Shoulda Been An "Oni" Child...
If you think it's tough growing up in the shadow of an older sibling, how about coming of age in the shadow of a sibling that has yet to be born? At last year's E3, the playable demo of Oni was shamefully easy to get to, while people waited in line for an eternity just to see a quick movie of Halo. Admittedly, the game isn't captivating at first glance. But look a little harder and you'll quickly discover why this third-person action romp from Bungie deserves attention.
You play as Konoko, a mysterious androgynous special agent with metallic purple hair and a touch of amnesia who takes orders in pseudo-technobabble from a robotic 6 year-old whose voice alone embodies all that is heinous in anime. Confused? Forget about it. Despite all the chatter, there isn't enough of a plot to give Goodnight, Moon a run for its money.
Oni makes up for the absence of a coherent storyline with the addition of a nifty little objective proximity icon at the bottom of the screen. It indicates both the altitude and direction of your objective targets, and it makes it possible to ignore the plot and concentrate on Oni's strongpoint: action.
This game plays like a cross between Syphon Filter and the Tekken Force mode in Tekken 3. You maneuver Konoko through packs of syndicate baddies who are eager to take her down by any means necessary. All that stands between Konoko and a nasty death is her impressive repertoire of hand-to-hand fighting moves augmented by the occasional weapon.
As in Syphon Filter, your enemies aren't that much weaker than you, and they won't stand there and let you pump them full of shots. They will run, duck for cover, and maneuver around your attacks. If you are seen from a distance - say, from two floors above you in an open gallery - they will either fire at you from where they stand until you return fire, or they will race down the stairs for a face-to-face confrontation. If they become disarmed they will fight mano-a-mano until they can retrieve their weapon. Even if they were originally unarmed, they will pick up an available weapon and make good use of it. And even grunts will bust out with piledrivers and suplexes when you least expect it. At times it seemed as if opponents fought harder and smarter the more I played. Very impressive!
Though the game is linear, there's more than one way to achieve an objective. Honestly, that's half the fun, plotting plan B, C, D, etc. after plan A falls flat on its face.
Game controls are simple (thankfully) and combos are easy to pull off. It's possible to get away with button mashing, though you'll find you'll want to know what you're doing early on. The enemy is legion, health hypos (health) can be scarce, and ammo can be hard to come by.
Besides, some of the moves just look damn cool. Konoko can disarm someone and twist their arm so they turn the gun on themselves or she can do a triple hit combo and then cartwheel out of danger. She's got a lot of fighting to do so she might as well look cool doing it.
Oni lacks an in-game save and checkpoints are few and far between. This contributes to the, at times, aggravating difficulty of the game. However, unlike more adventure-oriented games requiring tedious low-pressure tasks, Konoko wades through wave after wave of combat with no inane puzzles to slow things down. Amen!
The game seems focussed on propelling Konoko forward. She can not only run while firing most weapons, but she can reload while running as well. Although she may carry only one firearm at a time, she can pick up guns and ammunition from less fortunate combatants. Other characters within the game can give you health, ammo and other beneficial items (and after they hand them over to you, you can sock 'em in the head - who said Konoko was big on gratitude?).
Despite the burly action, Oni isn't the prettiest game on the shelf. Environments are large and well designed but lack interesting textures. Spaces within the game are unfurnished and barren, primarily the sterile-corridors-with-crates motif which the gaming industry seems so resistant to making a departure from. Character design is also lacking. Konoko fares the worst for it, looking like the secret love-child of Goku and k.d. lang.
There are frequent points in the game where Konoko's survival depends on how quickly she can flee. Say you just defeated an opponent strapped with C4 hooked to a three-second timer. As he's dropping, he activates the self-destruct. You'd think Konoko would want to get out of there in a hurry. But instead of adding a single "dash" button to the controls to speed up Konoko's default run, it is a double-tap forward affair which, in the most inopportune times, can result in some kind of sluggish ambling followed by a speedy death.
Amazingly, there is no option for customizing your keyboard settings which, I have to say, is just plain dumb. The ability to remap keyboard controls is essential in an action game. This is a terrible ommision.
A multiplayer feature with cooperative mission and deathmatch modes would have made a more than welcome addition...but it seems soon-to-be-little-brother gets all of Bungie's attention in that arena.
However, Oni manages to compensate for dull graphics, empty interiors, lack of a multiplayer mode and unfriendly saves with intense action and impressive enemy AI. The game is fun, challenging, and ultimately worth the frustration.