Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Rock Star
Review Date: 4/13/08
It only took me seven years to finally get around to playing Bungie's much maligned "Oni," and that said it's hard to review it objectively. Taking inspiration from Japanese anime, and Masamune Shirow's "Ghost In The Shell" (1995) in particular, the story follows the exploits of an unusually powerful female agent named Konoko who works for the Technology Crimes Task Force (TCTF). The world mafia known as "The Syndicate" is doing nasty things, and Konoko is assigned to investigate. What she discovers relates to her past and a dreadful secret that everyone is trying to keep from her. In search of the truth, she eventually defects and becomes a fugitive on the run. This makes it easier to discern friend from foe, as everyone is after her. In true anime style, the surprise downbeat ending carries a good amount of social, political, and thematic weight, making it one of the more thoughtful and socially relevant games I've played.
Unfortunately, the first thing you notice about the game is how plain and ugly it looks. Again, it's not fair to compare "Oni" to contemporary games, but looking back at what was coming out in 2000 and 2001, it's still rather unattractive. The architecture and level design are serviceable, but the areas are sparse, the textures are crude, and the lighting is dull. Additionally, like many games at the time, the scale of the environments has the effect of making Konoko appear to be three feet tall. (remember the absurdly massive Croft Mansion from the original "Tomb Raider?") I suspect this was an attempt to deal with camera clipping issues. Speaking of which, "Oni" suffers from a LOT of clipping issues and the camera often swings behind walls and into other solid objects.
Once you get into the field and start engaging enemy forces, the next thing to realize is how difficult the control scheme is. Combat in "Oni" is extremely challenging and the controls are difficult to master. It basically incorporates a first person shooter mentality of using one stick to strafe and one stick to rotate. While this is fine for navigation and exploration, it becomes a complete nightmare when you're actually fighting. Most of the combat consists of orienting yourself to face your opponent, getting thrown to the ground, and orienting yourself to face your opponent again. If you're lucky, you might pull off a punch or kick before getting pummeled again by the three guys behind you. "Oni" is primarily a melee game, although there is a hefty arsenal of ranged weapons available. Unfortunately, they're all rather worthless due to difficulty with the targeting controls. Auto-targeting doesn't really work unless you're standing still, and if you take the time to stop and aim, you get immediately disarmed by whoever else is attacking you. Then they steal your gun and use it against you, so most of the time it's better to avoid the firearms altogether.
On the plus side, there's a deep and engaging story if you dig deep enough, although the shear amount of onscreen text to read is a bit boggling. Most of it is the techno-babble you would expect from a heady Japanese manga, and the game even incorporates static talking head conversations like so many Japanese games do. The Japanese influence in the game is very strong, but it also seems curious and out of place. So many of the creative decisions in the game seem to have been based on the notion that "everything Japanese is cool." Even the name of the game is puzzling. "Oni" is Japanese for "devil" or "demon", but that doesn't fit into any of the gameplay elements. For a while I suspected that Konoko herself was a demon of some kind, or that she would be facing a demon of some kind, or that "oni" was a codename for some top secret project, but it's never brought up. Very strange. The anime influence also expresses itself in the opening animation which was done by anime studio AIC. Konoko herself could be viewed as a Westernization of Major Motoko Kusanagi from "Ghost In The Shell," ironically making better use of the property than the actual GITS game did. She animates well and the developers give her a nice variety of outfits to wear. She naturally saves the cutest one for last.
However, what I find most fascinating about the game in hindsight is how much it has in common with Bungie's "Halo" (2001), which came out the following year. One could actually consider it the prototype for "Halo," as it was originally conceived to be a third person action game. Many of the gameplay mechanics are identical and the presentation and progression are eerily familiar. Konoko has a mind link with an android named Shinatama, which strongly echoes the relationship between the Master Chief and Cortana. The force field and phase cloak are also identical between the two games. While the art direction seems a bit crude, it also hints at what "Halo" would become. Some of the voice talent is even the same, although it tends to sound rather stiff and unnatural (much like english dubbed anime does).
Overall, if you can master the difficult controls and like sci-fi girls with guns action, "Oni" is likely to please. Thankfully, the PS2 version of the game has cheats enabled from the start, which makes it possible to get through the entire game unscathed. If it weren't for that, I would have given up after the second chapter due to the relentless burden of combat.