Oninaki, an action role-playing game from the developers of I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear, now has a free demo on Nintendo Switch, Steam, and Playstation 4. I entered into the play experience expecting something generic, and while the combat is a bit mindless, Oninaki’s world is a fascinating place. This short tease has left me curious for more, as its tale of lost souls and strange religions makes for a moody and self-aware story.
In Oninaki, players take the role of Kagachi. Kagachi is a Watcher, a sort of shepherd of wayward souls and demon exterminator. Following the death of his parents at a young age, he and his friend Mayura became Watchers and now lead a life traveling between the world of the living and the dead. Oninaki’s world revolves around the notion of reincarnation. When you die, your soul is eventually reborn to a new life unless your spirit is weighed down by some type of grief. It’s a Watcher’s job to find ways to ease the souls unable to reincarnate and escort them into a new life. It also means beating up monsters and evil spirits.
That’s the less interesting part of Oninaki, as least in the early part of the demo. Combat is mostly a hack-and-slash affair, with a few special powers thrown in. Watchers have the ability to bond with spirits called daemons. Each daemon that players find has a different skill such as a powerful sword dash attack or a Final Fantasy-esque Dragoon jump attack with a spear. These can add a little bit flash to combat but felt limited in the demo. The ability to swap between daemons in combat might lead to interesting tactical options as players find more spirits, but these early sections were a bit one-note. Slash, slash, special attack, dodge, slash some more.
What’s far more interesting is how Oninaki presents its world’s complex spirituality and the day-to-day work of Watchers. From a nervous lover offering his girlfriend a charm that is supposed to keep them reunited in the next life to cults promising different forms of salvation, Oninaki is clearly interested in exploring the social implications of its cosmology. The earliest part of the demo focuses on Kagachi and Mayura’s efforts to help the spirit of a recently deceased child, culminating in a powerful and shocking decision by his grieving parents to allow the Watchers to kill them so that they might join their son in the spirit realm. While the plot is sure to grow beyond these moments—dialog hints at a dangerous monster who can kill so completely as to deny souls reincarnation—it’s the world-building that’s captured my attention the most.
This split between the real world and the spirit realm applies to the overworld exploration, where it’s possible to travel between the two realms Twilight Princess style. Can’t cross that gap? Hop into the spirit realm and use a portal. It’s a cohesive mixture of narrative and gameplay that’s really exciting.
My experience with this demo has left me cautiously optimistic. Kagachi is a bit of a grump as far as protagonists go, and the combat is nothing to write home about, but Oninaki has a strong concept and world. It’s a place I want to experience more of, and if that means putting with some repetitive combat in exchange for exceptional world-building? I’m more than willing to deal with the hacking and slashing.