Ahead of the Euro release of the PlayStation 3, Pro-G caught up with the creator of launch title Genji: Days of the Blade and had a spot of hands-on time with the game itself.
Things have all gone a bit Basil Fawlty. All I can think about while interviewing Yoshiki Okamoto, the executive producer of PS3 launch title Genji: Days of the Blade, is "Don't mention the giant crab". He seems like a man who takes his games very seriously and I'd rather not offend him by bringing up last year's notorious Sony E3 gaffe, where the company played up the historical accuracy of Genji before anachronistically showing footage of a gigantic crustacean boss enemy. The press found it hilarious, but who knows what the man responsible for unleashing the crab thought about his creation becoming a bit of a laughing stock.
I almost get away with it too, until I tactfully ask about what kind of bosses players will be facing in this epic hack 'n' slash adventure and a wry smile appears at the side of game Producer Bill Ritch's mouth, before he translates my query for Okamoto. Cue guffaws of laughter from the Japanese designer and much excited chatter, in which I catch the word 'crab' being mentioned more than once. It seems the veteran game designer, creator of Street Fighter and key player in Resident Evil, has a sense of humour, and sighs of relief are breathed all round.
Although Days of the Blade, the next gen sequel to PS2 hit Dawn of the Samurai, is steeped in Japanese history - following the arc of hero Genkuro Yoshitsune (whose story is recounted in countless books and even a hit TV series), the team has blended in a fair bit of mythology and legend as well to enhance the experience for players. This means there will be stacks of demonic enemies to cast a bloody swathe through and plenty of room for the odd sea-based monster to make an appearance, along with plenty more 'realistic' bosses. Okamoto explained: "Keeping the historical basis was very important in Japan, as it's such a popular story, but obviously if we went entirely by real life, things could get quite boring, so we've added a lot of fantasy and legends into Genji to give players a lot more fun and in-depth gameplay. Monsters and huge enemies are included which clearly never existed, to give the game more pizzazz and flamboyance."
Days of the Blade picks up the story of Yoshitsune three years after the events of the original game and follows the epic historical wars between the rival Genji and Heishi clans. Promising 15 hours of play, the title is considerably longer than its predecessor, and Okamoto assures us it will feature even more dramatic conflicts with hundreds of warriors - like the great naval battle of Dannoura and the horseback charges at Ichinotani. "This is the story of Yoshitsune the warrior, whereas the original was about how he would become a warrior," explained Okamoto. "In the previous game we didn't show the most interesting battles that actually happened in history, as we left them for the sequel. We wanted to finish off the Genji story with the big bang when all the interesting stuff happened."
Although Yoshitsune is undoubtedly the star of the show, there are actually four playable characters in the game that aid you on your quest to defend feudal Japan. From a woman (Shizuka) armed with chain blades to reel in enemies and grapple across gaps, to a hulk of a man (Benkei) wielding what can only be described as a large caber for knocking down bits of the scenery, players will have to master all of the warriors' skills if they are going to progress through the levels. Handily, you can switch between the characters at any time via the d-pad to use their unique skills and weapons, which are upgraded throughout the game to help you defeat the increasingly tough foes.
In my brief time playing the game I found the combat, which is the central hub of the Genji experience, to be fluid and responsive, with a natural flow that echoes the likes of Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden. It certainly helps that Japan's finest sword fighter, Mitsuhiko Seike, was motion captured to give the game a balletic grace that stops the action from just becoming a button mashing exercise. If the enemy onslaught does become too much though, providing your gauge is full, you can use Kamui power to enter an alternative reality mini-game, where timed, God of War-style button presses are needed to despatch multiple foes.
For all its emphasis on deep fighting techniques, the real standout feature of Days of the Blade is undoubtedly the presentation. PS3 development may only be in its infancy but Okamoto and his team have already pulled off some truly breathtaking visuals that add a much-needed extra layer of sheen to what could otherwise be quite a derivative combat experience. The character models are stunningly detailed and expressive, while the lush backgrounds draw you into this feudal Japanese world in a way the PS2 could never quite manage, and demonstrate just how amazing future games will look on the next gen machine. As Okamoto explained: "As we had to develop the game for the launch of the console we were obviously not using all its power but, if this is what we can achieve with a launch title, then think about what we will be able to do in the years to come, when we are harnessing the true power of PS3."
To see how well the gameplay matches up to the stunning presentation, check out our full review when Genji: Days of the Blade launches in the UK alongside PlayStation 3 in March. Or at least we hope it will be March.