Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 (reviewed)
Tokyo RPG Factory is a living example of why nostalgia can sometimes blind us. They were formed to create traditional JRPGs that would satisfy people looking for something along the lines of Chrono Trigger or Secret of Mana. Their releases, I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear, certainly did mimic the great RPGs of old, but something felt off. They were hollow, a clear attempt to imitate but without a soul of their own, without that spark that made traditional sprite based RPGs so fun to play. They were games that were fun to play but ultimately forgettable.
So RPG Factory decided to mix it up for their most recent release, Oninaki. Gone were the turn based battles. Gone were the allusions to past greats like Chrono Trigger. Gone were the traditional fantasy stories, instead replaced by a dark philosophical take on the nature of death itself. The models were changed to be more detailed. The environments were changed to be more interactive. Absolutely everything was either changed or upgraded from their past releases and in the end.
It still feels kind of empty.
A dead story
In Oninaki you play a Watcher, a guardian of the dead. In this world, the dead are set on a journey to the next life shortly after their demise. However, if they have too many attachments to the living world they may become lost, and being lost long enough risks mutating them into a spiritual monster, which is the excuse the game gives you for all the baddies you fight along the way. The catch is that it’s not only up to the spirits. If the loved ones they leave behind grieve for their death, they can chain them to this world. Sometimes it’s such a problem that the best way to handle this situation is to kill the grieving family too.
…. That’s screwed up!
The world of Oninaki is a fascinating one and your first few moments in it will have your eyes glued to the screen. However, it becomes apparent quick that the plot underutilizes the setting. Much of the game is sectioned off into a sort of “monster of the week” format as you deal with different lost spirits and their loved ones which almost always fall into the formula of diving into a dungeon and slashing up some baddies before facing off against the big baddy at the end. Then you’ll get a ton of exposition afterward about how what you did was loosely related to the people you are helping, along with a lot of pontificating on the nature of life and death.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a JRPG fan. I love philosophical pontificating attached to spurts of gameplay. Unfortunately, the pacing here just doesn’t work. Maybe it’s because there’s no voice acting so all this exposition is handed to you in the form of walls of text. Maybe it’s because the character models aren’t expressive enough to hold your attention during these walls of text. Maybe it’s because you are given little reason to care about any of these NPCs until the game takes a hard left into “stop the big bad” territory later on. Whatever it was, the dumps of exposition had me feeling bored and instead of getting excited to dive into another dungeon, I would usually just turn the game off.
Battling your Daemons
Faulty stories can be held together by tight gameplay and Oninaki’s gameplay is tight. Combat revolves around the use of Daemons, or lost ghosts that have decided to possess you and help you out rather than turn into a monster. The Daemons you equip determine pretty much everything about the combat system from what weapon you fight with, to what special moves you can use, to how you dodge, defend, and move around the battlefield. You can then further customize your Daemons by progressing through complex skill trees. All of this is layered on top of more traditional systems, like equipment customization.
On paper, you are supposed to switch Daemons to suit your current situation, and for a while you will. However, just like the story, you’ll eventually notice that something is off. Notably, you’ll notice that nothing poses a big enough threat to warrant Daemon switching. Even bosses who have a glaring weakness to a very specific Daemon type aren’t particularly worth switching. You’ll instead fall into a rhythm of using your favorite Daemon all the time, which will in turn make that Daemon the strongest in your lineup, which gives you even less of a reason to switch. It’s a shame because switching Daemons really does make you feel like you are playing a completely different character. There’s potential here, but the game never forces you to utilize that potential.
This eventually snowballs into tedium. Overpowered Daemons lend themselves to button mashing. Button mashing lends itself to boring fights. It’s clear that the game thinks you are utilizing tons of Daemons with complex move-sets at the point that it throws three to four waves of enemies at you over and over again, but really you are just mashing attack buttons and waiting for the battle to end.
There’s another mechanic, the Manifest mechanic, which is supposed to lend another dimension to battle. As you fight your manifest meter increases, giving you a bonus to damage but a penalty to defense. Once it fills far enough, you can cash it in for a limited super mode after which your defense and attack will revert to their base values.
Once again this sounds good in theory but even at full Manifest I never felt like enemies posed enough of a threat to make me take notice. As a result, I treated this like any other super bar from any other action game. I saved it until a boss fight, and that’s about it.
A tale of two worlds
Finally we have the exploration segments of the game, which have a really nice gimmick to them. As a Watcher, you have the ability to switch between the worlds of the living and the dead. For the most part they mirror each other, but small differences will aid you in getting around the world. Is a bridge out in the land of the living? Might not be in the land of the dead. Is a path in the land of the dead blocked by evil energy? Well such things hold no sway in the land of the living.
For the most part, this two world gimmick is enjoyable. You’ll encounter different enemies in each world, find different items in each world, and in general experience slightly different gameplay in each world.
It’s the puzzles that come up short. For the most part, Oninaki’s “dungeons” are incredibly linear. There will be a main path with a few offshoots that grant you small pieces of minor loot. You’ll progress until you are blocked, switch worlds, and then do the same. You never really feel like you are solving puzzles as you do in other two world games such as A Link Between Worlds. You just move forward until you hit the roadblock and then switch worlds to get the roadblock out of the way.
As expected of RPG Factory
Tokyo RPG Factory has a problem, and Oninaki once again makes this problem clear. They are a studio of ideas, of good ideas even, but ideas are a dime a dozen. Every random gamer has said to themselves at some point “man I want to make a game that’s like Chrono Trigger except different!” That’s what Lost Sphear and I Am Setsuna were, two games that began and ended at their ideas. Oninaki is much the same, except replace Chrono Trigger with Secret of Mana.
Now Secret of Mana but dark and with a complex battle system is an idea you can sell me on, but everything eventually comes down to practice. The dark story never quite hits home because it’s paced poorly and stuck behind walls of text. The complex battle system never becomes necessary because the challenges presented to the player never require interaction with it. It’s a game filled with amazing parts, but those parts never come together as a cohesive hole.
I think that’s the one thing that Tokyo RPG Factory doesn’t understand about retro games. Retro teams were small, at least small compared to the size of teams in current game development. Good or bad they tended to feel like a cohesive whole simply because it was hard to develop without your small team talking with each other. I get the distinct feeling that the people in charge of the different aspects of Oninaki didn’t communicate with each other, and the result is this: a game that is fun in parts but that will never raise to the heights that its inspirations did.