Genji: Days of the Blade
Let's just get one thing straight from the off, Genji: Days of the Blade is not a great title. However, whatever failings Genji does have, it's hard to fault the visuals of the title - something of an emerging theme among early PS3 releases. The Game Republic team have taken the beautiful artwork from the last PS2 title and adapted it splendidly to next-gen hardware and the advent of high-definition. Natural settings and outdoor areas are particularly eye-catching, with water and foilage delivered in an astounding, dream-like manner that almost replicates the scene like a painting. Whilst engaged in battle scenes you can see dozens of warriors fighting far off into the distance, and to say the least, the visual effect is dramatic and impressive.
The playable characters themselves are also a pleasure to behold. Gloriously detailed and animated with a smooth, fluid feel that really adds to the combat of the game, all four have had care poured upon them. There's some neat, subtle use of motion blur when one of them dodges or carries out rapid attacks, which makes the scene look much more lifelike and weapon effects are also worth a mention, with a wide range of different moves and attacks available. The game will even highlight particularly good attacks. For example, when hitting multiple enemies, dealing out extra damage or simply trying to clear yourself out of a tight corner the action slows down to illuminate your skills in more detail with a slightly washed-out, film stock look.
Alas, there are a few flaws brought about by all this graphical prowess, with the framerate a constant victim. While for the most part the game is consistently smooth, at times it turns into a irratic mess - especially in cut-scenes. Along with some un-exciting narratives, including a situation where you're sure the game is about to drop you into a horseback segment only to instead show a brief in-engine cut-scene. It's details like this that give weight to the theory that Genji was maybe a bit of a rush-job.
But Genji sure looks pretty. Unfortunately, that seems to be what the development team considered to be the most important element of the game. The gameplay is the opposite, it feels neglected, and owes much to its PS2 predecessor - a game which was widely criticised because of the fact it was so easy that you could complete most of it by just hammering the square button throughout. Thankfully that's not a criticism that you can throw at the PS3 sequel, with a more cleverly pitched difficulty setting and a catalogue of moves that actually matter, though there certainly are problems that linger on.
You play as four characters in Genji 2: young swordsman Yoshitsune and his chubby tree-trunk swinging pal Benkei (who were the main characters in the first game) as well as new token girl Shizuka, who carries around light blades on the end of chains, and Buson, a pike-wielding warrior who looks a lot like an enemy from the first game. Each of these characters has their own individual play style as well as a special ability, which can be used to solve different puzzles. Shizuka can grapple to far away locations, Yoshitsune can sprint along walls, Benkei can break through obstacles and Buson can, errr, look a bit frightening despite having very feminine hair.
Because he's the best balanced character, you'll probably end up playing as Yoshitsune. He's quick enough to counter enemy attacks, extremly mobile and quite powerful. Later on in the game, other characters will become more useful to you, although all in all you'll still find Yoshitsune and Benkei to be the MVP's of your force. An interesting aspect of Genji is that you can now swap characters in real-time (you can switch weapons in real-time too) by selecting them with the d-pad. So you can, for example, smash through an enemy's armour with the big bully Benkei and then charge in with Yoshitsune to direct a flurry of fast attacks at his exposed weak point, before jumping backwards and selecting Buson, whose defensive powers are best, to avoid the dreaded counter-attack.
When the game requires this kind of strategy from you, or rewards you for it, it's actually a real blast. Well-placed save points mean that you're hardly penalised heavily for trying out new techniques, although admittedly towards the end of the game these become a bit more spaced out. As you progress you find that characters other than Yoshitsune become even more useful, especially as they find weapons that balance them out a little better. Each weapon has a specific set of moves associated with it, so characters will evolve significantly over the course of the game by collecting new weapons. It appears that the weapons don't necessarily get more powerful, just different, so your starting weapons are still required till the end. You can boost up your weapons power by spending points earned in combat; you'll rarely have enough points to upgrade everything, though, so you must spend your cash thoughtfully. Similarly your characters' hitpoints and a special ability called Kamui (which allows you to take out a large number of enemies by tapping keys from on-screen prompts) can also be boosted using hidden items that you find as you advance.
The problem is that the majority of the game's combat doesn't require this sort of strategy - instead, you can just switch to Yoshitsune and hack away until everything is dead. It's by no means as bad as the previous game in this regard, and there's something quite gratifying about the characters' move sets, but it's just not enough to keep you going over ten hours of gameplay - despite the combat allowing for fairly multi-directional slashing and switching position mid-combo. Also, the puzzles that the game throws at you are all relatively obvious in nature, and the whole thing is depressingly plain and simple, overall. Despite creating a beautiful representation of mythological warring Japan, Game Republic seems set not to let you strike out on your own accord and explore. Even in the massive battle sequences, your restricted to fighting in your own little particular corner by invisible borders, which would have been depressing and annoying in a PS2 game, but simply smacks of lazy design for its sprightly young sibling.
There's also more last-gen hangover lingering here, the single main flaw with the game being the camera positioning. It's this one issue which drops it in my estimations from being a somewhat un-original but very pretty and playable slash-'em-up, into being a game whose improvements over its predecessor are totally overshadowed by its inconsistencies. For reasons best known to Game Republic, the designers opted to stick with fixed camera positions rather than with a tracking camera, and that just opens up a Pandora's Box of problems.
The result is that at times, you'll be fighting enemies who are off-screen behind the camera - or worse again, trying to clear jumps and obstacles you can't even see. Reading the mini-map becomes very important, because you simply can't see who you're fighting or where you're going most of the time. When up against bosses, you'll sometimes find that because the boss is behind the actual camera, you can't see the on-screen prompts that signal you to defend against a powerful attack. And so you perish, in the most frustrating manner a game can kill you - because of a game fault and not yours.
Does this make Genji an awful game? No, not as such. It certainly means it's a lot less fun than it should be, and contributes to general frustration at times, but it doesn't mean its rubbish, and Genji certainly does have its moments. In fact, the now infamous giant enemy crab is a fine example. When you execute a cool move with Yoshitsune, or "tag" a few enemies with Shizuka and then make them explode with a casual swing of your weapon while they're behind you and you're looking into the camera, the game feels just right and the designers understanding of delivering animations fluidly and elegantly shines through. A minute later, you'll fall into a pit that was impossible to see and get your head totally smashed into the ground by an enemy who's off-camera, and Genji's flaws will come flooding, all the way back. It's a real shame, in a sense, the only way that Genji could ever have shrugged off the ongoing ridicule that surrounded it since the infamous E3 showing last year was to be so fantastic that nobody cared about "MASSIVE DAMAGE" any more. Maybe if left in the development studios for a bit longer, with the non-existent camera fixed and some more freedom to explore and interact with the world, the basic ingredients could have been excellent. As it stands, Genji is underwhelming. It's not terrible, but its just not good enough to cut above the rest of the multitude of so-so games out there.