But I think the writing for this game was on the wall the moment I began playing the demo, which offered evidence of a game that… well, I wouldn’t really enjoy. There are certainly aspects to like about this Tokyo RPG Factory title, but much like its subject matter, the game feels like a restless, lost soul. Judging by the lukewarm reception and lack of any significant sales figures, it might not seem all that surprising that SwitchRPG is covering this title a fair bit of time after its release. But just as its Watcher protagonist Kagachi, it’s time for us to lay this lost spirit to rest, and in doing so, highlight its strengths and weaknesses.
As a Watcher, you are tasked with shepherding the lost souls into the afterlife by fulfilling their remaining regrets and wishes. What this means in terms of gameplay: you’re going to beat up a whole lot of critters, most of which are souls who have failed to reincarnate. The remainder are usually people of questionable morals or supernatural state- and yes, there is such thing as the paranormal in a world where talking to the dead is commonplace. But you can’t just beat up mobs on your own, you’ll need to use your equipped Daemons- lost souls who aren’t on their way to reincarnation, but also aren’t manifesting as the spawn of evil. They are linked to their weapon of choice in a similar way to Blades from Xenoblade 2, though switching from one to the next is much more immediate and not based on cooldowns.
You can map four attacks to the right side of your controller- specifically, to the right bumper and trigger and the A and X button. You get to prioritize where you want each skill to sit, which is kind of neat, and you’ll always have a basic attack option mapped to the Y button and a “special” skill mapped to the B button. While your starting Daemon’s special skill is a quick dodge option, others can generate shields and force fields or leap skywards. I’m going to be honest, dodge-based skills are truly the best option for combat, and though they’re in short reserve, you’re almost required to equip one if you want to keep pace in boss encounters.
Outside of combat, you’ll be navigating various dungeons so that you can find boss encounters and progress the story. What complicates things is the concept of crossing beyond the veil, entering the world of the Lost and finding additional warp points and hidden paths. The veil can sometimes be shrouded by a Sight Stealer, a mini boss that will require tackling if you want to continue exploring. It’s a fairly straightforward formula and it rarely gets used in meaningful ways, often just to hide a teleporter (which, question: why do these exist in the realm of the Lost and not in the normal world? Ah, right, gameplay) and Null Stone chests, which factor into character customization.
Pivoting back to combat, defeating an arbitrary amount of enemies (it really does feel random, which is very frustrating) will grant you stones specific to the Daemon equipped. These can be used to further their skill trees, which sometimes show the skill you’re working towards and sometimes don’t. You will have to unlock the memories of Daemons on their skill trees, view them at a save stone, and then return to their skill tree to see what skills that branch has now revealed. It’s… convoluted. And speaking of that descriptor, the design of each Daemon’s respective skill tree is unique, which is cute and infuriating to navigate. Skills amount to increasing critical chance and decreasing the time it takes to switch to a Daemon, to some particularly useful skills that only require a Daemon to be present in your party in order to utilize- this is good, since some Daemons are useless from an execution standpoint. Null Stones, which can be obtained through side quests and from chests beyond the veil, are generic skill tree points that can be used across the Daemons.
If it sounds like I’m focusing on combat a great deal… it’s because that’s most of what Oninaki is. Map exploration is incredibly base, with the game necessitating return visits through side quests that are often bland. The only store in the game is dedicated to breaking down and transmuting excess weapons you’ve gathered from fallen enemies, in order to create new and potentially more powerful weapons. If you can’t beat a boss- well, equip a Daemon with a dodge ability first- and if you still can’t beat it, the only thing to do is kill more enemies in order to buff your Daemons further. Oninaki does have a few challenging boss encounters, but they begin reusing certain designs before the mid-point of the narrative, and many are mobile in ways that counteract the insanely committal attack animations for almost all of Kagachi’s skills.
Narrative and Aesthetics
In a game that’s all about combat, where does the narrative fit in? Despite Oninaki’s inventive premise, the main narrative thrust seems entirely inconsequential until it suddenly becomes world-ending. On the way, you get to experience a number of morbid scenarios, such as a cult-like mass suicide pact, a necromancy plot intermingled with corrupt shop owners, Watchers-turned-serial killers, and much, much more. What’s better, every named character that Kagachi has a remote connection with will likely die tragically. Despite this, Kagachi seems to be largely unaffected by the mounds of corpses growing around him, but as an individual who has killed for his job and is surrounded by the Lost on a daily basis, it might be understandable.
Except, outside of his very blunt and single-minded dialogue, it doesn’t feel like there’s all that much to this protagonist. If you should read through the in-game plot summary, it states that his friendship with a ghostly little girl has left a positive impact upon him, but you wouldn’t notice judging by the in-game dialogue. Oninaki presents a great number of sad scenarios, but its participants seem more like passive observers than active participants, jumping to conclusions about corrupt organizations without ever really acting on these ideas. There was a segment where I had to murder an entire group of grumpy townspeople (I tried doing nothing and got a game over) that lacked any real weight, even when one Lost little boy soul who you just killed tells you to check in on his dog (You can choose to kill it. I didn’t, because I’m not a monster).
Aesthetically, Oninaki is a mixed bag. While the character models and environmental design are nice, the enemy designs range from lovely demonic flowers to bland, vaguely grotesque monsters. A great number of the enemy designs have a uniform color scheme that is murky and lacks detail, though some do have specific features meant to telegraph their attack style and design. Sometimes the alien nature of these models leads you to question how exactly you approach them. But the character models are a more troublesome aspect- this isn’t to say that they are bad or that they lack detail, but the disparity between the 2D character art found on menus and the 3D models utilized makes the art style feel like vastly wasted potential.
To elaborate, Final Fantasy VII had ground-breaking designs for its time that also did a fairly respectable job of representing Nomura’s designs- they were simple and straightforward, especially in comparison with his later work, but the result was still impressive. In comparison, Oninaki features absolutely gorgeous character designs that look mouth-watering in 2D, but many details are lost in the transition to 3D in a way that feels like a harsh disservice. I know it seems like a minor issue to point out, but the camera angles of Oninaki don’t help at all, with their zoomed-out, top-down angle minimizing a great deal of detail.
The music of Oninaki is sparse, only emerging in earnest when engaged with a boss. Each environment only features a brief musical introduction, and a number of characters and narrative beats possess substantial orchestration. but the majority of the experience is centered around combat, and outside of boss battles, music rarely factors into things.
Impressions and Conclusion
While it might sound like I’m a bit harsh on Oninaki, I won’t argue that, of the Action RPGs I’ve played recently, it is one of the more competent examples. Despite its weightless, yet sluggish combat, the minimal sound design, and the story that tackles emotional subjects with infrequent gravitas, it’s still quite unique. What is tough to deal with are the frames that slow the game to a crawl upon any cutscene that isn’t viewed from the standard, zoomed-out camera perspective, draining these “cinematic” scenes of their impact. This is one of the few technical flaws, but since it happens after every boss fight, it’s an insistent thorn in your side. On a related note, the startup and fast travel loading times are impressive, in the sense that they’re impressively long.
When Oninaki’s story gets going, it proves to be quite weird, but it doesn’t dare to evoke emotion in the player. The combat prioritizes the usage of the fastest options due to the unforgiving nature enemy startup animations and the game’s overall pacing. All in all, this title feels like a brave attempt by Tokyo RPG Factory to prove their worth, but too many ideas are malformed and disappointing. Based on its premise alone, I hoped to get lost in Oninaki, but I instead found some half-hearted action combat and an emotionally raw and sometimes wacky tale.