Back in the day, game development had to work around many limitations, and designers had to think of clever ways to make their game worlds feel larger than they actually were. Creating this powerful illusion was an art in itself. While gaming technology today has provided a sandbox for game creators, at times, a scaled-back approach can be far more effective in executing a game’s intended design and themes. ONI: Road to be the Mightiest Oni takes a “less is more” approach, an Avant-Garde experience by the books, which may appear rough around the edges but has an undeniable soul lurking within.
An epic battle serves as the backdrop of ONI: Road to be the Mightiest Oni, where Kuuta, a tiny but formidable demon warrior, is defeated by Momotaro on the battlefield. Devastated by the loss, he channels all his anger into a quest to become the strongest. He travels to the remote Kisejima island to undergo training regime, all in preparation for an epic rematch against his arch-nemesis. On this lonely island, he befriends a ghost named Kazemaru, who becomes his training companion. As Kuuta and Kazemaru endure a series of trials together, they are joined by other unexpected friends and companions.
The game world has a powerful vibe, with several intangibles you can’t quite place a finger on, but all these little details combine to create an immersive setting. Kisejima island is lonely and barren, yet it feels pretty alive and has this cozy charm. The emotional sentiment is strong here, especially when Kuuta starts to form an unlikely yet endearing friendship with Kanna and the other inhabitants. There is a profound sense of mystery to it all, and what the game world lacks in physical scope more than makes up for in its authentic atmosphere.
Kuuta’s quest may involve physical trials and combat but it is also a profoundly existential journey. In his desire to become the strongest, fueled by his hellbent resolve to defeat his bitter rival Momotaro, Kuuta must also come to terms with the price he has to pay to reach his destination. As battle-hardened, as he may seem at first, our protagonist has a gentle side, revealed during his interactions with other characters. There’s an interesting juxtaposition in the characterization of Kuuta, a demon of few words with a strong-willed heart. You can’t help but relate to how he seems to carry so much on his own, literally and metaphorically.
The game has a beautiful art direction, using simple cel-shaded graphics to bring its charming cast to life, and even the barren game world has a poignant beauty to it. There is a lack of graphical prowess found in the overall design, but the presentation sells the experience. The music perfectly blends the adventure with the narrative, as the thoughtfully curated soundtrack evokes sincere emotions and meaning as they speak to the story’s themes. It’s a fantastic soundtrack that effortlessly creates a standout vibe to build the atmosphere, which makes the game world exploration feel all the more enchanting.
Exploration involves picking up various items and objects, primarily mushrooms which serve as currency for the shop. Another aspect involves rescuing lost souls scattered over the island, and doing so increases the hearts of Kuuta, which becomes reasonably necessary even early on in the adventure. A small selection of equipment and weapons can be acquired, but the enhancements can be quite nuanced. Although not an RPG by any means, the adventure elements are still strong, as mixing and matching different gear and increasing the heart capacity goes a long way when taking on the many trials.
Trials are the crux of the gameplay experience, which are triggered by approaching mysterious shadow demons. These trials essentially involve defeating a set number of enemies. However, there’s a decent variety of them, as they come in all shapes and sizes. The idea is to psychically knock them down before destroying their soul, take too long, and they will get right back up. The trials tend to be combat focused, with occasional variations such as different camera angles or objectives where you must protect the shopkeeper. Regular trials lead up to boss fights, which can be quite rewarding. The bosses have interesting puzzle elements to their design, although most will be willing to take quite a beating before going down.
The combat system is fun; Kuuta has a standard combo attack and can dodge. In addition, there are special moves, and certain weapons have their own signature abilities. Kazemaru plays an active role in battles, as players can take direct control of the ghost to perform healing and provide other assistance to Kuuta. Although the variety is nice, it’s not the most mechanically smooth experience. It can feel cumbersome due to stiff attack animations, and this gets problematic during busier enemy encounters where it’s easy to get surrounded. Some frustrations aside, the gameplay loop is comfortable and complements the pacing of the adventure nicely.
ONI: Road to be the Mightiest Oni is on multiple platforms, and the Switch version is probably best avoided if possible. Although the core game is functional and the stylistic presentation is intact, the Switch really struggles to deliver a smooth experience. The performance is sluggish and buggy in handheld mode. While things are much better in docked mode, there are still issues with framerate, textures, collision detection, and the occasional crashing. Nevertheless, it’s still enjoyable, but best to opt for other platforms if possible.
ONI: Road to be the Mightiest Oni is the kind of game you will inevitably cross paths with. You know, one that, over time, becomes a remembered cult classic within indie circles. The experience is worth it for the atmosphere alone, and while the gameplay loop may not be anything remarkable, the journey itself is memorable. If you’re after something Avant-garde and imbued with meaning, it’s worth going through the trials and tribulations to become the mightiest Oni.
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