Oninaki explores death and beyond with action/RPG gameplay. Does it make for a compelling combination?
Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (version reviewed), Nintendo Switch, PC
Release Date: August 22nd, 2019
Tokyo RPG Factory, a team of developers within Square Enix, was created with one goal in mind: to make RPGs reminiscent of when the genre was fairly dominant, i.e. the 16- and 32-bit eras. To say that goal has been met with middling success would be kind. I am Setsuna was a perfectly ok Chrono Trigger clone, but Lost Sphear was a fairly hollow effort, more trying to tick off boxes than create something genuine that also scratched a nostalgic itch.
Oninaki is actually a stab at something entirely different. It’s not specifically reminiscent of any classic RPGs and certainly doesn’t try to evoke feelings that it’s some nostalgia trip. Instead, Oninaki is a top-down action RPG focused on some incredibly heavy subject matter – that being of death.
In Oninaki, the world is basically a cult of death. People are obsessed with what happens to them or loved ones when they die, and honoring the dead and what happens to someone’s spirit when they pass. The only ones who have any idea are a group known as The Watchers, who can travel between the world of the living and the dead. The Watchers help spirits move on to “the beyond,” sometimes pass along messages or fulfill final requests, and also vanquish malevolent spirits that refuse to go to “The Beyond”.
Given this setup, Oninaki could have been a fascinating if somewhat depressing look at a difficult subject supplemented with some decent action/RPG gameplay. Instead what we get is a subject matter treated with all the subtlety of a hammer striking a loud gong repeatedly for hours on end. It’s further brought down by some fairly tedious combat.
The plot in Oninaki is that you are after the spirit of “The Night Demon”, which was a dangerous serial killer in life and is now possessing people from the afterlife to kill again. Sounds simple enough, but the pacing of the story drags. Important plot points are just randomly introduced, and you are told lots of important things through a block of text with nothing to support evidence of said things. Character motivations and personalities (those that have any) turn on a dime and I honestly just burst out laughing at several points throughout the story. Yes, laughing in a completely serious game about death.
But hey this is a video game, not a movie. This could’ve been salvaged by some interesting gameplay that made me ignore the laughable plot. Unfortunately, Oninaki‘s gameplay is only slightly better than its story with a bunch of half-realized ideas.
As a Watcher, you can travel between the world of the living and the dead pretty much at will. While this didn’t have to be incorporated into the gameplay it is. But is there actually a purpose to this? Some grand puzzle feature? Enemies that are weaker in the spirit world but stronger in the living world or vice versa? Maybe a boss where you have to switch back and forth to fight it effectively? Nope. aside from doubling up on enemies (in fact the exact same enemies) to fight, there is no reason for this to even be a mechanic in the game. It literally serves no purpose as a gameplay mechanic and adds nothing.
Fighting as a Watcher, you have access to spirits that you can switch between. Ideally, these would perform very differently and offer different advantages and disadvantages in combat. There is nothing to gathering these spirits though. You either acquire them through story progression or they are just standing somewhere, waiting to be talked to and join your team. You can uncover “memories” that explain more about who they are, but some sort of quest to acquire them – or at least some actual conversation to get a basic idea of their personality – would’ve been welcome.
But that lack of personality and the actual difference between the spirits that accompany you extends to their gameplay style as well. You pick up a pretty decent variety of these spirits, and yet only a couple actually feel really distinct. There is only one spirit that can attack from a distance; the others are all close range. The only other one that really stands out is a wolf you can ride. While cool in concept, I didn’t have fun fighting with that form. While I experimented for a while, I ended up just sticking with my initial spirit companion and the one that could attack from a distance. The others just seemed redundant and unnecessary.
Each spirit has a wide variety of weapons they can acquire and upgrade along with some pretty distinct skill trees, it’s just too bad this level of customization is not at all tested by the combat, which if it was better might have encouraged me to say use more than two or three of the spirit companions and really develop and flesh them out.
It’s not that the combat is even that bad, it’s mildly entertaining hack-n-slash stuff. The real problem is apparently the developers just decided to see how many enemies they can throw at you at once. It is an impressive number as there can be a rather insane amount of enemies on-screen. But it never gets challenging. I only died a few times through the entire course of the game, so it’s just monotonous because the game doesn’t know when to quit throwing enemies at you. It got to the point where just before the final chapter, I was absolutely avoiding any unnecessary combat because I was just tired of the fighting period. That’s never a good sign.
I was initially really interested in Oninaki when I first saw trailers of it, which is saying something because I was just about ready to give up on Tokyo RPG Factory doing anything interesting after Lost Sphear. This seemed to be a genuine attempt to do something truly different from their previous efforts and not just lean on nostalgia to make up for other areas where a game would be lacking. Unfortunately, Oninaki is just a bunch of half-baked gameplay ideas with a story that could’ve been really interesting and compelling but instead is laughably terrible.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.