Monday, March 1, 2010

X360 Look - Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad

First off I should point out that I should be spending time with games that don't emphasize busty women in tiny outfits getting covered in freshly-spilled zombie blood. There's so many games out there that are more worthy of discussion when it comes to game design yet here I am talking about Onechanbara. Well I guess one can't take videogames seriously all the time cause they'll eventually get jaded and suddenly nothing is any fun.

For those who were better off not knowing Onechanbara(or is it Oneechanbara?) is a series of games where a woman in a bikini and a cowboy hat(?) kills zombies, picks fights with her sister, has some blood feud with a mysterious biker chick, and is somehow involved whenever the world's zombie population explodes. Centered around all this is baneful blood. I'm not sure of its origin but it makes everyone hate each other and gives super powers. The games themselves boil down to mashing the attack buttons to cut through hoards of zombies to reach the boss. The bosses themselves are usually zombified versions of everyday things like bears, killer whales, and schoolgirls. It's total B-movie pap but that's what makes it work and popular characters show up again and again to kill each other for fun and profit.

The star of this wild show is Aya. What gets me is that while they call this game "Bikini Samurai Squad", Aya is the only one actually wearing a bikini. This game would have been better off being called "One Bikini Army" or something. Anyway Aya teams up with her sister Saki who is perpetually seventeen and has the scariest eyes I've ever seen. They work as mercenaries and are usually called in to quell zombie riots cause for some reason they never stay dead. Reiko is Aya's rival and is a huge fan of inexplicable leather outfits. She's also a fan of cloning and has hundreds of exact-clones that do her dirty work. She's my favorite character solely due to the fact that she kills zombies by slapping them. In this game they're joined by Anna, Misery, and Himoko. Anna is a generic Special Forces officer who fights entirely with guns, Misery is a vulture of a woman who again looks like she'll never turn 18 and spends her free time drinking the blood of the Undead, and Himoko is a 1,500 year old crone who wants the baneful blood to regain her lost youth. As one can expect from the story and the concept Himoko's first order of business after regaining her youth is to admire her body as the camera zooms in. It's shameless but light-hearted and for the most part at least it's relatively innocent...or at least as innocent as mutilating zombies can be.

But enough about all that let's talk about the game itself cause that's why I bought it. There's the story mode which is made up of 20 levels. Most of the stages involve exploring a level to find a key or two and then reaching the exit. Along the way zombies shamble about and unless gates pop up to trap the player they're free to ignore them. Most of these zombies do little more than attempt to strike the player and on normal at least they serve as little more than fodder. Cop zombies are a bit more interesting because they carry guns and will freely take potshots as the player is slicing up others. There's actually a bit of variety to the zombies in this game as others will carry weapons, some are huge giants, and still others are just freaky like zombie spiders and regenerating ones with stretchy limbs. The only way to kill these guys for good is to slash them to pieces. A headless zombie will be slowed down and not quite as accurate with their attacks but they're still a threat. Even a zombie that's little more than a pair of legs and a torso will kick the player if they get close. Regardless the zombies aren't really much of a threat by themselves but become much more dangerous as their numbers grow.

The basis of killing a zombie is in the sword. Unless the player is using Anna they will have to rely on the sword to kill 99% of the time. There's a basic combo and a handful of special attacks tied to this weapon and at least on normal hitting the X button over and over is a solid way to get through the game. That isn't very stylish though so to really get the most out of this game one has to do "cool" combos. This is a bit of a staple to the series and it's essentially the same combo but the button is pressed with pitch-perfect timing. A cool combo is denoted by providing a special effect everytime the player hits a zombie. What makes the cool combo so great is that it does more damage, is much faster, and I think it even makes the player invincible. The catch however is that this combo is very hard to master. There's a videos to explain the timing for this combo but pulling it off in the game is a hassle of the highest order.

Cause see when zombies are cut they bleed and their zombie blood gets on the sword. The sword must be cleaned regularly as after awhile it'll stick inside the zombies and make the player open to attack. Further complicating things is that the sword becomes heavier with all of the blood, which means attacks come out slower, which of course means the timing for the cool combo becomes absolutely screwy. There are bracelets that can be equipped to get around this somewhat but in order to attain them the player has to find hidden zombies that can only be killed with cool combos. I really think this should be the other way around. The bracelets should be easily accessible to help the player along. It's sort of like being rewarded with invincibility after beating a game without getting hit once.

Remember that first line about getting covered in blood? Well that's for real. I guess part of the reason Aya wears that silly outfit is because it allows more of the zombie blood to cover her. With enough blood she eventually goes berserk and the game turns into rampage mode. At this point any of the characters except for Anna will have double speed & attack power plus enemy attacks don't interrupt the player. The catch is however is that while rampaging the player's life is constantly draining and all enemy attacks do double damage.

I'll go ahead and say that the cool combos and rampage mode make this game. I actually own the last PS2 Onechanbara game and I didn't utilize neither the combos nor the rampage. This made the game a lot less fun. Part of this is due to the boss-fights as they tend to drag for too long. Part of the problem here is in the mechanics. The player has access to a dodge ability but it gets overused way too much as the player waits for a decent opening on the boss. Most of the bosses are also playable characters so they function in similar ways. This leads to a lot of attacks having tracking and other circumstances where the player simply can't dodge the attack. This doesn't leave much in the way of a defensive play-style so it's better to stick to rampage-mode for pure aggression.

This doesn't mean the game doesn't have any depth. For one there are up to five possible difficulties and just being able to rampage through the bosses on normal doesn't mean anything. There are a number of bracelets that offer differing effects and utilize particular play-styles. Furthermore there's a special evade attack which does incredible damage when properly timed, making a non-berserk player very effective still. Each character is also adept at kicking which can break defenses and also stop enemies that are about to attack(as they will shrug off sword attacks if you strike them in mid-motion). This also extends to a scoring and rating system that judges players on keeping combos going. A good rating is very important since high ratings mean more experience off of kills. There's an RPG-esque system in place that allows the player to level up their abilities. Without learning the sub-systems of this game it can turn into a serious grind just to get anywhere and again that doesn't make the game any fun.

While the story mode is a decent inclusion I find that too much time is spent wandering around looking for keys. My favorite part of this game is the Survival Mode. Here it's just level after level of swarms of zombies. The bosses are also fought every four stages so all aspects of the game are covered(although Survival mode always starts at normal difficulty). This mode is sort of like an arena-slasher in that it's always about clearing space, managing limited resources, and quickly getting through each room. It's not just button-mashing either as the player must constantly be aware of their surroundings and know when to get out of the way when they see a soldier zombie about to toss a grenade. The combat itself never becomes anything really deep but for this game at least the simplicity works very well in keeping the pacing strong. The zombies never stay alive long enough for the player to do some ridiculous combo anyway. The problem with Survival Mode though is that it takes forever to actually become challenging. This mode is broken up into over 50 stages and runs about a couple hours or so. There's also not much of a reason to play aside from the great experience and the pure fun it provides. A harder Survival Mode that emphasizes score would be much nicer.

The worst part of this game is easily the vehicle section. At one point in the game Aya has to race a motorcycle through zombie hordes while batting zombie dogs off of her. It sounds neat at first like vehicle sections usually do but it completely falls apart in terms of mechanics and controls. It's mercifully short at least but that's the closest I'll ever get to saying anything nice about it. In fact I should point out that the mechanics are generally kind of shoddy. This extends mostly to the player's hitbox. Now I'm not expecting a 2D shooter where a zombie can only do damage if they hit the main character in the head or chest but it seems like there's a bit of an invisible bubble around the player. This means that even attacks that don't look like they hit the player at all will still count. Granted most of the time the zombies will be lucky to even get that close to the player but it can be very annoying during bosses. It's not a game-breaker at least but it still really needs to be fixed in a later installment. There's also a completely terrible boss in the form of a zombie killer whale. It looks cool but the fight itself is very clunky and serves as little more than an excuse to go into rampage mode and get it over with.

For a game series that's been running for so long I'm pretty surprised at the lack of overall content. There have been other characters in the series but I guess they weren't popular enough to warrant appearing in sequels. As it stands unless one is willing to pay an extra $10 there are only four playable characters available and the only one that really feels developed is Aya herself...who has been around since the first game. At least Anna provides an interesting way of playing the game with her focus on guns but it still feels rather lacking. How about getting a character that fights with a whip? It seems like a natural fit for this game. At least offer characters that don't just fight with a sword. The story mode is essentially nothing but hall-ways and rooms but at least there isn't platforming. The game works best when surrounded completely by zombies anyway.

In the end though it doesn't matter what I say about this or any other Onechanbara game cause Tamsoft is pretty set in their ways and even if the next game doesn't add much aside from a new character or maybe some changes in the balance or level design as long as it's an improvement it could be worth checking out. If you can look past the absurdity of it all you might find an entertaining game that'll only set you back $10 or so. Just a warning though the game has color settings for the blood. One of the colors just happens to be white...yeah. Surely it's just a coincidence right? Maybe it's for the fans of censored Metal Slugs where the enemies spilled milk when they were shot.

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