Content warning: suicide, assisted suicide.
When I sat down to play Tokyo RPG Factory’s latest JRPG Oninaki, I thought I was in for a real What Dreams May Come time of it. Having already played the demo, I was psyched to see where they were going to take the story.
After all, a game that deals with themes of death, grief, and reincarnation has to be positively bursting with narrative potential.
In the world of Oninaki, death comes for all, but reincarnation isn’t guaranteed. After dying, everyone passes through the ‘Veil’ into a sort of purgatory.
If a soul has died carrying regrets or unfinished business, they can’t be reincarnated and are forever stuck beyond the Veil to exist as ghosts. Likewise, the loved ones a soul leaves behind are taught not to grieve for them as this may anchor them in the Veil and prevent their reincarnation.
However, Watchers exist in order to pass through the Veil themselves and assist these stuck souls to resolve their regrets in order to access reincarnation. You step into the role of one such Watcher, Kagachi, an unconventional choice of a hero in a genre usually fronted by characters that are actually likeable.
As a child, Kagachi endured the death of his parents and quickly established a fraught relationship with death and the afterlife. Now he approaches souls lingering in the Veil with an attitude that is caustic and insensitive.
We live in a society
The tabooing of grief is a bold narrative choice, but that’s just what Oninaki dares to do. There’s a lot to delve into about the necessity and psychology of the grief process.
The writers of Oninaki are clearly aware of the negative effects of grief suppression because its denizens live in a SERIOUSLY messed up society.
Cults that commit mass suicide are legion, ‘tithing’ (assisted suicide) is commonplace, and murder is practically passé.
In fact, early on I was presented with a cutscene of Kagachi borderline encouraging and assisting with the suicide of the parents of a dead little boy he’d been tasked with helping, which I found quite confronting.
Kagachi’s overarching goal—when he’s not dealing with all of this death—is to hunt down the malevolent-as-heck entity known as the Night Devil, with the aid of his close friend Linne and his fellow Watchers.
The devil’s in the details
Visually, Oninaki is gorgeous. It’s a vibrant world full of beautiful, melancholic soul that, at first glance, is enticing to explore. Accompanying it is a score and that perfectly conveys the sombre—and sometimes manic—mood of the world.
Unfortunately, this is not enough to elevate Oninaki when it begins to feel like a grind.
And oh boy, does that grinding become a grind.
You’ll encounter plenty of different types of enemies in Oninaki and they look fantastic. Particularly the bosses, who you need to defeat in order to clear a sort of fog-of-war that covers a corresponding section of the Veil. If you enter the Veil while this is present, you can be killed with one hit and not being able to see your surroundings is always a bit of a downer, too.
As such, I expected the fights with these bosses to require some carefully thought-out and executed strategies, à la Dark Souls. However, while there’s a great physicality to the fights, they turned out to be pretty bland, and eventually, I approached bosses with a sort of casual flippancy.
An element of Oninaki that’s unique is the ability to have a Daemon accompany you into combat, kind of like a familiar. There’s an array of Daemons you can unlock and pick from along the way, and they each come with their own individual playstyles, special abilities, talent trees, and compelling backstories.
They can deal damage and generate a resource called ‘Affinity’, which gives you the option to become possessed by your Daemon and go on a bit of a rampage in battle. Additionally, you can upgrade your gear by slotting in Shadestones you find during your travels.
While the Daemons are a really cool and fresh element to the game, the lack of perceivable impact in differences between them and their chosen abilities undermines this. Combined with the hack-and-slash nature of fights, the awkward controls, the push towards over-relying on special abilities, and the general blandness of combat, I found the whole endeavour dull and repetitive.
Scenarios seemed to just consist of: kill boss, get Veil sight, find lost soul, hack mindlessly at enemies along the way.
Rinse and repeat.
Kagachi’s journey might have felt more impactful if the other characters of Oninaki had been more fleshed out. His growing closeness to Linne is touching and nuanced, but dialogue with anyone else is brief and bland.
It’s a shame because Kagachi has some interesting complexity to him, and by contrast, his companions are so two-dimensional that it feels like a real missed opportunity.
Oninaki has taken the opportunity to view some hugely dark and difficult themes through a new and unusual lens and I really appreciate a game that displays such narrative daring.
However, I felt that the story never quite landed its story in a really meaningful way. It stopped just short of delving truly deeply into its subjects, which seemed like a waste having waded into those waters in the first place.
Tokyo RPG Factory has obviously poured a lot of love into this game. It’s clear that they had noble intentions, but unfortunately, it didn’t quite deliver its full potential.
If you’re a fan of Tokyo RPG Factory’s games or JRPGs, go ahead and check Oninaki out. It’s an interesting take on the genre, and on some tricky topics that are rarely tackled in games.
Otherwise—and especially if you’re likely to find such content difficult—give it a miss.
Oninaki was reviewed on PS4 using a digital code provided by the developer.
Game Title: Oninaki
Game Description: A beautiful sombre JRPG that explores life, death, and grief.