By Drew D. / September 13th, 2019
|Developer||Tokyo RPG Factory|
|Release Date||August 22nd, 2019|
|Genre||JRPG, Action RPG|
|Platform||PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4|
Oninaki, the latest release by Tokyo RPG Factory, is an action JRPG whose core is an exploration of belief-based concepts involving life and death. The game introduces its own religious precepts; a foundation for the story and unfolding events. Approach it strictly as a game and you may miss it, but understanding the underlying intentions of questioning our own predispositions towards life, death, and faith, and Oninaki may have something deeper to offer than at first glance.
Oninaki takes place in a world in which the principles of their religion shapes all. From society, to community, to individuals’ daily living, their precepts govern their lifestyles. In this world, the key precept is reincarnation; life, death, and rebirth as a new individual, void of any memories or connections to past lives. This principle implies a release from all bonds of the living world. Grief from loved ones left behind or regret held by the deceased may interrupt this reincarnation cycle, preventing souls from leaving the Beyond and becoming Lost. These Lost become trapped in the Beyond, a parallel plain that lies between the living world and the path onward to rebirth. The Watchers are a group of individuals who are dedicated to helping the Lost find peace and move on for reincarnation. Our main hero, Kagachi, is one such Watcher, assisting Lost souls make peace with any lingering regrets or attachments they may have. For if the Lost linger, they become consumed by their feelings and become the Fallen.
Kagachi will face many difficulties throughout his time as a Watcher. Unrest and dissatisfaction with the precepts of reincarnation are rising, as more individuals seek ways to keep their memories or meet loved ones after death. With the population turning away from their faith and violations against these precepts rampant, Kagachi and the other Watchers are faced with an ever worsening dilemma. Along with the increasing prevalence of Lost, as they cling to their past lives and loved ones, and increasing Fallen, as too many Lost are overcome by their feelings, an even greater threat reveals itself. Once terrorizing the world indiscriminately before being sealed away, the Night Devil, an entity supposedly born from lingering feelings of hated, is once again loose, terrorizing the population and bringing further disturbance to the reincarnation cycle. Along with a mysterious Lost girl named Linne, a connection between her, Kagachi and the Night Devil becomes evident. What does this all mean for Kagachi and what consequences to reincarnation will this connection have?
The story in Oninaki is framed around this principle of reincarnation. Life, death, and rebirth are the foundation in which all main and subplots are built upon. It’s also the means of how the story immerses us in the faith conversation, by approaching similar conflicts and questions that we may struggle with in regards to our own beliefs. The game’s religion is simple enough to understand, but allows for so much potential in regards to building and branching off of it. So I’m left more than a bit disappointed that the story itself is actually quite linear, never tapping into or taking full advantage of that potential. Simply put, I expected far more depth. I’ll admit that the story has its few unforeseen twists and an overall imaginative tone that kept me attentive throughout. Yet the main plot, in actuality, is really just a collection of quests and a mishmash of events that moves the story forward with minimal exploration into the thoughts and feelings of those involved. Rather than developing a deeper story, lore, or its characters, the game heavily favors implicit profundity, leaving it solely to us to derive deeper meaning from the narrative and events unfolding. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough substance overall for any lasting immersion or profound impact.
Nevertheless, I will say that Oninaki has moments of brilliance that beget genuine intrigue. The promise for reincarnation directly muddling the values of one’s current life is a fascinating concept, as well as the value death has to bring about a new life should one feel dissatisfied. Also, the valuation of life itself is a topic we can all relate to, for in life we strive for happiness and fulfillment, yet are bound by societal, religious, and other frameworks. So while I do appreciating these few efforts made that successfully cause us to reflect on our beliefs as they relate to the narrative, or those efforts made to entice us to emotionally invest in the more significant characters, the severe lack of detail prevents any deeper, lasting emotional impact. Finally, I’m vexed that the concepts of life and death are not more fully explored. Despite being foundational to the story, too often life and death are treated as trite. In fact, many times throughout the game, the way death is discussed as it relates to sacrifice, illness, murder, suicide, loss, is almost careless, empty of its own significance, as well as its effects on the living, not to mention its direct tie to the major game elements that are the Lost and the Fallen. Again, there are flickers of excellence hidden in Oninaki’s story, as well as in the theological allusions and the questions posed. Yet, there’s also a wealth of potential here that could have been addressed and built upon for significant depth and it’s a disappointment how it never coalesces.
Not only the main story, but Oninaki‘s subplots and side stories also suffer from lack of depth. The majority of these revolve around Lost individuals and their lingering regrets, for regret is the main culprit for a Lost being a Lost. Although there is some variation as to the reasons for a Lost soul’s regret, those reasons never go beyond the obvious and the expected. Even if these reasons for regret are common, at least give me depth and uniqueness in the Lost’s individual backstories. Too often we simply run into a Lost who wants us to bring them to a specific person or place. Other than the relationship itself; spouse, child, parent, and sometimes the reason for their demise; murder, accident, illness, that’s all we ever receive. It results in a shallow, predictable narrative that hurts the overall effect and so these side-stories and quests come off as cookie-cutter, leaving a feeling of overt familiarity. There is such opportunity here for emotional depth as well as to add details relevant to the main story, but it’s just another opportunity missed.
This lack of depth hurts, but I believe its greatest harm is to Oninaki’s characters. Our main hero, Kagachi, is the strong, no-nonsense trope. And that’s it. Much of his personality, feelings, and relationships are implied, never receiving any meaningful development. He’s your typical blunt individual, indifferent to all around him. His character never grows or develops past this and that indifference to everything and everyone around him makes him a narrative detriment. There are several moments in the game that involve Kagachi and supporting cast members, some of whom supposedly have a deeper relationship with him. When these moments unfold, they falter in their emotional strength and fail to make the lasting impressions strived for. This supporting cast is equally unimpressive, as we learn nothing of them beyond their base personalities, their direct relationship to Kagachi, and their fates as the plot unfolds. Mayura, Kagachi’s childhood friend, and Linne, the mysterious young girl, are the two major side-characters, yet we never learn enough about them; their inner thoughts, their deeper feelings, to ever make a genuine emotional impact. Even as more of Linne’s story is unveiled, most of it regards who she is as a plot device and little to who she is as a person. They are unmemorable and they should not have been. Other characters receive even less and none are developed to the point that any of us would invest in them. I think the only characters that will stick with me are a few of the Daemon, including Aisha, Kagachi’s starting Daemon. She and the other Daemons receive backstory through Daemon Lore and hers in particular, along with the glimpses of personality we get from her, make for a captivating character. She and her story stand out so acutely in this sea of mediocrity. Even if learning about her is an extra task and, at times, interrupting to play flow, it is one of the few outstanding examples of the depth that should have been prevalent throughout. Other Daemons have appealing stories too, but the fact that the extra often outweighs Oninaki’s main story and characters is disappointing.
Narrative shortcomings aside, Oninaki’s gameplay possesses a similar degree of originality as its story. Gameplay is heavily dependent on its combat, leaving little room for exploration, or anything else for that matter. You fight until nothing’s left, and then move on. Fortunately, there’s a bit of innovation involved. Kagachi fights alongside his Daemons, Lost souls who choose to bind themselves to him. Each Daemon represents a different weapon, fighting style, and skill set, and as you continue using a particular Daemon, points in the form of Soul Stones are gained to unlock new skills, as well as unlocking Daemon Lore placed around the skill tree. Passive skills affect stats and activation speeds while attack skills have different ranges and attributes. Up to four skills can be assigned at a time for a Daemon and four Daemons can be assigned and switched in during combat.
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