The Onechanbara series has quite a lot in common with “exploitation” B-movies. There is excessive monster-based action and violence, and an element of “sexiness” that runs underneath, with two of the main characters in Onechanbara Z2 Chaos defaulting to skimpy bathing suit outfits. But does it feel like a “B-game” or something more? I’d argue the latter.
While game development in the west is very much AAA, Indie, or bust at the moment, Japan has been continuing to put out some more mid-tier games for a while now — some of which have found their way over to the west. No More Heroes, The House of the Dead: Overkill, and Earth Defence Force to name but a few, and have all received varying amounts of success. Suda 51 received a lot of acclaim for No More Heroes — pretty much because of its “B-movie”-ness; the irreverence of the simple story and gameplay, and gory, over-the-top violence leading to some to call him a “punk rock game developer”.
It is perhaps ironic then that due to Suda 51’s popularity quite a few of Grasshopper Manufacture’s later titles overplayed Suda 51’s role in their development, perhaps most notably Shadows of the Damned, Lollipop Chainsaw, and Killer Is Dead. If not terrible games, none saw the same critical success as the solely Suda 51 directed Killer7 and No More Heroes.
It’s Lollipop Chainsaw that Onechanbara Z2 Chaos is going to be compared to the most overall, which is perhaps a bit unfair as Lollipop Chainsaw came out in 2012 and the Onechanbara series has been around since 2004. They both feature zombies heavily, have an abundance of violence, simple stories, and have female protagonists that are tough and have sex appeal (possibly subversive in the case of Lollipop Chainsaw, but more than likely not). Ultimately, though, despite having some charm, Lollipop Chainsaw is pretty dull, repetitive, and sterile. It’s just not very fun.
Not only can a game be both budget and a lot of fun, but it should be. That’s something that seems like it can get confused. Onechanbara originates from D3 Publisher’s “Simple” series — small, budget titles by different developers. 123 of these games came out on PlayStation 2. Vol. 61 of the PlayStation 2 Simple 2000 series was Simple 2000 Series Vol. 61: The OneeChanbara (Zombie Zone in the west), with Vol. 80 being an upgraded version, and Vols. 90 and 101 being its sequel (Zombie Hunters 2) and upgraded version respectively. Tamsoft has had a lot of time to try and get this right.
At its core Onechanbara Z2 Chaos is right — it’s very right. There’s a lot about it that is “budget”. The story is very much “just there”, the environments aren’t spectacular, and it’s pretty short. But in the refinement of its core gameplay it’s much closer to the likes of the higher budget hack and slashes — Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden, Metal Gear Rising — than the likes of Lollipop Chainsaw. Though it might be lacking in some of the refinements that make those games “stylish action”, it’s very much almost there.
The story sees the “Bikini Samurai Squad” – this time made up of Aya, Kagura, Saki, and Saaya – travelling the globe to face off against a horde of summoned undead. Well, the globe-trotting is only in the mid part of the game where you do get to select the order you play the five real world locations. The beginning of the game is set in a bland mine and Gothic town, and the end of the game is set in a Gothic castle, dull office building, and some kind of underground laboratory. It’s in the real world settings that the environments are the most pleasing to look at, though even then they do seem a bit dated. This contrasts the fairly good looking (you know, graphically) models of the four main characters, who always bring a sense of vibrant colour to even the duller levels.
Throughout the stages you’ll be walled off and forced into fights in traditional Stylish Action style, with empty stars often appearing in the top-right of the screen. These are the main fights of the level, which you’ll be ranked on, filling the stars as you go. The unique element of the gameplay is the system that utilises all four of the main characters at once, which a lot of the game’s mechanics are built around. Each character has two primary weapons and a secondary projectile weapon or technique. Each of those weapons are different, and even the ones that are similar, such as Saaya and Saki’s gauntlets, have entirely different move sets. These combos and the weapons themselves can all be upgraded.
It’s not only how you utilise the weapons individually, but how you use them together. Not only can you switch between each character’s two primary weapons on the fly, but you can also switch between all characters from early on too. Pressing inputs for combos with the right timing can power up your moves, and similarly switching characters in at the right time can unleash a more powerful attack too. Add in weapon degradation (they get covered in too much blood), and the ability to refresh them as part of your combo; special moves that can continue to be unleashed by an AI as you switch to another character; and power-up states that drain your health but are maintained cost-free while switched out; and you get a whole heap of possibilities that is mind-boggling at first, but can quickly become part of an elegant dance as you manage large groups of enemies, ducking and attacking, switching and refreshing, racking up insane combos for massive points.
The other characters aren’t automatically with you all the time as AI allies. When you switch to them they sort of materialise out of the air. They’re with you at the start of stages, and then there’s a cool-down period before you can summon them again by hitting the touch-pad button, excellent for large groups of enemies or the larger bosses. You can still switch characters when the AI characters are active, but this flings you across to their location, which is at the best disorientating, and at the worst can completely destroy your flow.
There are also plenty of irritating stun locks when it comes to some of the bosses and bigger enemies, which require some finesse just to escape. Sometimes it’s hard to find the last couple of enemies in a fighting area, and they’re usually just the basic cannon fodder zombies. Some of the ranked fights are just a few of the basic enemies, which can cause your overall rank to take a hit when you think you’re about to get involved in an actual big fight.
There also isn’t a tonne of depth to the combos, often resulting in either strong attack or light attack chains, with some switching back and forth. It didn’t feel like there was that much room for learning and executing situational combos, and some of the more specialised moves being very fiddly to pull-off (such as the palm strike that’s one of the primary ways to actually kill mud men). It also would have been nice to see even more use made out of its four characters, eight weapons gameplay style. What’s on show in the game is quite impressive, compelling, and addictive — but it seems like there could have been more to it. Utilising it more in mid-combo switching, for example.
Even though I have some gripes, there’s still a lot to love about Onechanbara Z2: Chaos. At a glance it is very similar to a lot of other budget games out there, but an awful lot of work has gone into what makes this game unique, and in polishing the core gameplay into something very fluid, focused, and satisfying. The story is short, but that’s not necessarily the point. As with any good stylish action game it’s all about the replayability in a very arcade-y sort of way. Between replaying chapters, harder difficulties, quests, and mission mode there’s a lot of content in play that will push players to master the game.
Yes, Onechanbara Z2: Chaos is a budget game, but its gameplay is far from feeling that way. While its not quite as refined as that of some of its higher end competitors, it’s certainly verging on it. If they build on it properly, the next Onechanbara could be something special indeed. And without any other stylish action games hitting the market right now, this is definitely one fans should pick up for the PlayStation 4 and play.
At the moment we are selling it on our store along with a Behind the Bikini artbook. Buy it here!