There are people who have only been exposed to the Onee Chanbara series because they noticed the Xbox 360 title, OneChanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad or its Nintendo Wii sequel, OneChanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayers on a store shelf somewhere. Perhaps they glanced at one of them before dismissing it, assuming that it, like many other games with barely clothed people on the cover, might be pandering and lacking in substance. I did, and didn’t think twice about it until I had to review Onee Chanbara Origin — a full remake of the low-budget, flagrantly ridiculous first two games in the series. The game is as excessive as its cover art would imply, but it’s also more than that. There’s depth.
That depth doesn’t come from the story, though. By most standards, the story is bad. It’s borderline nonsensical, its twists are rarely earned, and the pacing is wild. It’s also a ton of fun and suits Onee Chanbara Origin’s over-the-top combat and character design. It’s not going to win any awards and it’s hard to defend as quality storytelling, but there’s some value in the absurdity. It’s good for a laugh.
While players shouldn’t, the characters in OneeChanbara Origin take the story and their family drama very seriously. Except when they’re being cavalier about everything. For players who key into it and can appreciate that characters only occupy the extreme ends of the “being chill” spectrum, the baffling story becomes unforgettable.
If you trim away the wild, leftfield stuff, the game’s premise is rather basic. There’s a sword-wielding protagonist named Aya who is descended from a cursed bloodline. Aya is looking for her equally cursed sister in a world plagued by undead and is aided in her quest by an enigmatic informant named Lei (dubbed as Rei) who is, for a majority of the game, only present via cellphone. Even though Rei (subbed as Lei) doesn’t appear on screen until much later, her running commentary energizes the story. This is because much of what Rei says raises more questions than it answers, which is ironic for an informant. Figuring out Rei’s whole deal is, without contest, Onee Chanbara Origin’s best narrative hook.
To solve that mystery, you’ll have to hack-and-slash, hack-and-slash, and then, you guessed it, hack-and-slash some more. In theory, this could have been monotonous, but game series like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry demonstrate how an engaging combo system is more important than interesting enemies. Onee Chanbara Origin is a lighter, stranger version of those two games. Having made that comparison, it’s important to note that the game does have its own identity and differentiates itself in some significant ways.
Players will branch off from their primary weapon’s combo sequence with a mix of secondary attacks. Timing is important for these combos, and becoming familiar with the ideal moment to press the next button can lead to what are legitimately referred to as “cool combos.” Equally important are the dodge and parry abilities. Dodging is simple and safer, while parrying might take a bit of practice before it clicks. Additionally, weapons become weaker through use, but are restored to full strength by “reloading,” which causes characters to jump back and shake the blood from their sword. Finding moments to perform this action is a decent way to improve. Individually, all the actions are straightforward and easy to comprehend, but weaving them together is an act of creativity. Learning how to do so might just be the most exciting form of progression Onee Chanbara Origin has going for it, too. And before any of it can get stale, the game introduces a partner character mechanic, which allows players to switch to another character on the fly, even if they’re in the middle of a string of attacks.
At times, Onee Chanbara Origin is reminiscent of Dynasty Warriors and Musou games of its ilk. It is possible to complete most of the game’s stages on the default difficulty setting by mashing buttons at random, assuming that’s what a player decides they want to do. Another choice players can make is to engage with the combo system and complete “quests,” which are integrated combat challenges that will reward different combat feats with stat-enhancing rings, music options, and concept art. Quests are a solid countermeasure to the game’s limited and insipid selection of enemies.
Boss fights are the main incentive to beat the levels. Each of them feels like a puzzle to solve, and dodging or parrying deadly attacks is satisfying, even if most attacks are telegraphed by an accompanying noise and visual effect. An early fight against two sisters was what made me realize that this game actually has something going for it.
Beyond the story mode and its multiple difficulty settings, players can jump into practice mode or take on some bonus stages. In practice mode, it is possible to modify the game’s boss fights. These changes can be as extreme or simple, like setting different background music. More music options can be unlocked through quests, as can an array of art pieces. It is classic approach to extending the game’s playability, and completionists might be grateful for the addition.
Because of the game’s appearance, it might be a hard sell to some people. I know I will have a tough timing convincing friends to play it, even though it is up their proverbial alley in terms of mechanics and genre. The fact that the game misspells “exchange” in its opening and there was seemingly no effort put into lip syncing might also lead people to worry that it is the sort of low-effort cash-in one might expect from a series with Bikini Samurais. It’s worth pushing past, though, because these aspects of the game sink into the background, save when the occasionally leering camera forces them back into the foreground. Still, a potential to alienate or annoy people does exist. However, if you don’t find it inherently objectionable, but have acquired an association between games that look like this and games that are irredeemably crappy, then I want to emphasize that you may find Onee Chanbara Origin could be an exception to the rule.
Onee Chanbara Origin is available for the PlayStation 4 and PC.