The JRPG genre is one that’s gone through immeasurable change in the few decades that it’s been around, but there’s something about the ‘old school’ style of 90’s turn-based RPGs that still holds a lot of sway with modern fans. To cater to this demographic, Square Enix formed Tokyo RPG Factory in 2015 to produce a new Chrono Trigger-like release called “Project Setsuna” which was then released the following year under the name I Am Setsuna. Two years later, Tokyo RPG Factory followed this up with a spiritual successor called Lost Sphear, which continued the concept of Setsuna while fixing many of the issues that fans and critics found with it. Now, Tokyo RPG Factory has produced Oninaki, which notably breaks away from studio tradition by scrapping the turn-based battles in favor of a faster paced, action-focused battle system.

We’ll get one thing out of the way up front: Oninaki is a heavy game. Right in the opening scene, we’re greeted with a sequence in which our main hero Kagachi loses both his parents at a young age and is coldly berated for grieving their parting. See, when a person dies in the world of Oninaki, their soul eventually passes on and enters into the cycle of reincarnation, but if that soul is held back—be it by lingering regrets or the grief of their surviving loved ones—the soul becomes ‘Lost’ and runs the risk of mutating into a monstrous Fallen creature. To prevent this, the Watchers have been formed, who travel between this life and the next to assist Lost souls in completing their passage into death.

Though the narrative eventually takes on a broader context as a menacing villain called the Night Devil is brought into focus, much of the narrative of Oninaki is centered around exploring smaller stories that delve into the nature of life, death, and the moral grays of suicide. For example, Watchers can engage in a process called “Tithing” (which is a euphemism for assisted suicide) in which they kill a willing participant who want to get a head start on their next reincarnation or accompany a frightened loved one into the next life. We appreciate this in-depth look at such a dark concept, but the focus on the morality and philosophy surrounding death comes at the cost of a compelling story.

Though the overarching premise of Oninaki is an interesting one, the characters themselves unfortunately fall short and the narrative suffers as a result. The main two characters, Kagachi and Mayura, are rather one dimensional and forgettable to begin with, but they seem downright lovable when compared to the host of useless side and support characters who possess almost no definable traits. Given that this is a somber release about death itself, perhaps that was the point, but we found ourselves very quickly bored and disconnected from the story events as they played out. This wasn’t helped at all by the rather hit or miss writing, which does its job of getting the point across, but comes off as being very stilted and forced. This is the kind of script that would immediately fall apart if you were to hear actual people speaking these lines.

Between story segments, you’ll spend most of your time exploring and battling through the various locales of the Inner Kingdom, which are notably not united by an overworld as in previous Tokyo RPG Factory releases. Each level is a little bigger than a typical JRPG dungeon, featuring relatively linear layouts, oodles of Fallen hordes, and a smattering of treasure chests. The main gimmick here is that you can swap between the living world and the “Beyond” with a tap of the left trigger, and progression is often tied to jumping between the two. For example, a yawning chasm in the living world is probably passable by using a portal in the Beyond, while a shadow-laden area in the Beyond will have to be traversed in the living world. The general lack of puzzles in the overworld means that this light/dark world concept feels drastically underused—especially when one can see how other, similar games have employed the concept—but it’s nonetheless a cool way for seeing certain locales from different perspectives.

When you run across enemies on your travels, battles play out in a fashion that lightly echoes that of past Tokyo RPG Factory releases, but with radical changes. Kagachi has a series of Daemons under his command (think Personas from the Persona series) which grant him the usage of different powers and weapons in combat depending on who he has equipped. Up to four different skills can be equipped to Kagachi at a time and each one is governed by a short cooldown timer, so battle becomes a balancing act between your basic combo attacks and your flashier (and harder-hitting) skill attacks. Kagachi can only be ‘possessed’ by one Daemon at a time, and though the enemy variety seldom calls for specific tactics, you can swap between up to four different Daemons at a time by using the right stick select them from a quick menu.

As Kagachi both gives and takes damage, he then slowly builds up ‘Affinity’ with the equipped Daemon, which sees his attack stats gradually receive a boost. Affinity can build to up to 200%, but his defense starts to take a hit after it passes 150%, which makes affinity management a nice risk/reward system to keep things interesting. If you’re dexterous enough to dodge enemy attacks and keep out of danger, that 200% damage buff can positively melt the enemy hordes, but it also makes you something of a glass cannon. Whenever you’re ready to reset your affinity, you can cash it out by a tap of the ‘L’ button and initiating the ‘Manifest’ ability, which sees the equipped Daemon merging with Kagachi to put him into a kind of super state. Though it only last for a limited time, Kagachi’s stats receive a huge boost when in this form and he can’t be staggered by enemy attacks, making it an ideal strategy for boss encounters.

We rather like the heightened focus on player skill that this new active battle system offers, but as time goes on, it becomes monotonous and tedious. Enemy mobs have an annoying tendency to spawn another wave or three after you’ve just finished wiping out the reinforcements of the mob you first engaged with, and we found that combat soon devolves to being more of a button masher than a cerebral or skill-based challenge. Upping the difficulty helps to introduce some slightly more interesting stakes, but we wish there was more challenging enemy AI and variety to necessitate the usage of the broad array of skills and weapons available to Kagachi. Even so, there’s something to be said about the almost Diablo-like effect of simply turning your brain off and indiscriminately slicing your way through enemy legions, and Oninaki fulfills that rather well. This is far from the most interesting battle system we’ve come across in an RPG, but it certainly has its charms; our advice would be to spend a few hours with it and try out different classes to really get a feel for what Oninaki has to offer.

You’ll acquire several Daemons as you journey across the Inner Kingdom, and each one functions somewhat like the different Jobs in the Final Fantasy titles. Dia, for example, gives Kagachi the usage of guns and a fighting style oriented around zoning and range, while Aisha grants Kagachi a big sword and plenty of heavy hitting slash attacks to go with it. Some classes feel much better to play than others, and as you fight with a given Daemon, you’ll gradually acquire Soulstones to level them up. Each Daemon has an extensive skill tree which can be invested in to acquire better passive abilities and new attack skills, and every few upgrades to a Daemon’s tree will see that Daemon ranking up and doing more damage overall.

Daemons can also be kitted out with different weapons to raise some of their stats, and these weapons can later be upgraded at a shop in the main town. You’ll amass quite a collection of junk and replica weapons as you wade through the seas of enemies, and these extra weapons can then be dismantled to power up the weapons you want to keep or to equip them with Shadestones, which grant them extra passives like a paralyze effect or higher skill damage. To be fair, this mini weapon economy and progression feels like something of an afterthought— Oninaki doesn’t even have an in-game currency—but we appreciate how it offers up a little something extra to keep you invested in the growth of your Daemons. At its worst, it’s a forgettable feature that won’t have much of an effect on your overall experience, while at its best, it’s a nice way to min-max and squeeze every last drop of efficiency out of your Daemons. We appreciate the diversity offered by this Daemon-focused combat system, particularly in the kind of depth and flexibility that it offers for character progression. Though Kagachi doesn’t have very much progression of his own, the skill trees and varying effects of the Daemons you equip ensure that there are plenty of ‘builds’ you can run with, which is a marked improvement over the somewhat narrow progression systems of Setsuna and Lost Sphear.

From a presentation perspective, Tokyo RPG Factory has definitely stepped up its game. Though the character models still remain disappointingly simple, the environments have received a notable boost in artistic flair. The living world is defined by a rather monochromatic, somewhat flat colour palette, but hopping over into the Beyond infuses those same environments with a ghostly neon aesthetic that’s quite easy on the eyes. Couple this with some impressive dynamic lighting and you’re left with a final product that looks quite sharp, even if it lacks the sort of extra flair that one expects from a retail purchase. Matching the tone of the visuals and story is a similarly morose soundtrack, although it’s a little sparser than we would like. Plenty of segments in Oninaki are completely devoid of any music and there aren’t any interesting environmental sound effects to replace it, meaning that you awkwardly listen in silence to every grunt and yelp from Kagachi as he explores and fights.

As with the last release, we also feel it bears mentioning that (at the time of writing) Oninaki is selling on the eShop for $50. Whether or not the release justifies the price will of course be up to your discretion, but we feel that is much too high a price given the level of content on offer here. Make no mistake, Oninaki is a solid RPG, but the inherently simpler nature of its design and its relatively short (about 30 hours) runtime don’t necessarily do the heavy lifting required to meet the expectations of that near-full price, which puts it within spitting distance of the likes of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and Octopath Traveler. As ever, a game is only worth whatever you’re willing to pay, but we’d advise waiting for a sale.

Conclusion

There’s a clear maturation in the work of Tokyo RPG Factory from game to game, as it sticks closely to its traditional ideals while slowly widening the scope of its ambitions. Bearing this in mind, Oninaki is certainly the biggest and most innovative release from the studio yet, but we wouldn’t exactly call it the best. Though the premise is certainly interesting, we felt let down by the story in this one, and the combat is less generally enjoyable than the turn-based affairs that came before. That being said, we also loved the depth offered by the Daemon system, both in terms of what it offers in character progression and combat variety, and the art style of the dark world is truly something to behold. We’d give Oninaki a recommendation to anybody who loves RPGs; although it isn’t the best, this is another solid showing from Tokyo RPG Factory.