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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory
Release Date: Aug. 22, 2019

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PS4 Review - 'Oninaki'

by Andreas Salmen on Aug. 21, 2019 @ 7:00 a.m. PDT

With exciting new action-RPG gameplay, players will explore the world as a mysterious Watcher named Kagachi who is bound by duty to sever the bonds that tie the Lost to this world.

Oninaki is the latest game from Tokyo RPG Factory, a studio under the Square-Enix umbrella. The team's prior two games, I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear, were traditional JRPG creations that didn't quite manage to be better than average. Oninaki is an action-RPG instead of an old-school JRPG, and it features real-time battles and different weapons/skills to master. It tries to tell an ambitious story with completely overhauled visuals and new gameplay mechanics. However, that ambition is not enough to create a good and fun experience.

The world of Oninaki is all about reincarnation. Death is a reason for happiness and celebration. As long as people and their next of kin can leave behind their worries, they can be reborn into a new life. Regrets and despair may cause a soul to get lost beyond the veil, which is a parallel dimension. They're unable to transition to a new life, and the longer they linger, the more likely they'll turn into Fallen Souls (mindless monsters).

The protagonist, Kagachi, is a Watcher, which means he ensures that lost souls are reborn by eliminating whatever is making them cling to their former lives. It's a heavy topic that is full of potential conflict, difficult decisions, and regret. By the end of the tale, we'll have encountered quite a few unsettling stories, which is Oninaki's strength.

Rumors of a so-called Night Devil, who takes the lives of the innocent and disrupts the cycle of reincarnation, hint at the story, but the plot trajectory changes quite a few times before the end credits roll. It means that the tale remains interesting, but sometimes, it can seem unfocused and erratic. If you're into being frequently taunted and fooled, the story will be right up your alley, but it can cause more distractions than having a main antagonist to take down in an emotional final battle.

Additionally, Kagachi isn't very friendly or likeable at the beginning, so it's difficult to care about him and his adventure. That changes over the course of the game, but it makes the first segment of Oninaki feel less impactful. While Kagachi and a few other characters get some screen time, most of the characters are two-dimensional at best. You'll mostly interact with a "happy old man" or a "long-necked woman" (not making this up) than named people with a role to play in the story. Regardless, it's a great setting on paper and has a lot of potential. The ambition and scale of the story are very welcome, but the title often falls short in execution and gameplay.

Watchers like Kagachi can bind lost souls to daemons, which are used to fight and defeat the Fallen so the lost souls can be released. We begin with one daemon, Aisha, who's armed with a katana and can bind additional daemons as the game progresses. Daemons mostly float behind Kagachi during gameplay while he wields their weapons.

Combat in Oninaki is relatively straightforward. Each daemon has a basic attack, a basic skill, and several special skills, four of which can be mapped to attack buttons. For example, Aisha has a dash ability and slices up enemies with her katana. She can learn special skills, such as area attacks that deal heavy damage, stabbing an enemy and regaining health, and heavy jump attacks. Other daemons have different weapons, such as chains, daggers, a lance, and a scythe. One weapon is even a wolf that we can ride and bite enemies with.

There is no direct limit to how often we can use special attacks in combat, but they have a cooldown period. During that cooldown, we can fall back to basic attacks. There aren't further combat mechanics, such as combos or attack variations, to provide any variety. That means we'll spend most of our time smashing the attack button to see the same animations and hear the same sounds. It's not too bad for a couple of hours, but once you're 20 hours into the game, it can become almost mind-numbing.

That's not the only aspect of combat. While attacking, we gain affinity with our daemons, and that number can sit between 0% and 200%. General attacks raise affinity, but using special skills reduces the affinity slightly. Rising affinity increases our attacks up to a certain point, but after 150%, your defense stats take a hit. Once the affinity is above 100%, it triggers a "manifest" state where all stats are increased, which then feeds off the affinity until it's gone. It's a nice boost in tougher situations or boss fights, but it's not nearly as integrated as it should be.

Since this is an action-RPG, character progression is part of the package. Oninaki doesn't openly go with an XP system, but Kagachi levels up as we fight, and there's an overall stat boost with each gained level. By the end of the game, we were at level 60 with no obvious cap in sight. Daemons are leveled independently of Kagachi. As we use a daemon, we receive a stone to use on their skill tree. Aisha needs sword stones to level up, which we can only spend on her, and we'll only receive them if we use her in battle. That means our daemons only progress if we use them and don't level up alongside the party. Certain rewards and chests may also contain null stones that can be used on any daemon.

The daemons and their skill trees look massive and can be confusing, but given the range of available daemons, there is enough variety to find a play style that'll resonate with you. Aisha has sword skills, but she can also increase the chances of recovering health during attacks. She is focused on a powerful and quick combat style. Izana, on the other hand, is armed with a scythe and is great for evenly distributing damage to a big group. She can eventually increase the chance of landing a critical attack when attacking enemies from behind.

Now to the core of the game: areas and enemies. Oninaki does not feature an explorable, traversable overworld like in Lost Sphear or other classic JRPGs. Instead, all levels and explorable areas are accessed via fast-travel options. Every area has multiple save points that, once discovered, enable you to travel to almost any point. This makes it easy to quickly get around and visit previous locations for additional leveling or loot. Given that daemons gain new stones for their skill trees quickly, grinding is quite effective but has an impact on the difficulty. More on that later.

Each area is split into two: the real world and the parallel dimension, "Beyond the Veil." We can swap between both worlds at the touch of a button. We always start in the regular world and must gain "sight" into the veil to switch over. Basically, we kill everything that moves until the level is cleared. Most stages have one or multiple bosses that need to be defeated. Generally, the gameplay doesn't deviate over the time you spend with the game, which is one of its main drawbacks.

Once we have access to the Veil, it pays to stick with it. There are chests that contain item drops and buffs that apply while we're there, and that shakes up the gameplay ever so slightly by dealing extra critical damage, recovering health, dealing more damage based on the distance to an enemy, and so forth. Additionally, you may discover new daemons to bind or lost souls that need passage to the next life under certain conditions, which is pretty much the only side-quest activity during the main campaign. Some are as simple as revisiting a certain area or showing off powerful weapons.

Enemies are always present in the hundreds. Most will be the same low-level grunts that you can easily slice through, and as the adventure progresses, the foes will increase in number and deal (and absorb) significantly more damage. You'll continuously see new enemy types in the game, but get used to seeing most enemies over and over again and defeating them in ridiculous numbers.

Another big issue is that enemies are mostly brain-dead. In a group of 10 enemies, six may engage while the rest stand around and stare while their companions are slaughtered right next to them. Even a direct attack is sometimes not enough to get them out of their trance to attack you. Bigger enemies engage you without fail, but even they don't push too hard. The highlights are the boss fights, and they are what's expected from an RPG: huge, and with several waves that we need to fight through. That would be the case, anyway, if the game didn't have a major balancing issue.

A point that was already apparent in the previous title, Lost Sphear, was that if the player uses all tools at their disposal such as equipment improvements, grinding and leveling, the game would be relatively easy. Alas, the same applies to Oninaki — but to the degree that the title can occasionally feel devoid of challenge, which is the killing blow for any action-RPG. There are three difficulties: easy, medium and maniac. In our first playthrough, we played through the game on medium difficulty, and only a handful of battles ended in a "game over" screen. The final boss battle was a quick but challenging affair, and that was most disappointing. It was so dissatisfying that we reloaded our save file to tackle the final battle on maniac difficulty, which ended in much the same way except for some minor differences.

Oninaki claims that its variety of daemons and big skill trees require the changing of daemons and tactical gameplay to best your enemies when, in fact, the game can be cheesed quite easily. Grinding in previously visited locations doesn't improve the experience, especially since enemies do not seem to level with you but stay at the same level in a given area.

There usually isn't any incentive to swap between daemons. They each have pros and cons, but a daemon that is used for an entire game will be powerful enough that you won't be worried about missing out on another daemon's buffs and skills. Add to that the way the game handles equipment, and you can quickly create an almighty warrior that can best anything the game throws at you. There's also an alchemist, where we can improve our daemon's weapons.

If a weapon has slots, we can add shadestones to increase just about anything: general attacks, attacks when manifested, certain special attacks, HP, etc. We'll find increasingly powerful shadestones later in the game in addition to rarer, more powerful weapons. Additionally, we can upgrade any weapon to a certain degree. Oninaki has no currency, so we never need to pay for an alchemist's work. To upgrade, we have to scrap unused weapons from our inventory that, depending on their rarity, can boost the attack rating of another weapon. That's also why the maniac difficulty isn't too much of a leap from medium; the higher item drop rates enable you to get the best and most upgraded weapons.

The issue is that if you keep upgrading your weapons and grind a little bit on the side — which you do in any RPG since it's an integral part of the experience — Oninaki doesn't feel challenging. I can handle repetitive gameplay or simplistic combat, but if I'm not being challenged because I use the gameplay mechanics that are available to me, that is an issue. The title could use at least one or two additional difficulties for those who are looking to be challenged or at least a harder New Game+ mode.

Oninaki has a distinct and fitting art style that is a noticeable step up from Lost Sphear in many regards, but it isn't mind-blowing. Buildings, character models, and environments are simplistic at best and get repeated over and over again with a few exceptions. The presentation is similarly minimalistic. Despite its simplistic appearance, Oninaki did stutter on our PS4 Pro, especially during cut scenes. Music is another point of contention, as the few tracks that are included range from basic to quite catchy, but the selection is also very limited selection and repeats often. What's worse is that the game often doesn't play music at all, leaving our ears to endure Kagachi's monotonous attack and death sounds that get unnerving within the first two hours.

Content-wise, there is some meat to the game, but most of it feels like filler. Tokyo RPG Factory had previously mentioned that Oninaki could take you anywhere from 30-50 hours to complete. We took more than 20 hours to beat the campaign but less than 30. The 50 hours are realistic if you want to go the completionist route, level up all of your daemons, and stick around after the final credits roll to find all lost souls and fight in a new area, The Sanctum of Rebirth, which unlocks when the story is completed.

Oninaki certainly has plenty of ambition, promise and talent, but unfortunately, it didn't substantially deliver on any of them. There are many layered game mechanics and an intriguing story that don't stand a chance against extremely easy and repetitive gameplay. It's quite obvious that the development time and budget were limited, which results in an experience that is mediocre at best, regardless of how great this could have been. The almost-AAA price of $50 makes it a hard sell that should only be considered by determined fans or those who have played and enjoyed the demo.

Score: 5.9/10

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