Oninaki: How a Game About Death Could Breathe New Life Into A Genre

This one's shaping up well.

Oninaki

With only two titles released since its establishment in 2014, young developer Tokyo RPG Factory still has a long way to go before it finds its own feet within the crowded JRPG market. On August 22, however, comes the chance for it to finally leave a mark on the genre of its name, as the release of a third installment promises to not only dutifully revitalise but to also evolve the classic Japanese role-playing formula we know and love.

Oninaki is a story about death. If you think that was blunt, you better strap in, because this game’s opening scene will hit you even before you have time to regret selecting the hardest difficulty. From the outset of the demo’s introduction you can only watch, aghast, as a young boy stands looking down on the deathbed of his parents. There is no explanation and no closure for his grief, with Oninaki wasting no time before thrusting players headfirst into the action only minutes later.

You find yourself playing as Kagachi; the same boy now grown into an adult. He is a Watcher, tasked with guiding wandering and grieving souls into the world beyond. Cold and detached, he regards his duties with a callousness that often opposes his compassionate comrade, Mayura. The first objective you both share is to find the lost spirit of a boy, a task with an outcome so horrifyingly tragic I found myself checking Oninaki’s rating immediately after the title drop. From its introduction alone, it doesn’t take much to assume that the recurring and often unwelcome presence of death is as much a feature of this JRPG as its combat mechanics.

As you explore the lush greenery of the Raom Meadows, the game’s first traversable area, you might notice how closely the soft-textured graphics resemble the environment of Breath of the Wild. The art style depicts a cartoonish vibrancy that breathes personality into the distinct characters, and I look forward to seeing just how versatile and colourful the geography of the map will prove to be in the full version of the game. While dicing your way through waves of strange creatures, a few slides of tutorial text explain the simplicity of Oninaki’s hack-n-slash gameplay. Grasping the controls takes little effort, attacking is straightforward and impactful, and movement is fluid enough to accommodate combat that feels satisfying to perform.

A stand-out feature that arguably defines Oninaki is the ability to harness the power of Daemons. These unique spirit characters serve as a main function of combat, allowing you to experiment with numerous fighting styles as you equip them with weapons, unlock skills, upgrade their abilities and bond with them to uncover their lost memories. While their origins so far are mysterious(a bit of a theme with this one), it will be interesting to see how the capabilities of this intuitive extension of combat could broaden the scope of gameplay.

Oninaki

As Watchers serve as a bridge between the Living World and a realm known as the Beyond, so will you traverse these dichotomous areas to explore the nooks and crannies of the map from different dimensions. Yes, obstacles blocking your path in one world will require you to proceed through the other, the means of gathering collectables differ in subtle ways between them, and certain areas in the Beyond are too dangerous to explore until you defeat enemies that illuminate a safe pathway, but that about sums up the extent of gameplay that comes from switching between these parallel worlds. As seemingly intriguing as the contrast between the Living World and the Beyond appeared to be, I was eventually a tad disappointed with the repetition and overall lack of unique interactions you can perform within them.

With this in mind, however, we’ll have to hang on a little longer before experiencing the full potential of Oninaki’s fascinating world. Until then, first impressions of its charming art style, compelling characters and gratifying combat is enough to have me eagerly anticipating the final product. Only time will tell if it will be worth the wait.

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