There was a lot of excitement when Square Enix founded Tokyo RPG Factory five years ago, as the studio looked to create role-playing games that harkened back to the ’90s. Both of the studio’s first two titles, 2016’s I am Setsuna and 2018’s Lost Sphear, delivered a slice of nostalgia, but it felt more like a developer trying to evoke the idea of Chrono Trigger rather than making the next great Japanese RPG. Thankfully, its third effort shows the studio coming into its own and ONINAKI is the team’s first truly great game.
Oninaki is a game about death and the regrets that people hold. Players assume the role of Kagachi, who works for the realm as a Watcher due to his ability to interact with ghosts. His job is to help lost souls that haven’t been able to transition to the afterlife to start their reincarnation and find peace be it through arresting their murderer or allowing them to communicate with their loved ones for one final time. It’s a job that weighs on their heart as their day-to-day routine is filled with heartbreak and having to battle monsters that roam the world in increasing quantity.
The story is a constant highlight throughout the RPG and Tokyo RPG Factory wastes little time getting dark. The opening hours feature a child that took part in a suicide cult and a dangerous Jack the Ripper-esque killer that is abducting women throughout the city. None of these characters, even the villains, are ever portrayed as one-note foes, though. Everybody is grappling with the thought of death, if they truly believe in reincarnation, and how they deal with grief. These ideals inform every major plot point in Oninaki and the game never forgets that death is the lone constant in an ever-changing world.
Oninaki Review | Learning to let go
Unlike previous titles from the developer, Oninaki doesn’t use an active time battle system. Instead, it’s an action RPG where the player slashes away with weapons and uses Daemons, spirits bound to him that unleash a variety of special attacks. There is a decent amount of customizability thanks to the variety of unlockable Daemons, which each have their own skill tree to go through, but the actual combat is pretty basic. It’s a lot of relatively mindless slashing away at foes and dashing away whenever the bigger foes get ready to attack. The combat is full of perfectly serviceable action that never gets in the way of the story, but it’s significantly weaker than the rest of the package. It’s not as complex as something like Bayonetta nor is it as flashy as Kingdom Hearts.
Due to Kagachi’s role as a Watcher, he often finds himself crossing over to the spiritual world. This ability is often blocked by powerful monsters that players will have to defeat before they can cross over. This is important as this secondary world is where a lot of the light puzzle solving comes into play. But they take “light” entirely too far as the puzzles are just merely about finding the right hidden path and moving forward. There’s not much thinking involved, which goes against the core tenants of what a puzzle should be. Overall, there’s not much challenge in getting around the world — be it from puzzles or combat — although some of the boss battles are pretty fun to get through thanks to the enemies offering up more unique, challenging attack patterns.
Despite the gameplay being pretty unspectacular, the story is strong enough to constantly keep the player’s attention. Although the player is initially tasked with destroying the evil Nigh Devil that is causing death throughout the world, it spirals into a multifaceted journey that explores the roots of the entire world. This all crescendos into a terrific ending sequence as the finale features several different endings to Kagachi’s story that all fit the character. These all force the player to really consider what they learned from all of the tragedies they’ve seen throughout the narrative. Few games force the player to actually have some introspection and think critically about its own story, but Oninaki manages to do so in a way that isn’t heavy-handed.
Oninaki Review | Tying up loose ends
There is not a single game that explores the topic of death as thoroughly as Oninaki. Tokyo RPG Factory took a risk by committing to a theme fully, but it completely paid off. There are highly emotional moments throughout the story that resonate because of how universal the theme is. Nearly everyone has had a close friend die or dealt with an elderly person barely hanging onto life to the point where death would be a pleasant release. Oninaki isn’t afraid to touch on these morbid topics and it is such a better experience because of it. This is a developer with a true backbone and one that is coming into its own artistically.
From beginning to end, Oninaki does a wonderful job of tying its gameplay elements to its thematic strengths. Similar to NieR: Automata, players can learn the history of the weapons they use (in this case the spirits that are bound to them) by unlocking their memories. These are short stories that explain why these spirits couldn’t let go and be reborn, and are interesting standalone tales that flesh out the overall world. Every side quest does the same, as players truly feel how bleak it must be to be a Watcher. There’s also a great relationship between Kagachi and his young sidekick, which constantly morphs throughout the story due to its multiple twists and turns.
Tokyo RPG Factory is finally living up to its initial promise and delivering something special for the first time in the studio’s short history. Oninaki tackles the theme of death brilliantly thanks to some poignant scenes and a willingness to go where most games won’t. That thorough exploration of death ties into every aspect of the game from its hack and slash gameplay to the ending choice that will leave players reflecting upon the journey they just went on. It isn’t often that a game truly succeeds as art, but every part of Oninaki goes back into its core motif and that’s why it is an essential action RPG.
GameRevolution reviewed Oninaki on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.