You haven’t played the game and you could do it.  Hit the Kamui button, wait until the square button pops on screen, hit it, rinse and repeat.  It adds an unnecessary feeling of being scripted to an already very linear game.

The two characters you can play in the game, Yoshitsuni and Benki, are polar opposites.  Yoshitsuni is fast, can do a double jump, attacks with two weapons, and is generally the weaker of the two.  Benki is a death-dealing behemoth who swings around the equivalent of a telephone pole to destroy his enemies.  This makes him able to give and receive quite a bit of damage, but he can’t jump to save his life, and his attacks are very slow.  Some areas have sections that can only be reached by the high-jumping Yoshitsuni, while others have large doors that can only be opened by Benki.  You have to go back to your ‘base’ to facilitate the character change, but the levels aren’t very large to begin with, making it easy to rapidly switch back and forth. 

The areas of the game are shown on a map, giving you an option of where you’d like to go.  However, as I mentioned, the game is very linear – you are often given the choice of going to town or going to the next conflict.  You won’t be taking the road less traveled here.  When you follow the path and make it to the end of an area, there is often a boss waiting for you.  These bosses can include giant beasts, samurai, or the Amahagane-wielding Heichi Lords.  As mentioned in the control section, an exchange consisting of triggering your Kamui, and then timing the square button to complete the strike.  After a few areas, you’ll begin to note the pattern.  Sure, it is fun, but you can’t help but feel Déjà Vu over and over again.  There should be more here…

Genji can be beaten in 3 to 4 hours. Once you complete the game you unlock new modes, and there is the collection element of gathering trophies from enemies to forge new weapons, but with such a simple gameplay mechanic there is no compelling reason for a second run. The game is pretty fun on the first run, but it is just too short to warrant the price.