November 7, 2006 - Next-generation consoles exist to deliver game experiences the previous generation could never deliver. That's their sole purpose in this life. So when a game comes along offering a strange mix of cutting-edge visuals but also tired gameplay, one can't help but feel a little cheated. Such is the case with Genji: Days of the Blade, the first PS3 entry in the series that started on the PS2 in 2005.
The PS2 iteration, titled Genji: Dawn of the Samurai, married top-notch visuals with decent action. It had some problems, mostly with the camera and control. Turns out combat, and just gameplay in general, stuck too closely to what gamers saw in Onimusha: Warlords, another PS2 action game set in ancient Japan. While visually impressive, Warlords and Dawn of the Samurai limited a player's freedom by using a static camera. They also had small (albeit beautiful) environments, so it offered very limited freedom when it came to exploration. And there's almost nothing worse in a videogame than gorgeous locales boxed in by invisible walls. Sure, all games have them, but sometimes the box is just too small.
Such is the case with Days of the Blade. Every complaint mentioned above still applies. Interestingly enough so do the positives. Days of the Blade delivers a next-generation tour of Feudal Japan - it's a truly pretty game - too bad it never lets players off the bus to explore it for themselves. For all the processing power of the PS3, Days of the Blade offers the kind of experience expected of a Genji sequel on PS2, not on a system that could supposedly beat HAL 9000 and Skynet at a game of chess. Which is a total shame, of course, because certain aspects of the game truly shine. It's not an absolute disappointment, but when it comes to a next-gen launch title, regardless of the platform, it needs to impress - both in how it looks and how it plays.
The latter being the more important of the two. Having said that, Days of the Blade does improve on its predecessor in a number of ways. The biggest addition lies in the number of characters available. Players can choose from among four now, and thankfully they all offer something different. The main character, Yoshitsune, can dual-wield swords and attacks quickly. The second character, a tank named Benkei, swings a massive ornate club and attacks slowly. Shizuka, a lithe female warrior, twirls around her enemies and slices at them with tethered blades. The last character, the one kept secret by Sony until very recently, is Buson, the last boss from Dawn of the Samurai. That's a nice roster of fighters, especially considering their individual strengths.
As any PS3 fan surely knows, it's possible to switch between all four characters in the heat of battle. Just press the appropriate direction on the D-Pad and the new character will swap with the one already on-screen. The whole affair is simple, intuitive and fast. Good thing, too, since developers structured the game to use each character's unique abilities constantly. Certain individual enemies, particularly bosses, go down much faster when using the correct character/ weapon combination. The same thing goes for obstacles and environmental hazards - only certain characters can push objects, hit switches or run along walls, for instance. It's a very good thing the character-switch mechanic works well, but sometimes a player is left wondering which character or weapon to use on a boss, only to find the right combo too late in the fight, ending in premature death. Not fun.
And then there's the infamous "real-time" weapon switching. Every character has a set of weapons, all of which players can swap while fighting. Just like the characters themselves, these weapons fortunately behave differently. They imbue each fighter with new moves and it's possible to upgrade every one. They also look differently - all of them share an insane degree of detail. Players earn new weapons as they conquer one area and move on to the next, and it's a special occasion every time. It's actually something to look forward to, since a new weapon usually means it's curtains for enemies until they in-turn grow stronger. But for a while, there's no contest between a brand-new, upgraded weapon and whatever hell sword or club the enemy is using.