A Glance at the Past: Oni (PS2)

Bungie: creators of Halo and Destiny who helped shape the way we play modern first-person shooters. Rockstar Games: creators of the Grand Theft Auto series that popularized open worlds and pushed for maturity in video games. Seeing these two game companies share space on the box of Oni certainly makes it suspicious that this game is hardly ever talked about, but one should certainly temper one’s expectations before playing Oni. The game itself was developed by Bungie West, a branch of Bungie that only ever made this game, and the game was simply ported by Rockstar Canada to the PS2. Needless to say, the A-teams of both companies were far away from this game, and as a result, Oni is certainly a lot less than it could have been.

 

Perhaps the first misstep in the game’s development came from the idea to have western developers try and make a game that tried too hard to mimic anime, specifically pulling unashamedly from Ghost in the Shell. Starring a purple-haired woman of unusual origins working for a futuristic police force in a time of androids and human modification, its parallels to a quite famous Japanese cartoon are blatant despite the game eventually going for a different angle with its plot. It does, however, have a lot of anime-inspired art and cutscenes that sometimes don’t look the best but at least look a lot better than the scenes the game presents with its in-game models. The plot, despite holding back until about halfway into the game to really get rolling, involves exploring the mysterious history of the player character Konoko as she must fight against the criminal organization Syndicate as well as new foes on her path to the truth. The strange thing about this is the game expects the player to be invested in this quest of self-discovery with a character we hardly know, with Konoko’s personality only really showing in brief diary entries, so the revelation that she might not be who she seems lacks any real impact and hardly any intrigue. The game does go the extra mile and voice every scene even if the models are rigid during them, and for the most part it works quite well. Rarely, the game will speed through dialog for unknown reasons, the scenes with the Deadly Brain giving you only a second to read what looked like long but funny dialog. There are a lot of computer consoles throughout the game that try to add some world-building to this sci-fi future, but they actually made me reconsider my idea of having in-game notes read more naturally instead of serving as blatant exposition. Too many of these consoles hardly hold anything of interest as they read like the boring yet functional notes people would actually send to coworkers or employees. A mix of poor presentation and odd stakes makes the plot difficult to follow at times and even harder to care about, but the basic beats of it could have worked well in a game that had structured itself a little better. I even quite liked the one sci-fi element they invented wholesale that serves as a pivotal piece of Konoko’s true identity, but it’s not really explored to its full potential either.

Beneath the anime trappings is an action brawler, the game mixing guns and hand-to-hand combat together into a mix that starts off pretty solid and enjoyable. The melee combat gives you quite a variety of moves to tackle foes with, doling out a few new ones as you progress but rarely providing anything worth using after the start. Instead, new moves mainly seem best served as alerts that Konoko’s diary has been updated, as a new entry will crop up whenever a new move has been added.  New moves are often too risky to pull off or will just crop up through regular combat by chance, but Konoko is certainly given enough to hold her own in a fist fight and I feel the game’s real strength could have been found here if it had been more fleshed out. There is a way to increase your combat power by using health kits when you’re at full health, but the health kits are too valuable to waste on such a purpose unfortunately. Scarcity is the name of the game when it comes to resources in Oni, and that crops up in relation to weapons as well. The guns in the game are found on the occasional enemy, and to get one for yourself you usually have to take one down… after he’s exhausted most of the ammo clip. You can rarely get ammo refills, and because of that, guns become best used in select situations rather than useful additions to your skillset. One thing that might read as unfair in regards to ammo scarcity is you can take an opponent’s weapon and find it empty, but sometimes they can pick up your dropped empty weapon and start firing! Combat usually revolves around trying to punch out whoever is near you, shooting at anyone too tough to approach, and hoping you have health kits to back you up as you take damage, as this game has one thing really holding the player back: the controls.

 

Oni’s default mapping is incredibly odd, putting your attack buttons and jump on the shoulder buttons, mapping a pointless walk to pressing in the left stick while having the dash require a double press forward of the stick, and to pick up items you press in the right stick. None of the default buttons seem to match up with the way most games line up their controls, and surprisingly… this feels like the best control set. It takes some time to learn and even late in the game I’d slip into controls more natural to other games and suffer for it, but switching them to the other options available always comes with some new restriction as the sets available always have something important on a bad mapping. The game also has standard across all control types the rather unintuitive requirement of pressing nothing to block, making it hard to block when its actually useful and too much of a liability to try and use due to enemies who can break through it easily. When the game begins to require dash jumps you’ll really feel the limitations of the controls, but they aren’t so unforgivable as to ruin the game… its the design of the levels that does that well enough. At the start of the game, everything seems to go pretty well, combat challenges are reasonable, health and guns are abundant enough to be usable but not be major crutches, and the game has the potential to be something good even if the plot is moseying around with unimportant affairs. Once the game finally gets its story into gear though, the flaws in the game’s design really begin to sink in hard.

By the midpoint, combat has reached its plateau, with most of the moves, enemies, and weapons you’ll be seeing for the rest of the game already established and made about as interesting as they’ll ever be. But, in order to support the rest of the game, the game begins to add more enemies to encounters, makes them stronger and more aggressive, gives them more weapons, reduces the amount of health kits and weapons you can get, and adds many more platforming challenges that can lead to heavy damage or instant death if you fail. The game starts off by providing save points at pretty reasonable intervals to keep the challenge present but not frustrating, but in the late game it spaces out the continue points so much that it feels like you can fit the entirety of an earlier level in between two of them. This could have been almost manageable if death didn’t also require an obnoxiously long load time between your death and getting back into the action. With less health kits and stronger enemies, you can see that incredibly slow loading screen constantly even as you try to adjust your tactics, and the game begins putting in areas where you can easily get ganged up on or sniped by incredibly powerful guns. Surprisingly, the bosses aren’t too bad despite most of them taking place in the back half of the game, but that mostly comes down to them being fought the same way as most every enemy save having one or two unique attacks.

 

Worst of all… the game’s graphics really hurt the gameplay. I’m the kind of person who turns up the brightness to max on most games to help my eyes, and even with Oni at its max brightness and my T.V.’s already high brightness setting, the game can still be incredibly dark and muddy. There are times that Konoko and her enemy might as well be fighting in a black void, and while some stages throw in color to make things visible and interesting, you’ll find many dark areas that make it boring to navigate and difficult too. Sometimes, the game sets up a level with areas you can fall to your death, and the areas around these falls will have black or dark grey ground adjacent to black pits. While I won’t hold the chunky models against the game, there is one flaw in the graphics that almost seems like an unintended perk. If you rotate the camera into a wall, it will pass right through, allowing you to cheat and see through to the other side. It’s hardly enough to rescue the game from the other flaws in its level design though, especially since almost every level can be described as fighting enemies and accessing computer consoles to open doors.

THE VERDICT: Variety is the antithesis of Oni. Almost every enemy fights in the same manner, your approach in fighting them is usually the same as well, and the levels are mostly a string of fights and door unlocking despite the moments the game tries to inject life into the affair with special set-ups or setpieces. The real odd part about Oni though is that it feels like a game split apart. The first half manages the gameplay side fairly well, the controls holding it back a bit but the design sustaining it well enough… but the story at this point is basic and spends too long hiding the interesting parts so your starting goals are fairly bland and unexplained. When the game begins to start exploring its story and characters though, the combat has had time to grow stale and its elements are stretched out rather than upgraded, with far too many things bringing up that dreaded loading screen.

 

And so, I give Oni for the Playstation 2…

A TERRIBLE rating. The downward slope of this game is all too tangible. Even the harder portions at the start are positioned in a way that it is interesting to figure out how to best overcome them, and the save points at that stage feel properly placed after and before segments that are likely to test your mettle. Slowly though, levels morph into gauntlets with many chances for easy death and your resources to deal with them are stripped away. Keeping ammo or health kits around in a decent measure could have helped a lot in making the back half less grueling, but for the most part, it feels like the battle system was simply underdeveloped. Enemies never challenge you in interesting ways so there’s no need to change your tactics in a fist fight, and your capability in combat never really advances despite the fact the enemies are getting more capable. The weak first half of the plot also suggests to me that this game could have been condensed down into a smaller and stronger package. The gameplay of the beginning half and the story of the second half would make a smaller game, but one that stayed good instead of gradually getting worse and worse as it stretched itself beyond its breaking point. The product we were given though is a long, uninteresting, and repetitive affair that wore out its welcome and wasted what good elements it did have.

 

Rather than being the amazing collaboration of two talented studios, Oni instead ends up being a black mark on the both of them.

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