Oninaki review: a matter of life and death

Death looms large in the latest melancholy outing from Tokyo RPG Factory. Here’s our review of Oninaki…


 

In trying to emulate the JRPGs of the nineties, Tokyo RPG Factory’s past two efforts – I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear – felt too much like games rolled off a production line. Third time’s the charm, you might think, with Oninaki, which adopts a different, more anime visual style, switches turn-based battles for real-time action, and even adds partial voice-acting (albeit only in Japanese). Nevertheless, the earlier games’ themes of death and lost memories remain the core here.

Set in a realm where the population believes in reincarnation, death is supposed to be accepted with joy, while grief can prevent the departed from moving on to the afterlife. Naturally, this belief system is all too questionable when lovers are buying special charms in the hopes they can reunite in the next life, while bereaved parents can choose to be with their dead child by taking their own lives. Just to make matters worse, a serial killer known as the Night Devil is on the loose. As you might gather, Oninaki’s tone is almost unremittingly grim.

You play as Kagachi, whose role as a Watcher is to help lost souls pass on in peace, lest they stray into the purgatorial dimension of the Veil for too long and turn into monsters. To do this, you have the power to cross between the world of the living and the Veil at the press of a button. You’re also accompanied by a daemon – these are former lost souls that now serve as powerful weapons, a bit like the Blades from Xenoblade Chronicles 2. You can equip up to four daemons and switch between them at any time with a directional jab of the right stick.

There’s a decent variety of play styles for each daemon, from Aisha’s swift sword slashes to Zaav’s spear, which includes a jump ability similar to the dragoon class in the Final Fantasy series. Daemons even dictate your actions with the B button, so while Aisha might let you dash to evade attacks, the tank-like Gavod can help you set up a shield, while for others, it acts as a jump button. The idea is to switch between daemons, depending on the situation. Daemons aren’t just weapons, however, and function more like party members with their own progression systems. The more you use them in combat, the more you get out of them.

This becomes a problem when your current daemons are already providing you with a suite of skills and buffs, so that taking on a new daemon can feel like starting from scratch. Still, it’s worth putting in the grind to unearth their potential; scythe-wielding Izana’s moves start off much too slow and limited, for example, but after investing the time, the extra buffs and skills I’ve unlocked make her much swifter and deadlier, including an attack that has a chance of one-shotting the enemy. Unless you’re prepared to grind all your daemons, though, it’s likely that many just fall by the wayside as you stick to one or two favourites.

There’s nonetheless plenty of opportunities to level up, if only because Fallen are in generous supply. On occasion, you’ll be trapped in a purple ring until you defeat all the enemies there, but even if you decide to clear the room, plenty more just miraculously spawn in. Sometimes it just gets taxing on the eyes, not helped by all the particle effects or your own floating daemon obscuring your view.

The real frustration’s reserved for the bosses, which have a habit of unleashing a flurry of attacks that put you in a stunlock, leaving you vulnerable to the next hit, and the hit after that. An autosave system that lets you restart a boss fight immediately after death is also far from ideal if you went in with low health or no potions, meaning you might have to restart from your last manual save point.

The repetition and frustrations of combat would be easier to overlook if there was a compelling reason to endure them, but even a midpoint twist doesn’t save Oninaki from being weighed down by a miserably heavy-handed story. Despite the many tragedies that occur, I found myself unable to invest emotionally in the characters, and I soon became as jaded as Kagachi, who follows the angsty hero stereotype to the letter.

As interesting an idea crossing between realms is, besides speaking to lost souls, there’s barely any distinction between worlds, so there’s very little incentive to traverse the Veil unless the narrative dictates it. The lost souls themselves are also reduced to quest givers, though their requests aren’t logged anywhere, making it even more difficult to compel yourself to carry out their wishes, if you can even remember what they are.
Oninaki is a worthy attempt to break from the mould of I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear, but ultimately, it’s just another underwhelming JRPG that can’t hold a candle to the classics that the studio holds dear. When Square Enix already seems content repackaging its rich back catalogue, pumping out ersatz titles like this is starting to feel redundant.

Highlight

Daemons aren’t just sentient weapons. As you upgrade their abilities and your affinity with them builds, you can also unlock memories, unearthing fragments of their tragic backstories, which are fully voiced. The caveat is that, after the first one, each memory costs soul stones to unlock, which you’d rather be using on a new upgrade.

Verdict

Another downbeat JRPG from Tokyo RPG Factory, Oninaki never quite delivers on its intriguing premise.

58%

Genre: JRPG
Format: Switch (tested)/PS4/PC
Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory
Publisher: Square Enix
Price: £39.99
Release: Out now

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