Onimusha 3: Demon Siege is an action game developed and published by Capcom in 2004 on PS2 and on PC in 2006-2007. Following a self-induced exile to master the Oni arts, Samanosuke Akechi returns to fight his nemesis, the Genma Lord Nobunaga. But before Nobunaga can get the better of him during a fight, a time portal appears and whisks Samanosuke away to Paris in 2004.
There he runs into Jacques Blanc, a French police officer partially played by and using the likeness of Jean Reno. After a quick meeting, Jacques falls into another portal and ends up in Japan prior to Samanosuke's battle with Nobunaga. To get back home, he must cooperate with both the past and present Samanosuke using a time-travelling Tengu so they can defeat the invading Genma in both eras.
After an amazingly animated intro cutscene that exists solely to make the franchise look as cool as possible, it becomes apparent that this is the game where Capcom really tried. The acting is now competent (though Jean Reno only plays Jacques in French at the start), there are a ton of cutscenes with good action and even a few sections where you cooperate with friendly AI characters. Couple that with the timetravel angle and the game feels big in scope, but manages to keep good pacing unlike Onimusha 2, as the affinity system and hub town is now gone.
The series tradition of campy (yet gruesome) adventure full of goofy demons remains, but now there's an actual core to the narrative instead of it just being historical fanfiction stringing together various boss battles. Said core is also campy and dumb, but it's still endearing. Poor Jacques is not only stuck in the past fighting the Genma, but his son Henri has problems accepting his new wife Michelle.
It's incredibly cliché to have a story like this resolve within an action plot, but it's so precious. The Samanosuke stuck in the present cooperates with Michelle to drive the Genma back and in doing so acts as a sort of mediary between her and Henri. It's so fun to have this stoic samurai (now portrayed well by his new actor, Robin Atkins Downes) and the threat of a demon invasion bring a family together. It gets silly when you consider how well Henri takes all the death happening around him, but you just need to roll with it. Even when Henri uses his psychic connection to his father to save him across time from a trap. It's great.
All this focus on the Blancs does leave Samanosuke with little to do besides fight two of Nobunaga's main goons and the demonic moustache himself. But I didn't mind, since if we did focus on him more, then we'd get closer to the two previous games, the narratives of which aren't much to write home about. What we have here is like a Resident Evil story on crack with an actual emotional core that's also well acted. I couldn't in good faith ask for more out of 2004 Capcom.
The core of Onimusha has been kept for 3, but there have been a ton of small changes to the formula to really make it shine. First of all, the pre-rendered backgrounds are gone and you now have access to both tank controls and standard 2D controls. As such, the parts of the previous games where you get flung between camera angles during boss fights are no more. The camera instead pans around the environments in tune with your movement to great effect. There are still parts of the game where you can get attacked from off-camera, but it is much easier to deal with this time around, especially with the solid lock-on system that lets you maneuver around enemies.
But what is the core Onimusha experience? Slashing up Genma and absorbing souls, of course! It's a very simple setup, but strong nonetheless. Fighting enemies makes souls fall out of them, which you then need to absorb before they fade away. The engaging part is making the decision of when to start absorbing, as you need enough space to stay safe while helplessly absorbing.
Making things even more interesting, there is a combo system awarding additional red upgrade souls if you chain absorptions. So if you want to risk losing souls in order to potentially earn more, you can try to kill enemies quickly and absorb all souls at once. There are even big souls, which take so much time to absorb that you often need to run up next to them in order to get them before taking a hit. With the various enemies, room layouts, the semi-random soul drops and your own greed each playing a part in deciding how each encounter plays out the game manages to remain engaging throughout the entire runtime.
But then there's the matter of the combat itself, which is the best it's ever been (and not just because there's finally a training mode that explains the mechanics!). Each of the playable characters have the same core controls but with some special moves to make them unique. Samanosuke is the easiest to understand, so I'll use him to explain how combat works. If you just run up to an enemy, you can do a basic combo which will often knock down weak enemies, leaving them open to ground stab. But with the help of directional input, you can do a long-distance poke, a knock-down kick and an aerial juggle 10-hit combo thing that I could never figure out the timing for.
That'll get you past normal enemies, but for tougher foes you need his more powerful abilities. Beyond a decent selection of magical arrows for his bow, Samanosuke gets three magical weapons across the adventure (3 more after beating the game if you have an Onimusha 1 save). Each one must be leveled up to get through the game, which unlocks charge attacks and magical attacks. Charge attacks are new for this game, giving you a free medium-range attack of decent power as long as you have time to charge a bit.
Magical attacks are a lot stronger, but come at the cost of limited magic power. Thankfully, each weapon has its own magic bar, incentivizing you to constantly switch weapons to make the most out of each magic soul you absorb. Not only are these attacks strong, but they also make you invincible, making them key to getting out of rough situations.
But nothing gets you ot of a rough situation better than Onimisha Mode, which returns from 2 but has recieved some important buffs. The basic rules from before apply, you need to absorb 5 purple souls before you can activate it. But unlike 2, the activation is manual instead of automatic, making it easier to against bosses. But it also triggers upon death, making it a welcome comeback mechanic if you mess up trying to survive without spending healing items.
And if you engage with the Issen mechanic instead of simply blocking, you're bound to eat dirt from time to time. The Issen is an insta-kill attack against normal enemies (which deals great damage against bosses), that guarantees the release of yellow health souls to offset the higher risk. It comes in two flavours, both of which are extremely hard to trigger due to the tight timing windows. You can either block an attack close to when it hits you and then immediately counter-attack, or you can attack when you get attacked.
Both options are hardly reliable in my opinion, but I played the game on a modern TV, so there might be some extra display lag involved. From my experience with 2, I think the best way to do the Issen is to sidestep attacks and then hit attack during the whiffed damage frames. I didn't do that in 3 since I felt comfortable mostly using normal attacks instead of practicing parries, but it's there if you feel like really mastering the game and styling on some Genma.
With our two heroes sharing top billing, you'll only play as Samanosuke for half of the game. For the other parts, you'll be playing as Jacques. His fundamentals remain mostly the same (handwaved through the appearance of an Oni spirit that just gives him access to Onimusha mode and a soul absorption gauntlet), but he has some unique skills to his name. Since he lacks a bow, all of his weapons are long-range whips and the like, which gives him greater range (and maybe weaker attacks) than Samanosuke.
He can throw debris (which is a bit difficult to aim), do grabs (and then follow-up with a series of gunshots or a tiny bit of magic) and even swing around the environment using magical hooks. All this makes him different enough that you need to change your approach slightly, but it's mostly the same during standard encounters. Still, his unique weapons and mechanics makes him more interesting than the sub characters the series usually provides.
But even on that front, Onimusha 3 goes the extra mile, as our resident female sub scenario character Michelle kicks ass! Instead of being a melée character who is weaker than the main character, she instead specializes in ranged combat with her assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle and grenades. It's amazing how quickly you can tear your way through Gemna when playing as her. Especially if you're willing to enter melée range to dodge around enemies, shoulder tackle, kick, block and even do the Issen counter with a gun!
Her sections feel inspired by the non-stop slaughter you do in Dino Crisis 2, but with her having access to multiple defensive options, it's like she plays like what Jill would be like had Resident Evil 3 either been postponed to or remade on PS2. High-octane melée shooter gameplay like this is rare outside of the the more action-heavy Resident Evil games, so I was delighted to see an iteration of that gameplay style in this game.
Being set in two different countries during two different time periods, it should come as no surprise that Onimusha 3 has a varied set of levels to its name. I particularly like what the team did to a bunch of famous French monuments. Even so, about half of the levels get recycled in some way or another. It's the least obnoxious when it comes to the two levels where you swap between Samanosuke and Jacques across time to solve puzzles, as the levels change enough between the two eras.
But much like the previous game, progression is quite linear. Unlike classic Resident Evil level design, you're not really able to play the game differently by taking different paths. It's really just a question of how many of the few optional areas you want to explore. Once or twice I thought I was being clever exploring, but it turned out I was just accidentally playing into the intended path by saving myself some backtracking. I suppose that's better than getting lost, but it still felt off to have what I thought was a secret turn out to be the standard path.
Still, there is a fair amount of stuff to find even if it's nothing too significant. The Tengu Ako that usually follows your character around is nice enough to collect enemy drops for you, which improves the pacing ever so slightly. She can also open special Tengu treasure boxes hidden at the camera's edge and collect Ecospirits from destroyed debris. These spirits are used to unlock the power of equippable Tengu Vests that you can find. Their effects are pretty significant, but unless you are particularly thorough you probably won't be able to unlock them all for use.
Most puzzles are pretty simple, but there are some inventive ones here and there using Jacques' whip traversal points, timetravelling or weapon magic. Barring a Simon Says puzzle that rivals the original's terrible death trap puzzle section, getting through the game's mental challenges isn't that difficult. The same cannot be said for the optional puzzle boxes, which hide vital health and magic upgrades behind increasingly difficult sliding tile puzzles.
Now, I can only speak for myself, but I fucking hate sliding tile puzzles. They break my poor brain and I rarely ever try to engage with them if there are guides available. Frankly, they're the game's biggest weakness in my opinion. If only they had gone for anything else.
But if you do manage to find and solve all of them, you unlock a puzzle minigame, which leads us into the game's bonus content, which is pretty good overall. There are extra costumes, a bow range minigame, a short extra scenario starring a side character (who sadly kinda sucks) and extra difficulties.
The best side content however is the returning underworld exploration, which isn't tied behind an affinity system like in 2. You simply enter portals at certain parts of the game and go exploring a dungeon full of interconnected battle arenas. It sort of works like the Bloody Palace in DMC3, but its setup is a bit more interesting. The goal of each underworld is to struggle through each room for souls and a few rare items. What makes it so good is the increased difficulty of encounters, which makes resource management more engaging.
You can escape after every battle, but doing so resets your progress. It's perfectly possible to get through on a first attempt, but it takes a fair amount of skill. You need to be careful about when you spend your magic (particularly each character's AoE spell) and when you pop Onimusha mode, as doing so against a single enemy is incredibly wasteful.
I ended up doing all of the underworld challenges and felt rewarded doing so, both through upgrades gained and the experiences I had engaging a bit extra with a game I really like.