We all know what constitutes a JRPG. While we can’t help but adore their eccentric characters, fantastical worlds and outrageously-sized weapons, the beloved conventions that define this genre are unfortunately also the very thing that threatens to stagnate its evolution.
That is why, amidst a market that tends to reinforce the traditional JRPG staple instead of reinventing it, Tokyo RPG Factory is successful in remaining loyal to the familiar while also being unafraid to venture beyond it. The final result is undeniably their strongest and most genre-defining entry to date, standing out among its peers in a way that pushes all the right buttons.
Although storytelling as fast-paced as its action leaves no room for subtlety in Oninaki’s tale of grief and suffering, this blatancy is exactly what drives its impact. With surprisingly authentic characters and enough gut-punches to leave you staring at the screen in utter despair, this unique JRPG masterfully conveys the confronting reality of death, loss, and everything that comes after. The tragically beautiful and bittersweet theme playing over its main menu pretty much encapsulates the experience of playing this game, and I guarantee that its fascinating lore and beautifully animated world will keep you in its clutches until the very end.
In the world of Oninaki, two parallel regions known as the Living World and the Beyond exist on top of one another. You are free to navigate between both realms as Kagachi, a Watcher dedicated to seeking lost souls and sending them onwards to be reincarnated in the next life (or so it is believed). Upon the emergence of the ‘Night Devil’, a powerful entity that threatens to wipe clean the slate of both worlds, Kagachi must unravel the past to confront the present with the aid of a mysterious young girl, whom he calls Linne.
Traversing these mirror-like dimensions is the core of Oninaki’s gameplay, and I was transfixed by their juxtaposition and how it parallels the sobering similarities between life and death. The personality and beauty that permeates both worlds effortlessly complements Tokyo RPG Factory’s sombre tone, with a stunning visual design that at times had me staring for way too long. From the vibrant and bustling city of Deto to the shimmering lake surrounding Kiro Marsh, finding aesthetic backdrops for screenshots proved to be a time-consuming task simply because there was one in every frame.
With impressively detailed 2D character art displayed in the menu, the cute and playable 3D models they were transferred to in-game failed to capture the same intricacy. However, this doesn’t undermine the effectiveness of their simplicity. With soft textures and colourful environments reminiscent of Breath of the Wild, Oninaki establishes its own charm with fluid animations, dutifully expressing the characters’ emotions with a vividness you wouldn’t think the cartoonish style could achieve.
While Tokyo RPG Factory omits the open-world formula in favour of more traditional area-by-area exploration, the diversity and quantity of locations on the map made up for their limited pathways. The freedom to instantly jump between the Living World and the Beyond offers an illusion of expansiveness to each area, however, the respawning of the same monsters and lack of gameplay that differentiates one world from the other makes simultaneously traversing them both feel a little repetitive. This is somewhat remedied by the occasional portal that continues a path obstructed in the other world, or hidden chests containing useful items found only in The Beyond, but that is unfortunately the extent of their difference.
And yet despite this, throughout my playthrough I still fully explored both realms in nearly every area on the map. Not only that, but none of it ever felt like a waste of time. I owe this to Oninaki’s combat system.
As someone who typically favours story above anything else, I was surprised to find myself impatiently anticipating the next moment I would be free to once again engage in battle. With seamless controls that go hand-in-hand with the variety of moves you can perform as Kagachi, Oninaki’s intensely gratifying combat ticks all boxes that not only deem it a worthy central mechanic, but one of the most rewarding and versatile systems I have ever experienced in a JRPG.
The Daemon mechanic is a stand-out, and perhaps the most enjoyable and captivating aspect of the game. Instead of human beings, humanoids and/or cats making up a classic JRPG party, Oninaki’s battle line-up consists of the souls of warriors whose weapons and skills are wielded by the Watchers. Kagachi, a little greedier than his fellow comrades, can equip up to four Daemons at any given time, utilising their specialised attributes to slay the hundreds of monsters polluting each area.
Although the great number of Daemons you discover throughout the course of the game is almost overwhelming, they are designed so uniquely that it is nearly impossible to keep the same one equipped for more than a few waves of Fallen foes. Their fluid interchangeability adds a surprising layer of strategy to the hack and slash combat, as you are often forced to adapt new play styles to defeat various kinds of enemies. For the poisonous spores of Loneshrooms, you’d be best to make use of Dia’s long-ranged pistol and crossbow, while the heavy swings of Wil’s axe would be more suited to crushing the hard shells of Rigidillos.
These are only some of the many ways Oninaki allows you experiment with new approaches to combat, levelling your Daemons up alongside you and strengthening the bond you share with them. Using them frequently will increase their rank, rewarding you with new skills and added buffs, as well as increasing the potency of Affinity Points, which allow them to Manifest; a temporary state that unlocks the Super-Saiyan capabilities of your Daemon.
To me, however, the real satisfaction is in gradually unlocking their memories and revealing the breadcrumbs of their past lives. I adored how Tokyo RPG Factory paid particular attention to the incredibly well-written backstories of each Daemon, crafting their unique personalities to build on them not as weapons, but as characters in their own right.
With Daemons at your beckoning call, shredding through dozens of targets can be exhilarating at times. Luring them into clumps and insta-killing a horde with one well-timed skill is exactly what makes Oninaki’s combat so addictive, and the colourful variety and intricate designs of the Fallen never fails to keep you on your toes. Every stab, swipe and slash feels so impactful, particularly when you are met with the more foreboding Soul Eaters and powerful bosses. It is during these more trying battles where Oninaki offers just enough of a challenge to feel rewarding, even when you become closely familiar with the ‘Game Over’ screen.
While button-mashing combat represents the core of its gameplay, Oninaki also offers snippets of other elements that broaden the scope of the individual locations you are free to visit. Occasionally, you may come across a lost soul on your travels who will leave a request for you to fulfil, such as finding a certain weapon or defeating them once they transform into a Fallen monster. It’s almost jarring for a JRPG to offer so little in terms of side quests, however, it’s easy to understand Tokyo RPG Factory’s decision to focus wholly on a linear story. As it goes, the captivating fast pace of Oninaki is enough to render side quests as largely unnecessary, as they would have diverted the player’s attention and watered down a powerful tale.
In their efforts to build from the more traditional aspects of a JRPG, Tokyo RPG Factory manages to transform even the most primordial conventions into intuitive mechanics that will set the ballpark for future entries. While its comparatively smaller size and highly linear playthrough renders its story to be more fleeting than most belonging to the same genre, Oninaki’s impactful focus on death, suffering and most staggeringly, humanity, is bound to resonate with you for much longer. As the JRPG industry continues to expand, I can only hope that developers will take a leaf out of the book of this original and captivating gem of a game.
Although the gratifying combat system overpowers the few features that define Kagachi’s journey, what Oninaki promises is a thoughtful, expertly-crafted and gorgeously-animated story that will have you seeing it through to the end and into the Beyond.