"I can definitely see a difference between [Tokyo RPG Factory's] first two games and Oninaki, but the monotonous and sluggish combat really kills the experience for me."
Just how do you capture the magic of the great RPGs of the 16-bit era? I feel like that's what Tokyo RPG Factory tried to achieve with I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear, but they missed the mark both times. For their third game, Oninaki, the studio have stepped away from their turn-based roots and brought along Chrono Trigger's director Takashi Tokita for the ride. While the demo left me feeling cautiously optimistic
, it was only a few hours beyond that opening chapter that my optimism faded away. Oninaki is another game that, while serviceable, falls short of its promise and potential.
Kagachi is a Watcher, someone who has the ability to cross between the realms of the living and the dead, who becomes embroiled in the life of a young girl after a chance encounter with the Night Devil. In crossing the Veil and saving lost souls, Kagachi learns about the world and how people truly feel about death and reincarnation. Make no mistake, Oninaki isn't a particularly cheery RPG, and at times this really weighed the game down for me. The game throws emotional story after story at you without any context. It's sad the first time, but when these stories follow a similar pattern, all while experienced through the eyes of the gruff and often emotionless Kagachi, it gets pretty boring.
The pacing feels very slow and is not helped by the fact that the first half of the game essentially sets up the lore and mechanics of the world. By the point the game really started looking deeply at the ethics of reincarnation, I'd already lost interest, as the second half takes a more generic approach to the story. None of the characters are particularly memorable either, and they never evolve past their basic RPG tropes. Even the music fails to stir up much within me; the soundtrack is largely forgettable, apart from the title theme and the few Irish folk-inspired boss tracks that really energised me.
Where Oninaki differs most from the studio's first two games is in its action-based combat. Kagachi can attack enemies while accompanied by a Daemon, a lost soul who has been unable to rest. You encounter Daemons either on certain maps or as part of the story and can swap between up to four of them at will during battle. I was slightly lukewarm on this during the demo, and it looks like I was right to be. Said demo provided more than just a taste of this game's combat; it was basically everything the game had to offer. Combat never really evolves from mashing the attack button, moving out of the way of enemy attacks, or utilising your Daemon's skills. Fighting also feels incredibly sluggish and at times unresponsive. You can't dodge or heal mid-attack, and you usually need to wait a second or two before you can do either after making a hit. And don't get me started on how easy it is to get staggered and thrown to the floor, even when you have preventative abilities.
One thing I really like is how the Daemons are integrated into the game. Each Daemon has their own gorgeously drawn skill tree, with unlockable attack and support skills that enhance their abilities or those of the entire party. As you work your way through a skill tree, you'll likely pick up buffs for when you swap Daemons or even the ability to speed up the amount of time it takes to switch between Daemons. Unlocking nodes on a Daemon's skill tree is also how you'll uncover their personal story, but the resulting cutscenes are very bare bones — nothing more than a camera panning across the Daemon while they narrate their experiences.
Daemons have their own combat styles, so it's worth giving each one a whirl before setting up your party. Dia, one of the few long-range Daemons, quickly became one of my favourites thanks to her fast skill recharges and ability to overwhelm both groups and larger enemies. One thing I didn't like is having certain abilities like jumping and dodging tied to a particular Daemon. A couple of them share similar abilities such as glide and teleport, but I think quick and responsive dodge and guard abilities really make or break an action RPG, and the fact that you can't even use these skills if you don't have the right Daemons equipped is an annoyance.
Loot is a surprisingly important part of Oninaki. Instead of equipping yourself, you need to equip your Daemons with weapons, and each Daemon uses a different one. You can acquire armaments from either enemy drops or chests, and early on, you unlock an alchemist who can help you forge better weapons or enhance the weapons you currently have equipped. You can also equip Shadestones that add abilities onto a weapon, but that weapon must have an ability slot. Both weapons and Shadestones are very common, and while you can likely make it through the game without messing around with the equipment system, it makes things go a lot quicker.
While you're exploring, you can cross the Veil and go between the world of the living and the dead. When you start out in a new location, you need to find the Sight Stealer, which while active causes the "dead" world to be shrouded in black; this prevents you from attacking enemies, and getting hit by one in the dark instantly kills you. There are paths and treasure chests that you can only access after you've crossed the Veil into the land of the dead, and crossing also sets certain battle conditions, making combat either easier or more difficult depending on who the condition applies to and whether it's a buff or debuff. This doesn't add hidden areas or secrets to any of the maps, unfortunately, so it just feels like a way to show off Kagachi's Watcher skills as gameplay mechanics.
Visually, I found Oninaki to be a mostly pleasant experience. Like all other Tokyo RPG Factory games, the watercolour anime art style is utterly gorgeous and largely translates to gameplay really well, in particular the locations and environments. These look beautiful, whether they're lit up under the mysterious light of the world Beyond the Veil or from the clear blue water rippling in the living world. I just wish there was more variety than a couple of forests, some caves, and a few different temples, because what we do get looks beautiful. Character models are a bit less successful, featuring the same kind of minimalism the studio's previous two games have gone for, but they look a little outdated.
I'm frustrated because I wanted to like Oninaki a lot more than I do. It's absolutely not a bad game; rather, it's yet another "serviceable" outing from Tokyo RPG Factory, who continue to try their hardest. I can definitely see a difference between their first two games and Oninaki, but the monotonous and sluggish combat really kills the experience for me. If the team work on the concepts and make sure the speed and responsiveness is up to par, then I think they could be onto something much better.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.