Review: Onee Chanbara Origin

So here’s your Japanese lesson for the day. “Onee-chan” is an affectionate term for an older sister. “Chanbara” means swordfighting. Thus, the title of this particular game series is a play on words. It’s an older sister swordfighting! It can also be written as “Oneechanbara” or “Onee Chanbara” depending on localization; we’re going with Onee Chanbara Origin because that’s what the official title splash writes it as.

Did I say “series?” Yes, Onee Chanbara is a series that started as part of the Simple 2000 lines of budget titles in Japan. For those unfamiliar, the “Simple” line is targeted toward cheaper games developed quickly, with a tendency toward the games winding up flying off in strange directions due to a general “fast turnaround for cheap” mentality. A surprising number of them have gone on to become series because when you make tons of games that are about throwing anything at the wall, some of them stick.

Onee Chanbara, as it happens, stuck so well that the 15th anniversary sees an outright HD remake and remaster of the first two games as Onee Chanbara Origin. And… well, this is going to be a weird review, I tell you that right now.

Onee Chanbara Origin releases on October 14th on both PlayStation 4 and Steam. The Steam version was played for this review.

Sister, Act

At the most basic level, Onee Chanbara Origin is a game in which a bikini-clad cowgirl hacks at zombies with a katana. If that doesn’t tell you most of what you need to understand the level the game is operating at, well… I don’t know how much help additional information will really provide.

Yes, I know, that sounds glib because it specifically is. The game starts with Aya (aforementioned bikini-clad cowgirl) explaining the state of the world, which covers a lot of things you would kind of expect to get more discussion. See, the world is overrun by zombies, and Aya hunts them, and she’s searching for her missing father and sister. All of this is provided with voiceover narration at the start.

You might have a number of questions here. For example, why is Aya able to talk on her cellphone with a fresh and undamaged bunny-ear case? Why does killing zombies get her money? Why is she in a bikini? Why is anything anything?

The answer is that these are the wrong questions to ask. She’s in a bikini because otherwise you couldn’t see a mostly-naked women get stained with blood as she fights zombies, honestly. If you don’t get that, there’s not much more to be said.

As you have probably guessed by now, the story is basically there as a slightest framework as you start hacking your way through hordes of zombies. No one needs or wants the details. As befits the Simple series, it is not a premise assembled organically but a story made up to justify the parts that the developers wanted to do. If this bothers you, well, there’s not much to be done about it. Relax and hack at zombies.

Sisters of Battle

The mechanics of the game are what matter most. And they are… not frustrating, exactly. They’re a bit tricky, but they do belie a greater depth.

At the most basic level, this is a hack-and-slash game in which you run toward hordes of enemies to mow down. You have your basic attack, your ranged attack, and the ability to jump. You can also parry with a well-timed button press, or dodge with a similarly well-timed press earning other rewards. The timing on these things can be a little finnicky at first, and since some enemies require you to parry them it’s a bit obnoxious. Practice gets it down.

From here, though, the game moves further into complexity. Stunning an enemy through parries or other moves opens up the possibility of a Cool Finish, which allows you to instantly kill the enemy and get extra bloodstains to activate your Berserk Mode. Berserk Mode increases your damage and speed but lowers your defenses, but you can cleanse the blood on your body if you want to forestall it. You can also use another special finisher by powering up your gauge, which clears away many enemies at once. Then there are Cool Combos, wherein you perfectly time your button attacks…

What strikes me as most notable about your little arsenal of abilities is the game’s weapon degradation system. Normally that’s the sort of thing that seems like anathema to a hack-and-slash game, but here all it means is that as you hack through zombies, gunk builds up on your weapon. You have to take a minute to step back and shake your sword free, which also offers you a chance for a potent follow-up attack if you time it right.

The parrying and dodging can be a bit annoying at first, but as a whole it does work pretty well. There’s definitely the sense of a game that was developed in short order with a small budget, but like the best of its ilk it also comes with a genuine love for the genre that it’s building toward. It also helps that individual missions are quick, so even the most annoying objectives don’t have time to overstay their welcome.

I wouldn’t say I loved the action in this particular game, but it was fun enough! It feels like a precision notch or two below something like Devil May Cry, but that alone seems right because it’s a very different sort of game. Combine that with the alternate playable characters, and there’s a lot of fun to be had here…


Sister Blister

In the past, I’ve reviewed games that got some big dings for either their story or their gameplay. Sometimes both at the same time. Sadly, Onee Chanbara Origin is not one of those. While the story is simple, it’s cheesy B-movie schlock, and the gameplay is solid.

What was not solid for me, though, was actually playing the game.

Despite having hardware well in excess of the recommended specs, my computer had some weird frame rate issues, and the sound was plagued by a constant and consistent stuttering that made the music and dialogue basically useless. The framerate issues weren’t laggy, but a similar stuttering. I wonder how many of my issues with timing were due to exactly that stuttering.

But let’s just assume that somehow my computer (with an RTX 2070, an i9-9900, and 32 GB of RAM) is uniquely at fault for that stuttering. Okay. The game still has some technical issues, like randomly swapping the menus and text back into Japanese instead of English. The Borderless Windowed mode did not actually work properly, instead just producing a windowed version that would not alter its size despite changing the options. Sometimes, resuming the game would crash back to desktop without a message.

In other words, this is the first game wherein the problems come almost entirely due to technical issues. It’s really hard to recommend this game to someone when I don’t know if their computer can run it, regardless of hardware specs.

Alright, maybe the PlayStation 4 version is immune to all of that? Let’s assume it is. You still wind up looking at a game that – on my current look at Steam – has 96 DLC options. Is the fact that several of them are outfits a problem? Of course not. But then there are several others which are actual missions, and suddenly the game gets a lot more insidious in terms of pricing and business model.

It is to the game’s credit that the graphics generally look nice and free of clutter that would render the game unplayable. It’s just a pity that the other issues drag things down badly.

Sister Resister

I would really like to give this game a better review. The reality is that Onee Chanbara Origin doesn’t strike me as a bad game. The basic hack-and-slash formula it has seems fun, and you can understand why this went on to spawn sequels and so forth. Sure, it’s schlocky cheesecake action, but that’s exactly what it wants to be and that’s to its credit.

Alas… I can’t really recommend this game because those technical issues are notable. They’re not “render the game unplayable” bad, although the experience was probably diminished for me. But for all I know I wasn’t the unlucky one but one of the lucky ones.

I want to like this game. I repeatedly come close to liking this game. And I’m probably rating it highly given the technical issues. But those technical issues mean that for any and all of its virtues, the game ultimately fails that basic test of “is this fully playable.” If the issues are fixed in a launch patch, toss on another point to the score.

But otherwise? Caveat emptor. This is a fun game when it works, but the “working” part isn’t assured. It’s just that the technical issues don’t render it unplayable.

~ Final Score: 5/10 ~

Review copy provided by D3 Publisher for PC. All screenshots courtesy of D3 Publisher.