As much as I adore JRPGs, Tokyo RPG Factory's previous efforts I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear left much to be desired. With a focus on JRPGs inspired by those Square Enix primarily worked on in the '90s, the team quickly cranked out its first two titles within a year of each other. Now, with three years having passed since the studio debuted with I Am Setsuna, it's back with another adventure: Oninaki. Oninaki is a dreamy-looking addition to the meaty pile of JRPGs we've seen in the past few years with an intriguing premise, but it needs more than that to help it stay afloat. Saddled with an uninspired grind and world design, its cool setup is left by the wayside.
Life and death
Oninaki follows a young man named Kagachi, who we see growing up over the years following his parents' death. After his parents passed, Kagachi grieved, but was swiftly told that he shouldn't do so. Otherwise, his parents wouldn't be able to come back in the next life as part of the town's cycle of reincarnation. An organization called Watchers exists to herd the souls of the dead to peace after they pass, ensuring they don't hang around too long in our world and seek out the afterlife and reincarnate shortly after.
Kagachi eventually becomes a Watcher, with childhood friend and fellow Watcher Mayura by his side, and we see the world of Oninaki through the lens of two initiates who know the reincarnation cycle all too well. The entire society the story is woven around is centered on death and rebirth, and there are plenty of grim moments in-game to reinforce this. Early on in the game, the parents of a young boy who's having trouble crossing over are concerned he won't be able to reincarnate eventually. They request to be killed as well so the family can reunite in the afterlife – and Kagachi agrees.
The story is centered around threads just like these, including a strange young girl named Linne with some rather mysterious origins. Without revealing too much, there's an intriguing narrative at play here involving Linne and the world of Oninaki's fascination with the afterlife. These story points are the game's strong suit by far, unfortunately eclipsing the rest of the game in nearly every way.
Gameplay mostly centers around light exploration, where you'll interact with characters in a town and village setting, with a world map and fast travel points available for convenience. Most of the time, you're relegated to dungeon exploration where you'll hack and slash your way through a seemingly endless parade of enemies called Fallen.
The game tries to transcend simple genre tropes by adding a few new mechanics. The Daemons you can summon are spirits that can serve you like ghostly apparitions that can put the hurt on your opponents. They used to be people, but have since lost their memories and transformed into more powerful spirit forms. As you move through the game you'll collect several of them, which can be leveled up and customized with abilities from extensive skill trees as you see fit.
No matter where you are in-game, you can swap between the Living World and the Beyond, the land of the dead. They're parallel worlds that change with a press of a button. When you travel to a new Beyond area you're "Veil Blind," which means you'll take a massive amount of damage since your character can't see what's going on. To lift this malady you have to fight and defeat a Sight Stealer, a rare enemy that's wrapped in "miasma." Once defeated, you'll receive special effects known as Precepts, which will make the area (or boss) you're trying to conquer easier. For instance, one might imbue you with the ability to always perform critical hits. It's occasionally useful, but seems arbitrarily added to the Beyond to make it more "mysterious."
In reality, the Beyond mechanic isn't very exciting, and is rarely used to interesting effect. Sometimes you might have to swap worlds to do more damage to an enemy. Others, you may need to cross the veil to see parts of the map that are missing when you first come across them. There aren't ever really many fascinating reasons to use it, which is strange given the game's insistence upon using it here and there. With such a gripping story behind reincarnation, you'd think the devs could have figured out inventive ways to utilize it, but that unfortunately was not the case here.
You must make copious use of these strategies if you hope to survive throughout the various areas of Oninaki. Enemies will overwhelm you, and quickly. You can only hold so many healing items at a time, and companion Linne can occasionally use some on you. But you've got another trick up your sleeve. As you attack with your Daemon (and not just your character), you'll eventually be able to trigger a berserk-like state that will supercharge your attacks and abilities. It won't last forever, so make sure you get in all the licks you can while it's triggered. You can trigger it when you're ready, as it's not automatic, thankfully.
Unfortunately, even with these added niceties, Oninaki can barely hide what it is: a grind with some pretty monsters to flit about and add special attacks. Even with the Daemons, which come packing plenty of skills as you progress, clearing out each area feels like a slog. Attacks are sluggish and don't always connect even when you're in the line of sight of your enemy. To sum it all up, it doesn't feel like you're attacking with all-powerful spirit fighters, a la Stands via Jojo's Bizarre Adventure. It's all very ho-hum in execution, no matter how ambitious it seems mechanically. After the 30th monster slain on your way to complete an objective, it all begins to blur together, and not in a way that pushes you to want to uncover your next objective.
Drifting between worlds
Oninaki is a delicate, attractive game with striking anime art for Daemons and great-looking character designs, but it's another of Tokyo RPG Factory's titles where everyone looks like a chibi, childlike character rather than an adult. While this works in several games, like The Alliance Alive or other titles of that ilk, it simply feels out of place here. The somber tones and themes of the game tend to melt away a bit when everyone resembles a child, but larger. There's also Linne's design, who falls into the same "kawaii kid companion" trap as many mysterious characters in anime series do, and it just doesn't vibe well with what you're doing and seeing in-game quite often.
While the music is unobtrusive enough, there's also a lack of an English dub for anyone who'd prefer to hear the words spoken in their native tongue rather than Japanese. Unfortunately, most scenes aren't fully voice-acted anyway, as the game adopts the same "random words" exclaimed in audio that don't match what's in the text bubble trap of most titles. Fire Emblem: Three Houses avoids this, and I wish Oninaki had as well. Having dual options for English and Japanese languages would have gone a long way in adding some extra polish that the game seems to be missing.
Oninaki has big goals, but it isn't able to follow up on them. While it has an exciting premise and even some cool systems to explore, it ends up mired in the sameness other games in the genre have. It's less RPG than dungeon crawler, and given that most of your time is spent trawling locations talking to people and then setting out on missions, the story has little time to play out at a comfortable pace, leaving you with more questions than you started with. I would have liked to have seen this game get a more polished release, lessening the grinding and leveling, improving the world-swapping abilities, and adding more things to participate in overall that aren't just hacking through enemies. It's pretty enough, but perhaps it was mainly meant to inhabit the Beyond.
This review is based on a PS4 code provided by the publisher. Oninaki is available on August 22 on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
- Intriguing concept and backstory
- Gorgeous anime artwork for Daemons
- Plenty of customization for Kagachi and Daemons
- Repetitive combat
- Rote dungeon and level design
- World-swapping mechanic is underutilized
- Overworld artwork doesn't fit the game's tone