Oni is almost the definition of a “singular game”. It received no sequel, it was not influential, and it was the only project its development team ever worked on. What it does have is a distinct vision and a unique gameplay style that can’t be found anywhere else, even over 20 years later.
Oni was made by a short-lived California satellite studio set up by Bungie; for that reason it is often called “Bungie’s forgotten game”. But Oni is far more than just a footnote in the history of the company that made Halo - it is one of the most cruelly under-recognised games of its era. In its original trailer, Oni was touted as “an action game like no other” - and that claim still holds true.
Oni is a third-person action game, developed by Bungie West, and released after many delays in January 2001. The PC version was published by Gathering of Developers, while the PlayStation 2 version was published by Rockstar Games. While Oni was under development in San Jose, California, the main Bungie studio in Chicago was developing Halo: Combat Evolved.
Development was difficult; the original director of the project was displaced by what amounted to an internal coup within the studio and the game missed its original release date of late 1999. Bungie’s acquisition by Microsoft in 2000 meant that the game had to be rushed to completion; this resulted in a period of torturous crunch during which plans for a multiplayer mode were scrapped.
A dark future
Oni is heavily inspired by anime, especially Mamoru Oshii’s film Ghost in the Shell (1995). The story is set in 2032 - a year that seemed much more futuristic in 2001 than it does now - in the aftermath of a global war. In this cyberpunk future, the old nation-states have collapsed and the World Coalition Government (WCG) holds sway. The WCG rules over a high-tech and superficially prosperous world, but two looming crises threaten this peace. On the one hand, what the public believes to be “wilderness preserves” are actually vast tracts of land rendered uninhabitable by the weapons of mass destruction used during the war. On the other hand, a powerful criminal network called the Syndicate looks set to challenge the WCG itself.
The player character, Konoko, is an orphan rookie agent of the Technology Crimes Task Force (TCTF), raised by the state. The TCTF is a government agency designed to curb the traffic in illegal technology, including prohibited weapons and banned models of simulated life droids (SLDs). The game begins with Konoko’s first, closely supervised mission, which quickly puts her on a collision course with the Syndicate and its mysterious leader, Muro. In time, Konoko comes to question the nature of this conflict, her relationship with her TCTF superiors, and even her own identity. Eventually, an increasingly powerful Konoko must make a last-ditch effort to save the world.
The influence from Ghost in the Shell is strong and obvious. Konoko is a clear stand-in for Major Motoko Kusanagi, and her stern boss Commander Griffin is similar to Chief Daisuke Aramaki. Despite this, Oni is set in a well-rounded and intriguing vision of the future. The WCG, for example, is portrayed as a kind of paternalistic authoritarian regime, beset by crisis and barely clinging to power. As was common at the time, much of the worldbuilding is found not in the game itself, but in its manual. In-game, however, Konoko can access various consoles with text files that expand on the setting - covering topics like the origins of the Syndicate, the capabilities of SLDs, and the proliferation of banned weapons.
It is worth noting that Oni’s story is arguably more resonant now than it was in 2001, not least because it deals extensively with the topic of environmental destruction.
Making an impact
Oni consists of a series of 14 largely linear chapters. What makes it most novel is its strong emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, augmented with a roster of ten ranged weapons. Konoko and each of the various enemy types have their own extensive set of moves, with a complexity that rivals that of a fully-fledged fighting game. This design focus made the game particularly novel on the PC, at a time when fighting games were vanishingly rare on that platform.
The fighting system has a number of clever subtleties that aren’t obvious at first glance. For example, certain enemy types have tendencies which can be exploited. Syndicate tankers, for one, are tough SLDs which specialise in flashy wrestling moves which, when dodged, leave them particularly vulnerable to counter-attack. Konoko can roll, cartwheel, and slide - and can grab items from the ground while doing any of these moves. These tricks can help players overcome what can be a challenging game, and to do so in a satisfyingly stylish fashion.
Bungie West added a heightened, anime-inspired style to their combat system. Konoko, her allies, and her enemies all verbally declare their most powerful moves aloud, like the “devil spin kick”, “ten-shadow punch”, and “cannonball!” More practically, the health of characters is indicated by a colour-coded effect that appears when they are hit. This clever inclusion helps players to gauge how a fight is going, without the need for intrusive health bars.
While guns tend to take a backseat in Oni’s combat, they do have their place. The so-called “superball gun” is essentially a grenade launcher which can be vital to disrupt groups of tough foes. The mercury bow - which fires slivers of frozen mercury - is a useful, if slow, sniper weapon. While firearms can be ignored, certain parts of the game can be very tough to tackle without them - particularly chapter 14. Importantly, guns must be earned by the player; either by finding them in the environment, or by knocking down an enemy carrying them.
A key part of Oni’s unique charm is its sense of emergence and unpredictability. While the game’s structure is almost always linear, the gameplay systems continually produce intriguing situations. Enemies, for example, will often seek out dropped weapons in order to use them against Konoko. This can spark off thrilling scrambles for control over guns - like the Van de Graaff pistol, a powerful stun gun which arcs between bodies and leaves foes open to attack. The player can also exploit environmental hazards, like fatal heights and vats of poisonous contaminants, to get the edge over opponents. The exciting sense that anything can happen brings to mind the earlier Bungie game Myth: The Fallen Lords (1997).
Oni was built using a graphics engine written specifically for it. There is no getting around the fact that it isn’t a particularly attractive game - even in 2001, its character models and textures were quite a few steps below the industry standard. Bungie West took the unusual step of hiring real architects to consult on the level design. This contributed to an often bland, utilitarian feel to the environments, which feel more practical than they do fun. Symmetry is overused, for example, and the levels lean too heavily on using consoles to unlock doors to advance to the next area.
On the other hand, Oni has excellent animation for its era which is crucial to the appeal of its hand-to-hand combat system. Bungie West implemented “tweening” of key frames, which lends fights a much greater degree of fluidity than might be expected for a 2001 game.
While the PlayStation 2 version has been called “unplayable” due to a reputedly lazy porting process undertaken by Rockstar, the PC version was and remains much more robust. A small but dedicated group of fans has maintained the Anniversary Edition, which features community patches, modern OS compatibility, a launcher, and extensive mod support. With mods, some of Oni’s technical shortcomings can be mitigated, for example with improved character models. While the game isn’t available to purchase, it is easy to get it to run smoothly should you be able to find a copy.
A long shadow
In retrospect, Oni was probably doomed to obscurity. The long delay it experienced severely undercut its chances of success. In the end, it sold less than 100,000 copies. The removal of multiplayer and the poor quality of the PS2 port will not have helped. While the PC version was far superior, it was also exposed to a small market for this particular kind of game. By the time Oni actually saw release, Bungie West had already been shut down for good and Halo was about to conclusively steal the spotlight.
Today though, Oni has the potential to shine. It is a far from perfect game, hampered by some imaginative level design. But it has a surprisingly compelling cyberpunk story, fantastic combat, and a distinctive setting. It remains genuinely unique, as deserving of cult status as other third-person action games of the time like Urban Chaos (1999) and Rune (2000). For many years, convoluted rights issues have kept Oni off digital distribution services. But in that time, the community has done a tremendous job of maintaining Oni and helping a trickle of new players to discover the game. It is a treasure from an era of innovative third-person action games, and one which is very much worth digging out today.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.