Release date: December 5th, 2019 (Japan)
Platform: PlayStation 4
In 2004, D3 Publisher released the very first Onechanbara game on PlayStation 2 in Japan, starting off a long-running series of games and media that has never been represented very well in the Western world, with only 3 of the series’ 12 games ever being brought to North America, but it continues strong until this day with a somewhat cult following.
The series has also spawned two feature films and has always been consistent with its image of having two weapon-wielding half-vampire sisters fighting legions of zombies and monsters with crazy, over-the-top action, violence and gore, plus tons of “chanbara” samurai and horror tropes all rolled into one.
The original 2004 game and its 2005 sequel became legendary low-budget classics in Japan, and 2019’s new entry to the series, Onechanbara ORIGIN, is a remake/re-telling of those original two games, completely revamped with new visuals, sound, controls, story, and more, all built from the ground up for the PS4 platform. Here, we’ll delve into some details of how these updates affect the overall experience and how well this new take compares to the PS2 originals.
Onechanbara ORIGIN starts with a bang right out of the gate, showing off its new visuals and combat systems, and thrusting you right back into the opening scene from the original 2004 game where you’re in a cemetary visiting your mother’s grave when zombies start rising from the ground, forcing you to fight your way out. The difference in how smoothly the game looks and controls is immediately evident, as the PS2 games have not aged very well in terms of gameplay, if being completely honest, even if they’re still fun to experience for what they are.
Gone are the clunky controls, broken camera, and lack of combat flow, replaced with a new and refined system that is much better at keeping the action going and making the player feel in control of every situation. Many of the elements from the combat systems of the later games in the series are included here, including a dodge/evade system, a brand new parry system, fully controllable camera, a proper map/navigation system, the “ecstasy gauge” special attack system, and the super-berserk mode from Onechanbara Z2 as well.
While the later games (especially Z2) have improved the combat system so much that it stands in my top 3 hack n’slash action games of all time, ORIGIN decided to keep things a little more toned down and closer to the original combat system of the PS2 games in some ways. This does make sense since it is a remake of those games, and including every single combat system upgrade from a game like Z2 would have made it feel a little too advanced in some ways, so I definitely understand what they were going for here, even if I do sorely miss some of those great upgrades from time to time when playing ORIGIN.
In the visuals department, things have been re-imagined with a strong cel-shaded anime art style that fits the series very well, and ditches some of the oddly realistic textures and models from the previous games, making it stand out as something of its own among the rest of the series. The characters and environments look striking and gorgeous, and the whole game is much more colorful to look at throughout than the drab and dark environments of the originals with almost no dynamic lighting or fun color schemes.
ORIGIN also re-tools the entire story of the first two games into something fairly different, mostly for the better, and also gives proper voice acting to all of the characters, which was pretty lacking in all the old Onechanbara games. Not only is the story re-tooled, but also a bit condensed and with a few main characters or plot points completely changed, with both games being presented as one continuous game instead of being able to choose separately between playing the first or second game.
A lot more exposition is included here, including sub-plots with clones and other wackiness as well as a much more fleshed-out narrative that includes Aya and Saki’s parents as a main storyline, and while most of it is fairly campy anime-style tropes, it’s largely what’s expected from the series, as it has never taken itself too seriously and presents itself with a very campy and tongue-in-cheek feel to everything you see and experience. Some of the cutscenes drag on a little bit, but they are all skippable if you just want to get back to the action, but I’d suggest watching them at least once just to see how everything was updated.
In combining both games into one continuous campaign, it does end up making things feel a little bit short, as some parts of levels from the original games are shortened or removed, and they also didn’t include some of the extra content/characters from the “expanded” versions of the games that were later released on PS2 as well. On a first play-through, I’d say it’s maybe 5-7 hours to get through if you watch all the story, but once you go through again and are able to level up your characters and skip all the cutscenes, repeat plays can easily be crunched down to 2.5-3 hours with a little effort.
Even though some things from the original games are missing here, ORIGIN also adds quite a few new battles and bosses that were not in the original games, so I think it evens out fairly well, but it still would have been nice to have all the old content plus the new, but that’s just not what we got.
Despite the length, like many games of this type, one of the main draws comes from playing the campaign again on higher difficulties to unlock more features and challenge yourself, so the length is of questionable importance, depending what you’re looking for from your gaming experience.
Now on to the sound design, as previously discussed, the voice acting is all updated and much more robust than in the early Onechanbara games, making the characters feel a little more than one-dimensional avatars that chop things up on screen, though it’s obviously not Shakespeare or anything, and still falls into a kind of silly-but-enjoyable anime trope realm.
The sound effects are quite well done and make every hit and movement satisfying, but also provide audio cues for attacks by the enemies which can help with parrying and dodging, and even tell you the timing for the ever-elusive Cool Combos that have always been a staple of the series.
Many of the sound effects are quite obviously updated or created new for this game, but they’ve also kept some of the classic sound effects that fans associate with the Onechanbara series, which is a nice touch and nod to the original games that it’s remaking.
As far as the music itself, everything is a success and follows the trend of the series, as the music is often one of my favorite parts of this series, and I even own the OST soundtracks for most of the games, which is pretty rare for me in modern games. The music here is mostly remixes and updated arrangements of the songs from the PS2 games, but also features two brand new vocal songs that are a great addition and very good songs on their own.
The first of the new vocal tracks is an English-lyric female vocal track with slick and piercing rock/metal guitars and electronic beats backing it all up, which has been a tradition since Onechanbara Z: Kagura on Xbox 360, and this song provides a great backdrop for some of the high-octane battles throughout the game. Also following that tradition, the lyrics for the song are written specifically about the story, characters and world of Onechanbara, which just adds to the campy fun and makes it feel like a theme song for a classic B-movie.
The other new vocal song featured here is by a metal-idol group called Broken By The Scream, featuring blistering guitar and drum work, death metal growls and screaming, plus some group idol singing and auto-tuned vocal sections scattered throughout. These great new songs are included to play during certain sections and battles of the game, and as an added bonus, the game also lets you customize the soundtrack and choose which songs play during which events while you’re playing, so needless to say, I’ve set the vocal songs as the BGM on most sections of the game so they play more often.
Besides the main campaign, there’s also an extra survival mode included, which puts you in a series of arena stages that keep increasing in difficulty to see how long you can survive. After 50 stages, the mode kicks the internal difficulty level up and then starts repeating the stages, making for an extremely challenging time, even when your characters and skills are maxed out, so it adds some decent replayability and also lets you use other unlockable characters besides Aya and Saki.
This makes for a decent amount of content in the package, but definitely not an overwhelming amount by any means, though some missions are said to be added in the very near future as updates or DLC, so it should round things out a little more once that time arrives.
Onechanbara ORIGIN is a great update to the original games, and while not entirely a replacement for experiencing the originals, it tells a more compelling story and offers a huge host updates to improve your gaming experience for 2019 standards. Whether you’ve played the originals or not, ORIGIN is a pretty great entry to a fun and expansive game series that could easily serve as a springboard to seek out other titles in the series (personal recommendations are the Xbox 360 titles and Z2, if you’re wondering..)
If you’re someone who only wants a 20+ hour campaign experience, this may not really be for you, but for those who embrace the Japanese style action game that warrants multiple play-throughs to improve skill and challenge yourself, this will definitely satisfy.
While ORIGIN still has no confirmed release date for the West, D3 has already said they want to release it here at some point, but until then, you can always import a copy from your favorite import source or pick up a digital copy on the Japanese PSN. I hope everyone will get a chance to check out the series if you haven’t yet, and as a long-time fan, I’m always open to discuss the series with anyone interested out there.