I’ve been playing Oreshika for two weeks now, and I still haven’t the faintest idea what to make of it. Even as JRPGs go, the plot is pretty out there. You are one of the last surviving members of an ancient clan of demon hunters – well, “surviving” might be a generous term. You, along with the rest of your clan, have been sacrificed by the emperor to appease the gods, but it hasn’t done much to abate the natural disasters that plague the empire. In fact, the gods are so disinterested in your sacrifice that they bring you back to life – only to discover that your entire bloodline has been mysteriously cursed. No member of your family can live for longer than two years, and you can only reproduce with gods or members of similarly cursed clans.
From the moment you return to life you have one mission – to recover the five sacred artifacts that keep the world in balance and take revenge on Abe No Seimei, the evil wizard who killed and cursed your clan. Though your first hero will die within a few hours of starting the game, his or her successors will work tirelessly down the generations in order to fulfill that mission. Your clan will battle countless demons, take group selfies in the very depths of the underworld, and bump uglies with a whole pantheon of deities. And they’ll do it all under the guidance of a chirpy, sapient weasel girl whose hair colour inexplicably changes sometimes.
This game is weird.
You might think from my description that this is some sort of bizarro Doujin game with no budget to speak of, but it’s actually of the most lavish productions on the Vita. Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines is in fact a long-demanded sequel to Ore No Shikabane wo Koete Yuke (literally “over my dead body”), a cult-hit RPG from the PS1 era, and the developers have apparently spared no expense in reviving the franchise. Environments and character models are rendered in a stunning sumi-e watercolor style reminiscent of Okami, and every frame of gameplay looks like a painting. Key plot points are conveyed through broadcast quality anime cutscenes with a-list voice acting. Oreshika does not skimp on production values.
The hundreds of Oni enemies are presented as animate paper cutouts that easily be ripped from old japanese scrolls and wall hangings. It’s clear that this is a stylistic choice rather than a cost-saving measure; the contrast between enemies and the environments around them gives them an almost otherworldly presence, and bigger enemies (screen-filling bosses especially) look positively incredible All of Oreshika‘s unique gods have their own unique character models, so it’s not as though the dev team couldn’t handle creating hundreds of 3D assets for battles – though if there were budgetary constraints it’s clear where their priorities lay.
Oddly, despite how much detail has been put into every last potential mate in the game, Oreshika handles reproduction in an entirely tasteful manner. Your clansman and deity of choice join in a “rite of divine union,” which involves your weasel girl doing a traditional Japanese dance while the soon-to-be-parents stare lovingly into each other’s eyes. A magical double helix of rainbow light spirals out of them into the sky, and then a sphere of light emerges containing an infant. As depictions of sex go, it’s a little less lurid than the stork story, though no less weird.
If it seems like I’m overly preoccupied with Oreshika‘s mating mechanics, it’s only because they’re the most important strategic aspect of the game. Though you’ll earn experience in battle that improves individual warrior’s skills, your main concern will be the “devotion” you earn alongside it. Devotion is the currency with which you can pay gods to perform the rite, and the more you have, the higher the caliber of god you’ll be able to join with. More powerful gods give their offspring better base stats, and you can create warriors that far outclass their fathers and mothers at birth by shacking up with a high-ranking deity. Smart unions allow you to breed out your clan’s inherent weaknesses and improve their strengths. Not since Fire Emblem has feudal eugenics been so compelling.
You are on a literal clock to breed the next generation of your clan and make progress in the game’s many labyrinths. Your warriors don’t have much time to live, and the months tick by fast inside dungeons. You won’t be able to clear any labyrinth in one go either – there are color coded locks blocking the way through each of them, and the corresponding keys are scattered throughout every labyrinth in the game. Instead of beating dungeons in sequence you need to solve them concurrently, which can be a tall order when every individual expedition takes at least a month.
Again, the minute-to-minute gameplay inside dungeons isn’t particularly challenging or interesting. Enemies are easily avoided on the world map, and even the biggest parties roll over in a hurry if you target their leaders. Even during the demon festivals where they supposedly become more powerful, the only real change seems to be that you roll on better loot tables and enemies have new dance animations to match the catchy, upbeat festival music. Every member of your clan can learn powerful magic, and they can even team up to cast exponentially more powerful group spells, so you can often kill every enemy on screen in a single turn. Enemies get progressively tougher as you recover the sacred artifacts, but the turn-based battles never pose much of a threat – not even the bosses. Instead, the bulk of the game’s challenge comes from trying to navigate the mazes in a timely fashion and make it back home before your oldest party members keel over.
On the bright side, there’s enough depth to the management mechanics that the easy battles don’t really detract from the experience. If you don’t much care for planning and management yourself you can leave everything to the weasel girl, who does a fine job of things even if her expedition plans can be a little on the samey side from month to month. The game even leaves its pacing in your hands, allowing you to choose between several difficulty levels that change not just the challenge of encounters, but the speed at which time passes. If you prefer, Oreshika can be a breezy 30 hour romp or a dense 70+hour odyssey through the most obscure parts of Japanese mythology, and there’s enough going on under the hood to make both experiences fun.
Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines is a strange, captivating experience unlike any other RPG. Its plot is bizarre and tinged with dark humor, delving deeper into Japanese mythology than just about any game on the market. Its watercolor world is a sight to behold on the Vita’s vibrant screen and its traditional Japanese soundtrack is an absolute delight. If you own a Vita, this is worth picking up for the spectacle alone.