Chances are when you see a character roaming around a game screen with a sword, nine times out of ten any action that follows will degenerate into a mindless hack and slash where you swing your weapon at anything that moves. Not too surprising, right? I mean, just about anyone can swing a sword. But what if you take a character skilled in swordplay, a fighter who balances every attack and counterattack carefully to destroy his opponents, who threaten the safety of the entire kingdom? Then you're probably looking at the hero of Genji: Dawn of the Samurai, from SCEA and Game Republic.
Genji, based on ancient Japanese mythology, takes place during the middle of the twelfth century with the domination of the kingdom by the Heishi Clan, a brutal group of warriors and lords. While other clans assembled large armies to defeat them, the Heishi had access to Amahagane, mystical stones that bestowed incredible powers known as Kamui upon their most skilled combatants. Thanks to this unfair advantage, the Heishi obliterated their enemies, established a brutal regime while at the same time scouring the land for additional stones to solidify their grasp on the land and become a class of gods. Fortunately for the kingdom, these objects are scattered.
Players initially take control of a young fighter known as Yoshitsune, an enigmatic swordsman who happens to have his own Amahagane (although he never truly knew what made it so special). Shortly after being attacked at a shrine, Yoshitsune is tasked by a sage to gather all of the remaining Amahagane in the world and unite them so that Yoshitsune will have enough power to destroy the Heishi Clan. Fortunately, he won’t have to go on this quest alone; shortly into his quest, he meets Benkei, a towering monk with a massive hatred of the Heishi for his own reasons. After an initial misunderstanding, Benkei joins Yoshitsune on his quest, and the duo wreak havoc on the Heishi clan throughout the land.
Players will have the option to switch back and forth between the two fighters at the start of stages or at checkpoints during each mission. There are practical reasons for this; while Yoshitsune is a lithe, agile warrior, he isn’t particularly strong fighter, whereas Benkei is a slow powerhouse. Changing fighters will let you access different areas in every single stage. For instance, there are some doors or barriers that only Benkei can smash, while there are some areas that only Yoshitsune can access. It also allows you to handle threats differently, so you can try to emphasize finesse or brute strength against the nameless thugs and bosses scattered throughout the game.
Obviously, you’re going to run into quite a lot of battle as you single-handedly take on the Heishi by yourself. In fact, you’ll often run into 8 to one odds as you’re swarmed from all sides. Like other games, you can swing your sword (or club if you’re Benkei) at your enemies as fast as you can, landing blows whenever they’re unfortunate enough to be in your weapon’s way. However, Genji actually rewards you more if you time your attacks, sidestepping incoming strikes and performing your own instant kill. Every hit you land builds up your Kamui meter, which can be triggered once it’s full to slow down time (in a pseudo-bullet time state). In this mode, if you hit the square button as it flashes on the screen, you’ll counter and instantly kill every opponent on the screen; if you’re off, you fall out of the altered reality and are vulnerable for a few seconds. After eliminating opponents, you'll receive experience, which you'll be able to use to power up your attack, defense or health stats, akin to an RPG. You'll also find a number of items to augment your characters, such as stronger weapons, more protective armor and magical potions and herbs. These can be purchased from merchants in towns or acquired from a number of destructible items, such as lanterns, jugs and rock formations.
What immediately stands out as soon as you boot Genji up are the technical merits of the game. Genji is an incredibly beautiful game, mixing backdrops that feel at home in a Kurosawa movie with impressive character detail. You’ll travel through a number of environments, ranging from mountain peaks with waterfalls to temples and even nightmarish otherworldly dimensions. Character models are extremely detailed, and you can tell the difference between pieces of equipment by their visual appearance. We’re talking about extremely ornate pieces of armor, distinctive weaponry and other items in the game. You’ve also got about an hour’s worth of cutscenes that feel as though they’ve been ripped from a film.
This is coupled with an incredibly cinematic soundtrack that’s thoroughly engaging. We’re talking about a combination of traditional Japanese instruments like Tycho drums and flutes, along with an effective use of silence during still sections to evoke an epic mood, and it works perfectly. Even better, Genji eschewed an English translation in favor of the native Japanese with subtitles, and the simple yet noticeable difference this makes is all the more engrossing. In fact, the only significant technical issue that really stands out is the dip in frame rate during some battle sequences, particularly when a large number of enemies are onscreen at the same time. This will also pop up at times during Kamui moments, when you intentionally slow down time; unfortunately, it also manages to slow down the frame rate perceptibly. It’s not a big problem, but it is noticeable.
Unfortunately, the beauty of the technical merits of Genji is marred by a number of gameplay features. The most significant one is the length of the game. It’s possible to literally fly through this title in under ten hours, and that’s even with watching the hour or so of cutscenes. As a result, you find yourself running into a number of issues: 1) Just as you feel like you’re getting a sense of what’s happening in a chapter, you’re shuttled off to the next area. In fact, just as you get a sense that the story is going to develop in a certain direction, the game ends. This is extremely disappointing, because the ending feels extremely abrupt. 2) Once you’ve finished the game, there really aren’t a lot of reasons to go back into the game. Continue mode, which lets you keep the items and stats you had when you beat the game once, makes the game ridiculously easy, and the increased difficulty mode isn’t too hard once you’ve got an idea of how to beat each boss.
While that’s a significant issue, another problem is the balance between the two characters. First of all, you’re not forced to change between characters, so you can quite literally power up one character and leave the other one extremely weak. Considering that Benkei is easily the stronger of the two warriors, you’ll probably find yourself using him to destroy everybody, including bosses. After that, you’ll only use Yoshitsune to open doors or other sections that Benkei can’t get to (if that). Even more lackadaisical are some of the battle sequences. Although it’s a great idea to figure in the attack and counterattack scheme, it degenerates into a sloppy mess. For one, it can sometimes be very difficult to get the timing down to counter an incoming attack. Another issue is that the Kamui system is relatively flawed as well. The instant kill system always uses the square button, and what’s more, there are some moments where it barely flashes before you’re smashed by a sword or other attack. While you’d really want to concern yourself with the system, you’d probably revert to simple hack and slash tactics – they’re just as easy to accomplish and just as destructive.
As visually striking and aurally impressive as this game is, the duration of Genji and the gameplay issues keep this from being an incredible game. It’s unfortunate, because the concept behind Genji was a decent one, but it’s hampered by enough issues to make this a rental for most people apart from hardcore action junkies.