Release Date: August 22, 2019
File Size: 2.8 GB
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Libra is a series which provides first impressions of games before their full review. These are generally spoiler free, however, some base plot points – as well as some mechanic/system reveals – could lurk ahead.
Oninaki is depressing.
If there’s one thing I can say about the works of Tokyo RPG Factory, it is that all of them bear an odd sense of melancholy. Oninaki is no different, but what else can you expect from a game about death and rebirth? In some ways, this action RPG is a bold, new challenge for the developers- the real-time combat and all the implications that possesses for leveling and pacing are unexplored territory for a studio with two turn-based titles under their belt. Even more daunting is that Oninaki is the third title from a developer whose sales have been steadily declining, mostly due to their somewhat bizarre position within the RPG market. Does Oninaki manage to rise above these barriers and deliver a compelling and beautiful experience? From what I’ve played so far, the answer is unfortunately: “sorta.”
Oninaki’s narrative is unique, focusing on the quest of one Kagachi, a boy labeled as a Watcher from a young age due to his ability to communicate with “The Lost.” These are the spirits of the dead who are not yet ready to pass into their next life, which, from the perspective of the denizens of the game’s world, is cyclical. When you’ve moved on in Oninaki, your soul is reborn with a clean slate, so you need to make sure you’ve made peace with your previous life, or else your soul might remain in unrest and turn into a big, ugly monster. There are some exceptions here, such as souls who choose to make pacts with Watchers, thereby becoming Daemons, and a couple of other odd instances like the Night Devil and his prey, a pair of souls embroiled in conflict due to their opposing natures. It’s Kagachi’s job to get to the bottom of the mysteries surrounding his occupation and the Night Devil itself.
What this boils down to are some easily-consumable scenarios that often embody the cycle of play typically found in JRPGs. You’ll get a bit of exposition about a task or problem plaguing the living or the dead, and head off in order to learn more. After having discussions with NPCs or perhaps exploring a dungeon, you’ll then get to the root of the issue and square off with a formidable opponent. Where things are decidedly not-standard are the themes and concepts behind these scenarios. When Tokyo RPG Factory promises to tell “emotional stories,” they don’t pull their punches: giant, religious suicide pacts, the unfortunate passing of a young child, lovers separated by their mortal coils, and wannabe-necromancers populate the land, bringing to light the problematic implications of a society whose central religion is centered around the confirmed existence of the soul. These stories more than often do not possess happy endings, and protagonist Kagachi seems to be so familiar with these harsh truths that their impact doesn’t land on him too hard- creating a bit of a discrepancy between he and the player.
Coupled with this weighty narrative is an equally hefty combat system, though this is caused more by the clunky movement of the protagonist and his underpowered Daemons. Combat itself seems like an odd, superfluous element- enemies spawn in clumps and possess certain attacks and behaviors that are more easily tackled with certain weapons, but their quick respawn rate means you don’t feel as if you’re progressing much. RPGs are often games of snowballing potential, starting with a limited toolset that expands into a robust system. The problem with Oninaki is that its starting point is unbearably sluggish, with movement in combat and the execution time for skills possessing a weight that is in no way enjoyable. As you expand the skill trees of your Daemons and unlock opportunities to cancel attack animations and generally increase the potential of each weapon, this slowness starts to melt away, but the game does itself no favors in the opening chapters, especially when your first ranged combat Daemon has skills that allow enemies to close whatever distance you might have had during their execution animation.
While the intention may have been to empower players as they continue to progress and encourage methodical play, it simply makes the game feel unnecessarily slow and further strips the connection the player might have to the action occurring on screen. The depth behind what you can do with your Daemons is indeed impressive, especially once you unlock enough skills to start swapping one with the other as you attempt to craft winning strategies. While you can sustain success simply by “running and gunning,” an aggressive stance is necessary due to the way your weapons grow in strength as you continue to wail on opponents. However, many skill unlocks that amount to “change weapons faster” cheapen the experience of growth, as they only add snappiness to the proceedings, not substance. These sorts of skills are few and far between, but always illicit a sour reaction.
The last aspect of Oninaki that is worth discussing is its art style. Less chibi in nature than previous Tokyo RPG Factory titles, there’s a simplicity to the character models that fails to communicate the gorgeous nature of the static character graphics and color palette. Simply put, the character art in this game is gorgeous. Complex designs with ornate outfits and tons of character are lost due to the nature of the in-game art style, which feels like a great loss. Cycling through the menus reveals such gorgeous imagery, it seems a shame that the environments and characters are drab and simplistic. There are some lovely effects, such as the peel-away screen transition when you switch between the worlds of the living and the dead, but the difference between these two realms is nothing more than a palette swap, and an unimpressive one, at that.
Though there are some neat realm-traversing mechanics that add a bit of depth and danger to exploration, the game isn’t very thrilling in its moment-to-moment gameplay. In fact, there’s a fair amount of “neat stuff” to be found while playing: treasure chests with items and skill boosters, an alchemy system that allows you to create powerful new equipment, lost souls hoping to gawk at your neat weapons before they move on towards reincarnation, and even the way you can overhear conversations occurring in the bustling town hub. But Oninaki hasn’t managed to sink its claws into me just yet, and whether that’s because I feel a disconnect with the mild reactions of the protagonist or the plodding nature of its actual gameplay- I can’t be entirely certain. As I attempt to chip away at the game further, I hope that impression changes, but for now, I can see why this 2019 release managed to become a lost soul in a sea of strong releases.
- Fascinating world and lore
- Neat combat concepts
- Beautiful 2D Art
- Slow narrative pacing
- Slow moment-to-moment gameplay
- Slow, incremental character progression
Be on the lookout for my final thoughts on Oninaki later this month.