It's simplistic and it's brief, but by God, I had loads of fun with Genji: Dawn of the Samurai.
Rather than come up with a brand-new concept for their third-person swordfest, the folks at Game Republic clearly used Capcom's Onimusha franchise as the blueprint for their game. Players alternate control between two different characters, a Samurai and a warrior monk, and progress through a multitude of towns and dungeons packed with enemy swordsmen and supernatural beasts. Most of the hands-on effort involves rapidly tapping the attack buttons, which cause your heroes to chop their hapless opponents to bits… literally. Even the game's story is put together in a similar manner to the way stories unfold in Capcom's successful franchise. The first two Onimusha games were supernatural embellishments of true stories taken from Japan's history. Genji is a supernatural embellishment of events that actually took place in Japan during the late 1100's.
According to history, a young Samurai named Minamoto Yoshitsune, representing the Genji clan, rallied a small army against the much-larger force of the Heishi, and ultimately stopped the Heishi from taking over Kyoto and controlling Japan. Genji, the video game, is a loose re-telling of those events. In the game, the Heishi are just as numerous, but now they possess supernatural crystals, called Amagahane, that grant them magical powers. They're also involved in science experiments that involve crossing animals and people with demons. Yoshitsune, like his real life counterpart, is a badass Samurai in the game, but he doesn't have an army to command. Instead, he has an Amagahane of his own and a partner that he can change places with, a warrior monk named Benkei. If you played either of the first two Onimusha games and remember how they fiddled with the story of Ieyasu Tokugawa, then you'll be right at home with Genji's unique interpretation of its own historical basis.
As action games go, Genji is just as satisfying as Capcom's efforts have been. The two main characters are very different from each other, but both are fun to control. Yoshitsune, the Samurai, carries a pair of swords and can unleash rapid, multi-hit attacks on enemies. His counterpart, Benkei, the warrior monk, carries around a massive pole or spear and doles out damage in sluggish, powerful bursts. The characters differ in other, practical ways too. Yoshitsune is fast, but not very sturdy. Benkei moves around like a turtle, but he can absorb and dish out damage like a tank. Yoshitsune can double jump, wall jump, and pull himself up onto ledges. Benkei can't do any of that, but he can smash through certain doors and obstacles. For the most part, you're free to control whichever character you prefer, although there are times where you'll need to use a specific character to open a door or access an area that is off-limits to the other character. You have to return to a local safe house to change characters, which means you'll do a bit of backtracking from time to time, but not so much that you'll feel discouraged from changing characters when you need to.
Although there are a few simplistic switch and door puzzles, gameplay predominantly involves hacking, chopping, and slashing your way through the enemies you encounter. It's not uncommon for the screen to display "25 hits, 15 kills" as you continue to slash and hack away at incoming enemies, many of which will end up decapitated or cut in half before bloodily disappearing from the playing field. The cast of generic enemies is a healthy menagerie of soldiers, enchanted beasts, and supernatural uglies. Once you reach the end of a town or dungeon, you'll typically square off against a 'boss' of sorts–either another badass Samurai or some gigantic monster.
A key story element is something called "Amagahane," which are little glowing orbs that bestow their owners with supernatural powers. For the game's bosses, this usually means the ability to cast various kinds of magic (fire, lightning, and so forth). Yoshitsune and Benkei have their own Amagahane, which give the pair the ability to enter a state of mind called "Kamui." Kamui is just a fancy term for the Matrix -esque bullet-time effect we've seen in countless other video games. When you tap the kamui button (L1), you'll activate a brief slow-motion effect that causes enemies to move at sluggish speeds. Furthermore, if they attack you during kamui, you can counter their attacks and unleash one-hit kills by tapping the appropriate button when it appears on screen. Kamui is an integral aspect of gameplay. You get more experience points when you kill enemies during a kamui period and some of the game's bosses can only be defeated by using kamui-based counter-attacks.
Aside from stabbing everything in sight, there are also some basic RPG style character development aspects to keep in mind and manage. Yoshitsuke and Benkei gain experience by defeating enemies and level-up just like typical RPG characters do. Every time one of them levels-up, their health, attack, and defensive ratings automatically increase. Weapons, armor, and items also work in much the same way that they do in a role-playing game. You can buy swords, suits of armor, and health potions from merchants in the various towns, or hunt them down in chests and secret nooks scattered throughout the scenery. Some enemies drop rare items and weapons when you finish them off with strong attacks or by using kamui. Managing equipment isn't too difficult. You can forge custom weapons by mixing items at the blacksmith's shop or just make do with the more-than-ample stock weapons you find. Each character can have one weapon, one suit of armor, and one piece of jewelry equipped at any given time, but there aren't any limits placed on how much a character can carry in his backpack.
Genji's features, though unoriginal, do at least gel together nicely. Combat is the game's main focus, but the puzzles and RPG elements help guide the violence somewhat. The environments offer some degree of interactivity, in that there are places to climb, rooftops to jump onto, and switches to trigger. You can also talk to non-player characters and travel between the different towns, forests, temples, and dungeons whenever and as often as you like, except for when some areas are closed off at the end of a chapter (there are three chapters). All told, this is one heck of an action romp for people that think swords and Samurai are cool.
A major contributor to the game's overall cool factor is its presentation. Not just slick graphics that tax the PS2's hardware, but cinematic details that actually bring the world of 1170's Japan to life. Camera angles pan and zoom like the pre-set cameras in the Resident Evil games. The environments capture the rustic flair of the era, juxtaposing small villages and towns with the forests, caves, and mountains that dominated the scenery during that time period. Motion-capture actors were used to image character faces and to come up with attack animations. There are DVD quality cinematic intermissions, complete with Japanese language dialogue and subtitles, that advance the story. And then there are all of the little details. Run through a forest or slash at some trees and you'll notices leaves falling softly to the ground. Look down into a puddle and you'll see the reflection of the surrounding environment. Walk through it and you'll cause the water to splash. The Japanese are silly for cherry blossoms, as you'll see in some levels where they flutter through the air like dainty snowflakes.
While playing, I had many moments where I honestly felt like I was experiencing the true sights and sounds of Japan during that time period. If you want to, you can just take it all in… stand on a bridge and watch the koi swim around in the water below, all while cherry blossoms gently fly through the air and fall to the ground or into the water. The realistic environmental sound effects and the authentic Japanese music that makes up the main portion of the soundtrack support the scenery wonderfully. I wasn't quite as impressed by the game's "actiony" sound effects, which are the same sorts of screams, clanks, and explosions that are in every game nowadays.
The biggest problem I had with Genji is that it was over way too soon. I completed the game in approximately 6 hours, and it only took that long because I made a concerted effort to collect rare weapons and level-up the characters. Some people out there will blow through the game in 3 or 4 hours, easy. Once you're done, you can always play through again, keeping the loot you collected the first time, or try to tackle the "hard" mode, which disables leveling and shop purchases altogether. This is the sort of game that's worth replaying from time to time.
All in all, while I felt the ride was too short, I enjoyed every minute of it. Few games these days can offer a solid 6 hours of joy, even if they have quests that take 50 hours to complete. In that regard, Genji is worth the price of admission (especially if you can get it on discount).