‘Oninaki’ Is a Surprising Meditation on Grief Inside a Mediocre Diablo-Like – VICE
Content warning for mention of assisted suicide.
“A soft rain fell the day my parents died. An illness claimed them in the end. The adults told me I mustn’t grieve. They spoke only of their memories of my parents, and their expectations for the afterlife.” These are the words that introduced me to the world Oninaki, the new action RPG from I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear developer Tokyo RPG Factory. It has a harsh view on grief, but the reasons why and the game’s overall treatment of death make for an intriguing world.
In a twist on the popular belief that ghosts are spirits with unfinished business, in the world of Oninaki, grieving for the dead is said to hold back the souls of the recently departed, causing them to become one of the Lost. This means they can’t “cross over” to be reincarnated, but will wander in The Beyond (a purgatory like space mirroring the living world) until they eventually become Fallen, one of the monsters you’ll be fighting throughout the game.
Screenshot courtesy of Square Enix
Unfortunately, while the story is compelling, all that fighting is an absolute slog. It made me ask myself a hard question: How far was I willing to go for an interesting world?
20 years after losing your parents in the opening moments of the game, you join the Watchers, an organization of people with the ability to cross into The Beyond and speak with the Lost before they’re transformed into monsters. It’s their task to help these souls move on so they may be reincarnated. Each Watcher is helped by Daemons, powerful Lost souls that have lost their memories yet haven’t transformed into monsters for mysterious reasons. They work as stand-ins for classes, each one having their own weapon type, skill set, and skill tree to unlock.
Oninaki is at its best when it’s exploring its ideas about the dead and the living. It’s immediately asking big questions about how a relationship to death might be different when you have confirmation of life after death. In the first few hours you assist in two different suicides (called “Tithings” in game) both meant to allow those people to see their recently deceased loved ones, so that their souls may cross over.
This caught me off guard, both because I wasn’t expecting it, and because it was a nuanced look at death in a way that you rarely see from action games. The decision to go through with a Tithing is treated with the appropriate emotional weight. Even though this decision comes from having confirmed knowledge of an afterlife, it’s never made to feel like an easy decision. These people will still be leaving behind their world and everyone living they know, because while the Watchers can speak to them they otherwise can’t interact with anyone in the world of the living. The fact that bonds between people seem to be the primary reasons for souls becoming Lost, leads to a mess of interesting questions. What do the living owe the dead? How do you process grief if “grief fills the dead with regret” and causes them to fall into purgatory?
While these initial questions caught my attention, the combat did the opposite. As you hack-and-slash your way through Diablo-style enemy hordes, you level up and gain the abilities you need to cut through even stronger and larger groups of foes.
Unfortunately, the game often feels like you’re moving through molasses. Each attack with a low level Daemon has such large windup and delay before the next attack can come out, which is clearly something even the game knows the player will find annoying since it includes unlockable skills that reduce these delays (which might go as far as fixing the sluggishness, if you have the patience to unlock them all. I didn’t). There’s also a “rage mode” of sorts that makes the combat feel snappy and responsive, but that requires you to fill a bar with a lot of regular attacks before you can use it.
Screenshot courtesy of Square Enix
Eventually, with enough unlocks on your Daemon, the combat starts to feel a little better, but it can take many hours, and you have to repeat that grind for each new Daemon you find. For some players, the world building may be enough to pull them through, but once I reached the conclusion of the initial arc I had been worn out so much that the wildly interesting story was no longer enough to pull me forward. Maybe someday I’ll watch a pieced together cutscene video just to see if they land all this setup, but for now my time as Watcher has ended.