Oninaki, developed by Tokyo RPG Factory and published by Square Enix is a game that’s caught my eye on a number of occasions, most notably during Nintendo’s Treehouse event at E3 this year – Focusing on the themes of spirituality, death and the afterlife, I was subtley reminded of other games that have attempted these themes, like Level 5 Inc.’s upcoming Ushiro.

Oninaki, however, instantly carves out a unique identity for itself through its visual style, combat and narrative that tackles these deep themes with a level of grace and maturity that I was pessimistically expecting to be lacking. Oninaki follows our protagonist Kagachi as he commits to his role as a Watcher; a sort of spiritual warrior guide that investigates ‘the Beyond’, the spiritual world that overlaps the world of the living, in an effort to assist lost souls with travelling to the afterlife to commence reincarnation – There’s a catch, however – Reincarnated beings don’t retain any of their past lives’ personality, memories, experiences or existences, and souls that are holding on to a sort of anchor in the world of the living, such as a regret, guilt or grief are bound endlessley to the Beyond until a Watcher helps them unload their spiritual baggage. This also works both ways, with not only the deceased being affected by these limitations, but the living that played a role in their life as well – If your parents die, and you grieve over their deaths, they aren’t going to find peace. That’s on you buddy.

It’s a harsh world that sets itself up extremely well in the game’s opening chapter, with you finding a young dead boy’s spirit being anchored to the Beyond by his grieving parents. They decide that ultimately they’re just bringing grief to their son, and out of guilt, decide together that they should die at the hands of the Watchers to join their son and progress to the afterlife and reincarnate together. It’s a shocking opening that only gets darker, with themes of suicide, cultism, religion, monarchy and challenges the notion of ‘what way is an acceptable way to die’, and ‘is murder or assisted death / suicide acceptable, if it’s for a greater purpose?’. It stimulates your brain and makes you deeply think about some very pressing topics.

This world and its setup also provides a lot of context to the characters and their motivations, and their personalities – Kagachi is a cold and blunt person, cutting to the chase when it comes to dealing with lost spirits, much to his disadvantage at times, yet it’s justified by his history and experiences with death.

The gameplay contained within Oninaki is also just as compelling as its world, acting similar to a top-down hack & slash, just without meaningful combos – The best comparison I can make is to titles like Bastion or Transistor, just with a bit of additional RPG mechanics from something like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 – You have your own base combos tied to weapons, however all of your weaponry and abilities are tied to a set of up to four equippable ‘Daemons’; spirits that entered a state of petrification when passing that resulted in them losing their memories – By unlocking their memories via their Skill Trees, you gain access to bigger and better abilities, ranging from laser beam attacks to Zantetsuken-style katana slashes – It’s fun to try out new abilities and to see how they stack up against your enemies, however the game does fall short on two major hallmarks…

…When you boil Oninaki’s combat down to its fundamentals, you quickly notice that the game has a severe lack of enemy diversity, and incentivises you to use between one and four Daemons throughout your entire playthrough – Shadowy chicken-looking creatures, bombing scorpions, projectile-firing butterflies and larger golem-like creatures make up around 35% of the whole game’s roster of enemies, meaning that despite featuring over 50 unique skills, you’ll only use a set few as certain enemies are weak to certain abilities. For instance you gain a powerful Daemon near the start of the first Chapter named Zaaf, who uses a spear to deal long-ranged damage; upgrading him however allows you to not only gain huge I-Frames with skills like Meteor, but also to attack most enemies repeatedly at a range by throwing your spear or drilling into enemies. Other Daemons didn’t quite win this lottery, however, with ranged characters like Dea, a Daemon you obtain in the second Chapter beginning near-useless, with a very awkward lock-on system that you need to unlock. Generally, the first few melee Daemons you get can – and will – clear the whole game’s content for you.

Ultimately, and unfortunately, the lack of enemy diversity leaves you with a desire for more that won’t be fulfilled. It’s not like games with a similar issue, such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild because the combat and world isn’t diverse enough to excuse the limited encounter types – You’re always facing enemies on flat planes, with zero environmental impact, meaning you end up with around 12 different enemy types with around 3 different attacks with easy baiting methods. It gets old quick.

It’s a shame as Oninaki’s combat is something interesting. It’s got truckloads of potential, especially for harder difficulty modes like 1-hit-KO or New Game+ modes, but it just doesn’t capitalise on any of this. It could offer some extremely compelling boss fights and encounters, but it doesn’t.

Visually, Oninaki is supremely strong, with many of the character art pieces looking fantastic, however I do have to raise that a few of the designs in the game do share some extreme similarities to other JRPG characters or designs – Just compare Zaaf and Izanagi-no-Okami from Persona 4, for example. Asides from that, the world is beautiful, the models look great, and the music and sound design is top-tier… Just the main core of the game is what lets it down.

Overall Oninaki is a brilliant concept with fascinating lessons and themes, challenged in unique and stimulating ways, with a clear, understanded visual style that would look perfect alongside Square Enix’s other visual masterpieces such as Octopath Traveler; however amongst all of this flare and surrounding excellence comes a core that, ultimately, isn’t fully realised. The game’s narrative and combat soon drops off from the initial wonder and joy that the latter half of the game becomes a chore to progress through, and it’s such a shame as Oninaki had the potential to become something akin to a modern Secrets of Mana. I love everything about Oninaki… Apart from the very thing that makes Oninaki a game. As a game, it falls just above Tokyo RPG Factory’s other titles, I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear.

Given the above, I award Oninaki with a:

7 / 10

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