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'Genji' a gem but not perfect

"GENJI: DAWN OF THE SAMURAI," by Sony Computer Entertainment, for the PlayStation2, rated "M" for mature, $39.99.

You grip a sword in your hand and dig in your heels. Yellow leaves swirl around you as one big, ugly demon paces in front of you, waiting to strike. In a flash you're attacked, and in a split second you seize the opportunity to strike.

Stepping aside, you land a critical strike with your sword and the beast falls dead. Score!

OK, now you can wipe the beads of sweat from your brow.

In "Genji: Dawn of the Samurai," 12th-century feudal Japan never looked so good. With gorgeous backdrops, fantastic creatures and stellar gameplay, the latest from Sony Computer Entertainment for the PlayStation2 is an accomplishment in melding Japanese samurai legend with fantasy flair.

The year is 1159 A.D., and 16-year-old Yoshitsune, one of the last of his obliterated clan, must reclaim his clan's honor and restore peace to Japan.

And you thought dealing with acne and exams was tough.

Fortunately for the graceful and nimble Yoshitsune, he has a handful of allies, including a 7-foot warrior monk named Benkei, who wields weapons larger than most grown men.

In the game, you get to play both characters and switch between them often. Where Yoshitsune is quick with his double sword and high-jumping skills, Benkei is a slow powerhouse who can take out a group of enemies in one massive swing — it just takes him some time to wind up.

Other allies, such as the clan elder and a mysterious noble lady, help you save your game and combine power gems to give you even greater abilities.

These gems, called Amahagane, give their possessors almost god-like power. The power-hungry Heishi clan has its own share of these gems, making them formidable opponents. But with every big, bad guy you fell, you get to keep his gem.

The gems give you the ability to go into a state of hyperawareness with a push of a shoulder button. In this mode, your reflexes will be tested. As enemies rush you, you must time your button push to the exact second they are about to strike. If you do it right, a fight against six or seven enemies will be over in seconds, if not, well, you didn't need that health anyway.

Some of the larger enemies you'll encounter are pretty impressive. At one point you engage in a fight against a glowing phoenix that is breathtaking.

Now for the technical stuff. The graphics and environment are decent, and a lot of detail has been put into both the main characters and enemies. Game controls are crisp and responsive, and the button layouts are easy to use and simple.

I liked the fact that they kept the original Japanese dialogue with subtitles. I mean you're in feudal Japan, of course they need to speak Japanese. The soundtrack was a good balance of classic Japanese music with some symphonic elements thrown in. It was also nice that they made Dolby Digital available for those who have surround-sound systems.

Gripes are few, but they are there. There is some difficulty in direction control when switching between pre-set camera angles. The other problem is this game is too short! With the wide array of special weapons and armor available, I wasn't able to even fully explore half of the goodies before I realized I was playing the final battle scene.

There are two hidden levels that can be accessed only when you beat the game, but you'll have to play it through all over again to get to them.

In all, "Genji: Dawn of the Samurai" is a decent game with a lot going for it. I'm crossing my fingers for a sequel.