After three relatively solid entries into the Onimusha series of adventure/horror titles (arguably Action RPGs with their levelling system for weapons) that closed off a tight trilogy in 2003, Capcom started to experiment with the IP. This gave us smash-clone ‘Onimusha: Blade Warriors’, ‘Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams’ the fourth entry into the series, and ‘Onimusha Tactics’ a fully-fledged tactical RPG for the Game Boy Advance.
As the only entry into the series not to feature on a Sony console, the events of Onimusha Tactics are designed to be separate from the main series storyline, tangential to events as a side story (sometimes known as a ‘gaiden’) to preserve the experience for those exclusive to Sony consoles. Known characters from the main series do feature, but a new protagonist is included. Unfortunately the game didn’t sell particularly well, preventing further sequels and the experiments to flesh out the series ultimately led to the IP being shelved into the present day with Dream Warriors serving as a series swansong for now.
Graphically, there’s a very fine line between the sprites and engine for Onimusha Tactics and ‘Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced’, leading us to believe that Capcom may have either purchased use of the same engine or made a conscious decision to emulate it extremely closely. Some of the bells and whistles are missing, and each character sprite is unique to the game, but their models and proportions are eerily similar and some scenery is identical. Taken on its own the games looks good, especially on the smaller screen space of the GBA. Characters each have their own unique face portraits that pop up in dialogue sequences and help to differentiate the characters, and it’s easy to tell units apart at a glance. Sadly monsters do show a lack of variation, though many are taken directly from the other games and redrawn in this manner.
The soundtrack for Onimusha Tactics is extremely solid and plays up the strengths of the GBA and manages to bypass many of the usual pitfalls of the system. There’s a distinct theme and Asian flavours throughout with very few tunes cribbed from previous compositions in the series. Tracks loop seamlessly and this makes for an attractive audio package. Sound effects fare a little less well, in that at times they feel too loud, however they convey the impact of blows successfully and bring a sense of excitement to battles where necessary.
The plot for Onimusha Tactics centres around a fictionalised take on the Sengoku period in Japanese history. The plot largly revolves around the machination of Nobunaga Oda, a real life historical tyrant who attempted to unite Japan by any means necessary and very nearly succeeded before his eventual assassination. The Onimusha series poses the idea that he came to power because he was a demon king, and his armies (the Genma) are ruthlessly tearing apart the land one territory at a time. You play as a successor to the Oni clan, one of two orphans raised by a wise master and inheritors of an Oni gauntlet that allows you special advantages in battle. You’ll gather allies one province at a time as you seek to thwart Nobunaga, taking the traditionally one-man mission of the series to a new scale. The game tells its narrative through inter-connected cutscenes and through the use of in-battle conversations, keeping a very tight focus on pushing the narrative to the fore and giving everything a very distinctive feel in comparison the the usual high-fantasy or science-fiction Tactical RPG settings.
Whilst the game looks visually similar to Final Fantasy Tactics, it is actually more akin in play style to the early Shining Force titles. Approaching an enemy from the back or sides doesn’t deal bonus damage here and there are no counter attacks to take into account. Each side of the conflict takes a turn to move all of their units at once in the order of their choosing rather than governed unit-by-unit based on a speed stat, which actually brings a desktop strategy title to mind when playing. These factors do make for quite an easy ride through the early game, and the only thing preventing total domination is the fact that the death of the protagonist leads to an immediate game over, and healing items are both limited and must be equipped before a battle to use. The Oni gauntlet also allows for item creation and fusion, replacing the traditional shop approach. This brings a sense of tactical choice to the game as you can focus your efforts on upgrading a whole party’s gear or creating one all-powerful weapon in the games initial few hours. Eventually you will get access for an area that enables grinding, and this is where the game’s cracks do begin to show. In focusing on driving the story forward the decision was made to limit a character’s experience gain based on their level and the level of the foe defeated. This leads to a scenario where you’re getting 1exp for some later missions, which can feel bad for the player who’s fought hard to kill the beast in question. There’s also a very linear first few hours, with no ability to back-track and replay story missions, which can limit the casual fun of a handheld tactical game.
Overall, Onimusha Tactics is a fine effort from Capcom that shows their usual level of polish. As an experiment with other ways to apply the franchise it’s quite successful, and shows promise that the brand can be pasted into new mediums. As it didn’t sell particularly well at launch, (due in part to the lack of advertising by Capcom) physical copies are quite hard to come by, but if you see one out in the wild and enjoy either Onimusha or Tactical RPGs then be sure to grab it immediately.