Japan just can't seem to catch a break when it comes to demons. Dawn of Dreams takes place fifteen years after the original Onimusha trilogy, but the action-packed essence remains fully intact. Emperor Hideyoshi is up to something unspeakable with the nation's cherry trees, and plans to turn every last citizen into a mindless drone under his command.
Your only recourse is to stop this evil with lots and lots of bloodshed. You start out controlling only Soki - a blond samurai ogre with two giant broadswords - but before too many hours have passed, you've got a full stable of five fighters to choose from, each sporting a set of unlockable signature attacks and combos.
Killing monsters and absorbing their souls will slowly power up your avatars from well-dressed gimps to minor deities, and as your basic hack-and-slash attacks are upgraded, new and more advanced forms become available. These can be leveled up as well, and range from Soki's brutal "head splitter" to gun-toting Ohatsu's explosive "fireworks." Each ally also hides a secret form that's set loose with an "Oni Awakening," giving you a frightening new visage, limited invincibility and other secrets to discover. Their weapons - which include swords, staffs and guns - can also be upgraded. And if both your onscreen characters are wielding sufficiently advanced hardware, you can unleash devastating combined attacks that unleash destructive energy everywhere.
As you eviscerate each exhausting stage's scumbag menagerie and complete its simple tasks (find the key for this door, the missing lever for that mechanism), you'll be able to switch between the two active characters on the fly. The computer takes the reins of the fighter you're not controlling, but lets you issue simple commands to influence their behavior. In practice, your partners seem adept only at getting themselves killed, and aren't too reliable at following directions, so expect them to spend a lot of time standing in a corner and blocking attacks. Irritating as they are, your allies are key to solving the game's forgettable puzzles, and you'll need to draw on each one's strengths - ninja girl Jubei's diminutive, crawlspace-firendly size, for example, or staff-wielding monk Tenkai's creepy ability to speak with the dead - to work them out.
Above: Ohatsu collects some souls that she's "liberated" with her assault rifle
Your enemies aren't all that bright, either, but their patterns of attack are varied enough that you can't get away with button-mashing for long. New opponents are introduced with clockwork regularity, keeping you on your toes, and the outlandish (and challenging) boss battles have you fighting everything from a crab-like insect with a tail full of rotating blades to a room-filling, gas-spewing plant. It's possible to level up and just skate through on sheer brawn alone, but it's far more fun to get to know each boss' pattern of attack. However you choose to proceed, beating Dawn of Dreams' convoluted stages always feels like an accomplishment, with each talkative interlude bringing you closer to facing the emperor.
You can also go back and replay each area, if only to level up or take newly available teammates back to grab goodies you couldn't previously reach. Each character's unique fighting style goes a long way toward keeping the carnage fresh and addictive, and timed "Test of Valor" killing challenges give you incentive to really master the controls. You've can also control the camera most of the time, which is new for the series. But doing so is more tedious than it should be, and you'll sometimes find yourself stuck in a corner with an awkward straight-down view.
Dawn of Dreams isn't terribly original, with an Invasion of the Body Snatchers story that features more evil hand-wringing and malevolent laughter than a dime-store comic book. But the progression of nearly every story element is handled with almost mathematical precision. The results are gaming-by-numbers, but the whole is a hell of a lot of fun.