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Oninaki Review: How To Save An (After)Life

In the prologue of Oninaki, the protagonist murders the parents of a child’s ghost in order to reunite them in the afterlife. This sets the tone for Tokyo RPG Factory’s narratively rich, but mechanically vapid dungeon crawler – a dour, downtrodden yarn that provokes fascinating questions about mortality while also testing the player’s patience with its repetitious gameplay.

Who Watches The Watchers?

via Square Enix

Players take the role of Kagachi, who is a Watcher – someone tasked with guiding lost souls to the afterlife. An orphan with a chip on his shoulder, Kagachi performs his duties without a hint of remorse or regret. That is, until he encounters Linne, a young girl on the run from the ominous Night Devil. Tasked with protecting the girl as he carries out his duties, he slowly discovers that everything he takes for granted might not be as it seems.

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As you’re dropped into the story in media res, a lot of details aren’t totally clear from the get-go. Who are you working for? Why is your culture obsessed with death? How can Kagachi freely traverse the spirit realm and the world of the living? So much of the game is unexplained upfront, but that’s honestly for the best. Details fall into place organically, with lengthy exposition dumps kept to a minimum.

Because of this, the game’s potent themes land better than they would have in a more lore-rich game. Oninaki actively invites players to rethink their stance on life. This is a game that casually addresses suicide and other grim topics in ways that are thoughtful as opposed to preachy. The writers want players to actively grapple with their own mortality and their control (or lack thereof) over it, which is a lofty and ambitious aim that the story mostly succeeds in.

Oninaki’s narrative is one of the more interesting and memorable in a game so far this year, for both its profundity and its willingness to explore uncomfortable subject matter.

Crawling In My Dungeon

via Square Enix

It’s unfortunate, then, that the narrative is let down by the gameplay. While far from terrible, Oninaki’s mechanics feel a bit rote and stale in 2019. More vitally, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense in the context of the game. When you think about a slow, brooding meditation on life and death, you don’t necessarily think “Diablo clone.”

But, strangely, that’s exactly what Oninaki is. Players roam dungeons and plow through waves of similar enemies to grind for loot and make their number go up enough to keep progressing. There’s truly not much more to it, with even the idea of interchangeable, sentient weapons (think Soul Eater, but with less personality) really just serving as an excuse to kinda, sorta mix up attack patterns. However, it is ultimately just a top-down ARPG that plays out like a sluggish riff on Blizzard’s flagship looter.

Yet for a game so clearly influenced by loot-driven dungeon crawlers, none of Oninaki’s loot proves to be particularly compelling. It mostly comes in the form of variations on the same few weapon types that have more slots for attribute-boosting gems, a la Path of Exile. Nothing you'll pick up during your playthrough ever feels truly rewarding or surprising, which is a basic design failure for dungeon crawlers.

When playing this sort of game, it’s important to snag players in a loop, so they can stomach doing the same thing ad nauseum without feeling like they’re wasting their time. Without that loop, you’re just hitting the same buttons and doing the same, sluggish attacks for twenty-ish hours – which is basically how Oninaki shakes out.

No, none of the gameplay is egregiously bad, but it’s also not very fun on any difficulty level. Easy is too brainless, Normal too slow, and Hard too based on artificial difficulty that’s more of a chore than anything. This leaves Oninaki in an awkward position, in which none of its difficulty levels manage to make the thing actually compelling to play. The result is a game with an identity crisis when it comes to narrative complementing gameplay, and unfortunately, that’s a bit of a tough sell for most. Everything just falls too flat to ever become anything more than mildly amusing.

Pass On?

via Square Enix

Oninaki isn’t a terrible game – far from it. Its narrative is engrossing, its characters compelling, and its art direction lush and colorful. But in order to enjoy any of these things, you have to sift through a whole lot of mind-numbing repetition to get to it. For some, that might not be an issue, but others may need a balance of great gameplay and storytelling to stay hooked. Those people, then, would be wise to steer clear of this one.

If you’re willing to turn your brain off and spam the same combos and special moves for several hours, Oninaki’s got a story worth watching unfold. However, for fifty dollars, getting a game in which the act of playing it is mind-numbing is a bit of a tough sell – and this is speaking as a diehard Dynasty Warriors fan.

For that reason, Oninaki ultimately comes with a reserved recommendation. Its story and characters are among the more memorable in a game this year, and proved to be a big motivation to keep me plowing through the remainder of my playthrough. Yet for a narrative so squarely focused on souls, one would’ve hoped that Tokyo RPG Factory could’ve put a little more spirit into the overall package.

2.5 Out Of 5 Stars

A Nintendo Switch review copy of Oninaki was provided to TheGamer by Square Enix. The game is currently available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC.

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