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Onimusha 3: Why it was the pinnacle of PS2 action

A look back at Capcom's forgotten action classic...

So why Jean Reno? The gravel-throated French star seems an unlikely choice for the hero of Onimusha 3: Demon Seige - a Japanese action game. "He's very popular over here." explains the game's producer, Keiji Inafune.

"Especially with girls. He's a tough guy, but he also has a soft side. Japanese women seem to prefer men who are tough yet gentle." But he wasn't the first choice. "We originally approached another American actor, but he was only interested in money. Jean Reno understood what we were trying to do."

And what a meeting that must have been. "Okay Reno-san, you'll be playing Jacques Blanc, a French police officer who's transported to feudal Japan through a time portal to battle demons with a magical whip." "Er... quoi?" But it's the absurdity of Demon Siege that makes it so much fun.

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What other game lets you fi ght a mechanical spider atop the Arc De Triomphe? Or crash around an ancient Japanese forest with an assault rifle? Compared to Onimusha 2 which had the steady pace of an RPG and a focus on character interaction, the third game is a relentless assault of furiously exciting set-pieces.

The game opens with Paris being invaded by the Genma clan, an army of monstrous fi ends under the control of the Demon King Nobunaga. They tear through the streets mercilessly slaying bystanders as the French police try in vain to stop them, including our hero Jacques Blanc.

We then switch to Kyoto, Japan in 1582 where Samanosuke is preparing to do battle with Nobunaga. Then, for reasons too convoluted to go into here, the two characters swap places and end up in each others' respective time period.

It's an insane premise, but one that not only makes for interesting gameplay mechanics, but a decent amount of humour too as the pair struggle to come to terms with the situations they end up in.

Occasionally the game slows down and introduces puzzles, some of which see Jacques changing the past in 1582 to clear the way for Samanosuke in 2004 - for example opening a door that's rusted shut with age in the future. You can also ferry items between time periods with the help of Ako, a tiny fairy who also serves as a translator for the duo.

In Kyoto Jacques is aided by a young Samanosuke (with, as keen fans will notice, the same hair and armour he wore in the first game), while Michelle, Jacques' fiancÚ, helps the future Samanosuke in Paris. The game switches regularly between the two time periods, as well as the Genma-infested demon world, which keeps the pace frenetic and consistently entertaining to play.

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But the reason the game works is because there's depth to its action. On the surface Onimusha 3 is a standard combo-based brawler, but the lifeblood of the combat system is the dynamic and satisfying issen moves. You can get through the game mindlessly hacking away at enemies, but A) you won't earn as many experience points to spend on upgrades and B) it gets pretty boring.

To perform an issen counter you have to wait for a precise moment during an enemy's attack animation, then attack at exactly the same time, indicated by a subtle glint of light. The timing is different for each enemy and, when successful, grants you an instant kill that reduces your victim to a cloud of shimmering dust. Hard to master, but infinitely satisfying when you get it right.

On the approach to the game's climax, Jacques and Samanosuke finally team up for a mighty, Lord of the Rings-style battle in the midst of a raging storm at the Honno-ji temple in Japan. In a stunning sequence you fight up to 20 enemies at a time (the maximum capacity of the graphics engine according to Inafune).

It's a stirring, cinematic moment. In fact, it's so cinematic your PS2 can barely cope and the frame rate becomes choppy and unreliable. But in a mad way, this actually makes the scene better. As Jacques and Samanosuke unleash their fully levelled-up fire and ice spells, they explode across the screen in (unintentional) slowmotion, and it looks incredible.

Even with its fixed cameras and linear level progression, Onimusha 3 still doesn't feel old. The slick timing-based counter system has become a staple of modern action games (even as recently as Batman: Arkham Asylum) and the mental time-hopping premise is as fascinatingly incongruous as it was back in 2004. We anxiously await the return of the Onimusha series on PS3.

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