Tokyo RPG Factory's Oninaki is a return to form for the relatively new studio, channeling the best parts of I Am Setsuna with some fresh JRPG form.
It's a bit of a weird time for JRPGs. One of the greatest RPGs in recent memory released just this year in the form of FFXIV Shadowbringers, but its form is wildly different, occupying an entirely different genre despite meeting the criteria many have for the classic form. The Final Fantasy 7 Remake will arrive in early 2020, completely reimagining one of the definitive JRPGs in video gaming history. In both instances, a point of emphasis is to shake-up most of what fans know about the genre in an effort to make it more palatable to modern audiences - which is perhaps why Tokyo RPG Factory's Oninaki is at once a breath of fresh air and a tightly-tuned homage to the JRPG classics that paved the way for it several decades ago.
Oninaki is the latest effort from developer Tokyo RPG Factory, a studio owned by parent company Square Enix that has been charged with ensuring that traditionalist JRPGs aren't just a thing of the past. The team's efforts so far have been mixed, with I Am Setsuna standing out as a startlingly memorable first effort before Lost Sphear underwhelmed as a follow-up. For concerned parties, there's no need to fear, as Oninaki is much closer in quality to I Am Setsuna and the changes that have been made make it an even better spin on some time-tested qualities.
Some of that is a product of the fact that Oninaki hits on some of the subtleties that made I Am Setsuna so great. The music is low-key but moving and stirs the perfect emotions when it's required, and the character designs are simplistic but exude charm and personality despite this. The story, likewise, is pretty withdrawn for much of the game's progression thanks to the most consistent thematic concern, death. Everywhere players go in Oninaki, death isn't far behind - and the world is obsessed with it. The only church is built around the concept of reincarnation, going so far as to allow people to pay them to execute them and bring them to their next go at life. It's grim, but it works, and it's intriguing - once the mysteries begin unraveling and main character Kagachi gains enough agency to begin questioning the world, Oninaki becomes instantly memorable.
It's difficult not to spend an entire review praising the way that Oninaki is unafraid to explore complicated themes of death, reincarnation, belief, and regret. This is a major step up for Tokyo RPG Factory and, if this is the quality of story the studio is comfortable telling now, big things are in store for the team in the near future. Do all JRPGs need to make their players question their own relationship with death by the end of them? Absolutely not. But some of them prompting that question are nice, even if the subject matter distinctly isn't.
Of course, Oninaki is far more than just its intriguing story. The game is also a satisfying blend of traditional JRPG elements melded with some interesting innovations, specifically the ability to shift between the regular world and The Veil. The Veil is where the dead spirits reside, while monsters also populate the landscape. That isn't to say that the real world is safe, either, though. Any map that allows players to pierce The Veil is essentially two maps instead. Destroying debris in the real world can also have subtle effects on The Veil, where chests may appear with goodies that were previously blocked or passageways can be uncovered. The aesthetic of the maps also change dramatically, keeping things fresh and making traversing through the same map repeatedly interesting.
Another change is the combat system, which feels a lot like a dungeon crawler at times despite far fewer enemies populating the map. Kagachi can manifest Daemons - more powerful versions of Lost souls in Oninaki - which allow him to wield different weapons, abilities, and forms of movement. The latter, despite sounding the least exciting, was by far the most interesting. Changing movement dynamics is dramatic. A scythe-wielding Daemon can allow Kagachi to teleport across short distances as his dash, while another has long, lanky leaps over top of enemies. There are so many different ways to approach the game, and it knows it - Oninaki also lets players swap Daemons on the fly, with the ability to equip up to four of them at a time. Daemons can also use some passive abilities that allow them to have effects on battle even when they're not possessing Kagachi at that point in time, allowing players to look for broken combinations of passives that complement each other nicely.
Oninaki's skill tree is also worth mentioning. It's similar to Final Fantasy X's sphere grid, which was divisive among some fans but has ultimately withstood the test of time (and re-releases) as one of the better skill systems the series has ever employed. Using a Daemon will generate spheres related to their weapon that can then be spent on their skill trees. Embedded in those skill trees are also the memories of the Daemons, who will begin explaining their back story and why they ended up where they did. There's both combat and story incentive to delve deep into a favorite character's skill tree - making grinding a lot more appealing than it normally might be otherwise. Bosses are an absolute pleasure, too, and they're the instances where sphere grid navigation and team layout will be at their most important.
If there's one thing that holds Oninaki back it's that at its core it's a pretty simplistic game. Having a ton of options is wonderful, but the enemies themselves aren't particularly diverse. Even in areas where it is abundantly clear that the game wants players to try out a new Daemon they've just acquired, it's incredibly easy to just power through with whatever Daemon a player has stuck with for most of the game. Environments change a lot based on aesthetic, but layouts never really evolve beyond a few little twists on early mechanics. Some minor characters are almost indistinguishable, visually and tonally, from just random NPCs. All of these things add up, and Oninaki clearly could use a bit more depth to some of its gameplay. It's worth revisiting areas to grind up some more Daemons for memories and passives, and characters are still fun to interact with even when they're not center stage, but there's a lingering sense that there could have been a bit more underneath the surface combat of the game.
Still, Oninaki is a wonderful title. It's worth playing through just for some of the ways it interrogates how we as humans view something as scary and all-encompassing as death. There are some shocking extremes, but there are also some in-between philosophies that really stick in the back of one's head long after they've first been discussed. Between an engrossing narrative and diverse, exciting combat, Oninaki is likely Tokyo RPG Factory's best game yet. For JRPG fans, it's a must-play, but for those unsure about how interested they are in the genre, it's also a wonderful choice to sample and see if Oninaki is to their liking.
Oninaki releases August 22, 2019 for Nintendo Switch, PC, and PlayStation 4. Screen Rant received a PS4 download code for the purposes of this review.