The world of Oninaki has a complex and interesting relationship with death. For the people living in this realm, death is not just accepted, but sometimes even embraced, as they believe that they will be spirited onto their next life upon their passing. But sometimes people don’t just go peacefully into reincarnation. They have unfinished business, lingering desires, or unbearable pain that prevents them from completing the cycle–and if they can’t find relief, they may transform into terrifying monsters called Fallen. That’s where the Watchers come in. They are a group of humans gifted with the ability to cross into the parallel realm of death, and they must both guide lost souls to their next destination and deal with those who have become Fallen.
As the Watcher Kagachi, you not only have to help find and guide lost souls, you must fight off the Fallen in both realms. In fact, you’ll be doing significantly more fighting than soul-guiding, because there are a lot of Fallen wandering around nowadays. That, combined with issues like a dearth of new births, a weird cult, and a vicious murderer known as the Night Devil roaming about, has the populace worried about the foundations of death and reincarnation collapsing.
This concept is undeniably cool, and it’s ripe for storytelling potential about dealing with the inevitability of death and finding peace and acceptance. The beautiful graphics and world design of Oninaki bolster the intrigue of this setting, too; serene fields, plant-filled marshes, elaborate ruins, and craggy mountains have a zen-like quality to them that feels both contemplative and somber, which contrasts starkly with the crowded, anxious mood of the bustling cities, palaces, and other man-made dungeons and structures. When you “cross the veil” to the realm of the dead to search for lost souls, familiar things immediately transform into an eerie miasma of dark shadows and bright neon lights, giving an otherworldly vibe that really makes you feel like you’ve reached a place far beyond the senses of normal humans. The combination of intriguing setting and visuals really does a lot for Oninaki, and it’s one of its strongest elements.
But this beauty is just skin-deep, because once you get into combat, problems start to come to the surface. Kagachi doesn’t fight by himself; he enlists the help of lost, memory-devoid souls called Daemons to possess and provide him with weaponry, skills, and combat expertise. There are a wealth of different Daemons you encounter throughout Oninaki, and each one has a unique weapon and combat style they can bestow to Kagachi when possessed. Kagachi can carry up to four Daemons at once and swap between them on the fly, giving you access to different weapons, movement, and fighting styles you can change when needed.
This sounds fantastic on paper, but there’s one big problem: Every Daemon you recruit is extremely weak when you first get them. Daemons level up separately from Kagachi, and only gain combat skills–active and passive, offensive and defensive–through a skill tree that unlocks with weapon stones dropped when using that Daemon. When you first get a Daemon, no matter how far along in the game you are, they have next to no skills and no weapon stones, requiring you to grind with their limited skillset to get them to a point where they are maybe, possibly fun and effective to use.
Even then, some of the Daemons are poorly designed. The long-range fighter Dia, for example, tends to get overwhelmed by frequent enemy mobs thanks to her slow startup and recovery on attacks. Acquiring a new Daemon should be exciting, but the struggle to make new ones viable makes it something to dread. Eventually, you’ll probably find yourself focusing on a few specific Daemons and ignoring others, which feeds into the larger issue of repetitive and frustrating combat.
There are a lot of enemies roaming both the realm of the living and the dead in Oninaki, and they tend to get reused quite often. Usually they come in large mobs to distract from the fact that it’s yet another swarm of walking flowers or scorpions. Sometimes they get changed up a bit (This time the scorpions belch fire!), but their appearances and attack patterns remain similar. Exacerbating this issue is how spongey even the small enemies can get, especially if your current Daemon’s not well-levelled yet. Using a powerful Daemon you’ve been putting a lot into, however, makes combat boring, as you’re encouraged to use the same special attacks over and over in hopes that one of them might randomly gain a permanent special attribute. Boss fights can change things up a bit, and there are some genuinely cool and challenging encounters. However, most of the bosses also soak up damage like crazy. Strategy tends to devolve into using attacks with evasive bonuses and quick recovery until you get enough energy to “Manifest” your Daemon for a huge damage boost, then wailing on them with your biggest attacks until that runs out, repeating until dead and hoping you have enough healing incense to make up for mistakes.
Using a powerful Daemon you’ve been putting a lot into, however, makes combat boring, as you’re encouraged to use the same special attacks over and over in hopes that one of them might randomly gain a permanent special attribute. Boss fights can change things up a bit, and there are some genuinely cool and challenging encounters. However, most of the bosses also soak up damage like crazy. Strategy tends to devolve into using attacks with evasive bonuses and quick recovery until you get enough energy to “Manifest” your Daemon for a huge damage boost, then wailing on them with your biggest attacks until that runs out, repeating until dead and hoping you have enough healing incense to make up for mistakes.
One might be willing to put up with gameplay flaws if the setting and story are good enough, and while Oninaki’s world is fantastic, the game frequently falters in storytelling. Kagachi is a very bland and uninteresting protagonist, and his shy little-girl partner Linne isn’t much better. The game has a wealth of NPC characters, but they don’t have much to offer; their interactions with Kagachi are brief and uninteresting, and you don’t get much on their backgrounds and personalities. As a result, when the game tries to deliver an emotional payout–it’s a game about death, so there’s a lot of dying in the story–it feels toothless, because you aren’t connected to these characters and lack a reason to care about their pain and grief. The pacing of the overall story is poor, as well; it often feels like a lot of nothing happening, then a really big event, and then back to something that’s distracting from the plot thread you’re actually interested in. It’s very frustrating to see the story finally living up to its potential and going in interesting places, only to be interrupted by a mandatory fetch quest that feels like pure padding.
Oninaki is a game that frequently sabotages itself. Its beautiful environments and mood are dampened by annoying hordes of samey enemies. Its amazing concept and world design are wasted on a story that’s poorly paced and doesn’t give you an adequate reason to care. Its varied and interesting combat styles get dragged down by the need to grind Daemons and uneven difficulty overall. There’s certainly some beauty to be found in Oninaki’s tragic world, but these flaws make this a circle of life that you can skip over.