Review by JCunningham

"So close, yet so far away..."

WARNING!!!! Oni is not a game for the impatient. If you are the impatient type or get frustrated very easily, look elsewhere, because this game is not for you.

Now, onto the review….

In development for over two years, Bungie’s Oni has been met with a great deal of pre-release hype, as have many other PlayStation2 titles. The Bouncer was one of the games that failed to live up to the hype, while Capcom’s Onimusha represented the other end of the spectrum, delivering on most of its promises. So where does Oni fall? After a lackluster PC version and a switch from PSOne development to PS2 development, does this game deliver? Is it another in a growing list of must-play PS2 games? Well, that’s kind of a hard question to answer, considering that Oni is an overwhelming success in many aspects, but it’s also a miserable failure in others.

Although PSOne development of Oni was canned long ago, indications of the prior project can still be seen. In fact, in many ways Oni does not represent the future of gaming, with its bland graphics and occasional poor framerates. The environments, while massive and sprawling, are very plain and don’t really look all that great. Detail is at a bare minimum, and the polygonal models are unimpressive for the most part. In fact, were it not for some rather nice lighting effects and shadow casting, I’d swear that this was a PSOne title I was playing, not a PS2 title. Animation is pretty smooth most of the time, but when things get really hectic on-screen, the game seems to suffer from an ugly case of slowdown. Not only is this glitch pretty annoying, it can at times affect the way you play the game. Oni is a very poor game graphically; fortunately, the gameplay does a pretty good job of making up for it.

The most noticeable thing about Oni’s gameplay is its controls. The developers at Bungie set out to create a 3D action title that would play more like an interactive action movie and in order to successfully do that, a complex control scheme was necessary. Think of it this way: in an action movie, the hero could conceivably run into a room filled with guys with rocket launchers, slide underneath a rocket, taking the enemy out and picking up an item at the same time. In order for the game to convey this feeling in a smooth, fluid manner (which Oni certainly does), a complex control scheme was necessary. Now, it’s true that adapting a 3D action game to a console controller is hard, and this may very well be a case where there is no perfect solution. Still, Oni should be commended for a very solid and intuitive control scheme. Initially, this scheme is very frustrating, as you’ll find yourself struggling with the dual analog pads and the fact that the action buttons are on the top of the controller as opposed to the right side, but after a good deal of practice (generally two hours or so), you’ll get used to the overall set-up and the game will become manageable. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Two hours to learn a game’s controls?! That’s obscene! It shouldn’t take me two hours to learn how to play a game.” And I will concede that logically, this is a legitimate argument. But Oni somehow manages to propel itself past this “flaw.” One way it does this is by making the very first level of the game a training session, where you spend your time familiarizing yourself with the game’s controls and learning some rather handy techniques. The idea of a mandatory training level at the beginning of a game has been done before (Tomb Raider: Last Revelation, anyone?), but in Oni, the inclusion is perhaps the best thing about the game. And while you won’t have a complete handle on the control scheme after the training level, the first few actual levels are at a difficulty level that allows for further acclamation to the controls. It’s almost as if the first few levels of the game are training levels with actual mission objectives and enemies. Once you get used to the complex yet effective control scheme, you’ll find that the controls are indeed quite responsive, and what was once a glaring flaw will become one of the game’s biggest strengths.

Aside from the controls, Oni is still a solid game, although it is by no means perfect. Oni is not a short game, encompassing 17 huge levels that manage to keep the game interesting, despite their bland appearance. Many complain about the length of other PS2 action games, such as The Bouncer and Onimusha, but no such complaints will be warranted here; Oni is a game that will take up a good deal of your time. Also, while the levels are huge, the developers did a nice job of keeping things from getting old and repetitive. Each level has its own set of objectives (which are revealed throughout the course of the level), and while everything boils down to the tried-and-true beat up the bad guys—pick up the items—open the door formula, this game somehow manages to keep the player’s interest. Perhaps it’s due to the control scheme, but it could also be the amount of depth that Oni presents.

3D action titles (especially the beat-em-up variety) aren’t exactly notorious for astounding levels of depth, but this is one level in which Oni succeeds. Throughout the game, Konoko can learn new moves and combos, which come in quite handy in hand-to-hand combat. She also has an impressive array of weapons at her disposal, ranging from the standard pistol to the devastating martyr gun. Konoko can take many of these weapons from her foes, either by defeating them or disarming them during battle (again lending an action movie feel to the game). And when Konoko acquires an enemy’s weapon, she only gets as much ammo as was left after the enemy last fired said weapon. A nice bit of realism added to the game, and it adds a bit of strategy as well. Also, talking to those of the good persuasion throughout the game proves beneficial, as you’ll often receive items, like ammo or health.

Even with these impressive strengths, Oni is most certainly not without its flaws. I’ve mentioned that the control scheme is one of the game’s biggest strengths, but it can also be considered one of its biggest weaknesses, as there’ll be many gamers that will be so frustrated initially that they may not give the game a chance to redeem itself. And while there’s really no way to improve on this aspect, it will turn off a lot of gamers, especially the impatient type. Also, this game suffers from some fairly annoying AI issues. Oni presents an amazing level of realism and excitement to combat, but taking on multiple enemies is more of a chore than it should be. From about level five on, cheap shots from the enemies are quite frequent, and you may as well get used to hits from behind, seemingly impossible throws, and gunfire from what seems like nowhere, because these very things will happen often. Developers today seem to think that by making the enemy AI extremely cheap, they’re making the game more challenging for the player, when in all actuality, they’re making it less accessible to them. Finally, the occasional slowdown tends to make fighting in large groups even more of a chore, as things will pause unexpectedly, which will mess up your timing. Oni is a solid game, but it can be an utterly frustrating game at the same time.

This is perhaps the most difficult review I’ve ever written. Never before have I played a game that got so much right, yet got so much wrong all at once. Ultimately, I found Oni to be a solid, enjoyable game, despite the major faults. I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say that Oni is a PlayStation2 must-have, considering that many will be too frustrated to give the game a real shot. If you have the patience to stick with it and learn the control scheme, you’ll find a rewarding, if flawed, game that features a heavily anime-inspired story and even some decent voice acting. If not, then maybe you should try a game like Onimusha or wait for Metal Gear Solid 2. Oni is not for the impatient, and while it’s a good game, with a little more tweaking, it could have been so much better. Perhaps a pre-purchase rental is in order?

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 04/02/01, Updated 04/02/01

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