The very first and possibly only thing you need to know about this game is that it starts with a shower scene.
Yes, in Onechanbara — a game where a girl in a bikini and cowboy hat kills zombies with a katana — one of the very first things you see is main character Aya naked in the shower. Your reaction to that alone will largely determine your reception of the game as a whole; either “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” or “AWESOME!” Onechanbara is what it is, and it makes no pretenses otherwise. It’s a trashy, base, and violent beat-em-up without glitz or polish, but also a surprisingly nuanced action game for those able to look past its numerous faults.
As you might expect given the game’s focus on bikinis and katanas, the story is either campy or downright stupid depending on your tastes. An evil shadow organization has designs on unlocking the secret of Aya and her sister Saki’s ‘baneful blood,’ a genetic trait that causes them to go berserk when covered with gore splatter from their enemies. Like any good evil organization, they set about doing this in the least logical way. For some reason they unleash zombies in the city, and dispatch a quartet of guys in sunglasses and suits to beat up the poor sisters.
Luckily, all the cutscenes, dialogue, and text are instantly skippable, allowing players to get right to bloody combat. Hacking zombies to bits in Onechanbara is sublime fun, the likes of which you get from mowing down hordes of monsters in Diablo or Chinese peasants by the thousands in Dynasty Warriors. The pleasures are simple, light, and guilty as blood cakes on the screen, limbs fly, and breasts jiggle. On the game’s lower difficulties the action is absolutely mindless — but sometimes mindless hits the spot.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t offer more complex fighting mechanics and harder difficulty for the players that want it. God help me for saying it, but Onechanbara’s combat system is just as complex and skill based as beat-em-up greats Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. As Aya shreds zombies, her sword will gradually accumulate blood and gore which slow her attacks and reduce damage. Only by slinging all the blood off the sword can Aya continue chopping with maximum efficiency.
In addition, by pressing the attack button each time an attack connects in a combo, Aya can perform “Cool Combos” which deal more damage and charge up the “ecstasy meter,” which is used to perform super moves. The player also performs — and I did not make up this name — “Chaotic Luster Maelstrom” attacks, which require even more precise timing and coordination. However, as Aya slaughters more zombies in any given combo, the sword gets bloodier, and the timing of these specialty attacks change even in mid-combo. This gives combat in the game that razor-sharp skill requirement beat-em-up buffs will love.
But here’s the really confusing thing: the game never tells you that you can do any of these things. There are no tutorials, no in-game hints (save tips about monsters that aren’t really helpful), and nothing of interest in the game’s four page manual. In fact, without the 83 page (!!!) online guide, most players would never even know such mechanics were in the game apart from accidentally doing them. The game does have a practice mode with a timing window that indicates certain things will happen when you push the attack button, but doesn’t ever say what they are or how they work. It’s absolutely perplexing why publisher D3 couldn’t be bothered to put some of these mechanics in the game’s manual, or at least a link to the online guide.
The game is also rough around the edges. Animations for the characters are stiff and jerky (aside from the ever-undulating breasts, of course). The camera can also become a real headache in enclosed spaces, as it has trouble rotating through walls. Camera work is annoying in boss fights too, as it will zoom in to Aya’s back to avoid getting pushed outside of a wall. This can lead to player disorientation, missed dodges, and eating a fantastically long combo.
From an objective standpoint, there isn’t a lot of content to the game either. There are three characters to play with, twenty levels that re-use around five areas, a handful of bosses, and various unlockable clothing. Gamers that enjoy a good brawler will enjoy the fighting mechanics enough to play through several times on harder difficulties, but other gamers will probably balk at the sheer lack of stuff in the game.
There’s a laundry list of small problems one could present to prove that this isn’t a good game by modern metrics, but despite all of the minor annoyances, it’s just fun to play (once the player learns the game’s mechanics, at any rate). In terms of polish and content, Onechanbara can’t compete with the greats of the genre like DMC or Ninja Gaiden. In terms of raw gameplay, it absolutely can and does. Whether being 20 dollars cheaper, loads of camp, and constantly jiggling boobs can bridge that gap is up to the player. Fans of the genre will absolutely get their money’s worth, provided they read the online guide, but other players will not be as forgiving with the game’s faults or unapologetic trashiness.