Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines is astonishing, but you probably haven't even heard of it. Despite releasing with almost no publicity, this brave Vita exclusive is one of the most innovative, exciting and forward-thinking JRPGs I've played in quite some considerable time... and deserves your attention.
The premise is pure feudal Japanese melodrama, perfectly echoed by the haunting period soundtrack and beautiful cel-shaded art design that resembles a Ukiyo-e woodblock scroll brought to life. Following the theft of priceless holy artefacts, the Samurai clan tasked with guarding them are put to death at the behest of a corrupt demonic conspiracy, every last man, woman and child. However, mysterious forces conspire to resurrect the clan, your clan, which sets out to regain their honour and recover the artefacts over the course of countless years and numerous generations.
Unfortunately, the same nefarious schemers who plotted the atrocity planned ahead, cursing the brave resurrected warriors with a two-year lifespan. As such, you'll guide your family through the ages, breeding with the Gods themselves as you battle blood, oni and, most importantly, time.
It all starts with a face. Your face. Oreshika uses the Vita's front-facing camera to capture your visage and crudely translate it into the progenitor of your clan, meaning that successive generations will resemble you as they learn, train and pass on their genes. It's amazing yet bittersweet, knowing that you personally will never see your clan prevail and that your children, and their children's children, will struggle, suffer and die before finally knowing justice.
Dark stuff to be sure, but Oreshika doesn't always dwell on the doom and gloom. It's surprisingly upbeat, mainly due to a bizarre and irreverent cast of characters lead by Kõchin: your clan's majordomo. Who happens to be an anthropomorphic moe weasel girl of indeterminate age, because JRPGs have to pad out their cosplay/fanart/waifu quota, don't they? She's bubbly, silly, full of anachronistic gags and takes some serious getting used to.
For the first two hours I actually felt that Oreshika's tone was completely ruined by her inclusion, but after a while I realised that a little levity stops the game from becoming a crushingly depressing chore (see also: Soul Sacrifice, which was a great game that took itself far too seriously), and makes the darker moments hit all that harder when they happen.
It's a good thing too, because you'll spend plenty of time with Kõchin over the course of the campaign. As your majordomo she'll keep you up to date with the latest and introduce you to the unique time-management structure of the game. Oreshika is underpinned by a constantly moving calendar of months and seasons, which tick up by one every time you set out into a number of dangerous labyrinths to train, explore and eventually attempt to liberate one of the artefacts that might, might, prove to be your salvation.
Planning ahead is the key. You and Kõchin will collaborate on how to use your resources to grow your town, adding new merchants and items, plus training and equipping your precious troops before locking in your month and heading out for blood and vengeance. This might sound overwhelming, but Kõchin acts much like an automated AI general, suggesting a course of action until you're confident enough in the systems to take the lead yourself.
Your plan locked in, you'll set to butchering your way through the labyrinths in traditional RPG style, acquiring both experience, useful items and gear along the way. These tricky mazes are semi-randomised, sprawling and deceptively complex; full of locked doors, hidden chambers and over-levelled secret bosses to fight for extra rewards. Exploration becomes paramount, as does experimentation, since a coloured key in one dungeon might unlock doors and progress in the next.
Since time is constantly ticking down even when you're within the labyrinths, though, you'll have to constantly balance risk vs reward, knowing that once the month is up you'll either have to return to base or spend another to get that bit further forward... bringing your clansmen one month closer to death in the process. Many players will hate this setup with a passion, but stick with it and you'll find that it's uniquely captivating and compelling, a delicious balance of time management, strategy and blind panic.
Time is your enemy, especially when it comes to pushing the story forward. You'll occasionally have the opportunity to face down your nemesis and attempt to recapture one of the artefacts... but the window is only open for one month , once a year, and you'll have to find a specific map location first. Which is potentially hidden behind keys you missed in other labyrinths. Miss it and you'll have to wait a full year to try again, again something that will infuriate many players, but delight those who are willing to let their own story play out.
Labyrinths are full of Oni, of course, who you'll engage in excellent turn-based combat if you make contact with them. Featuring a grid-based battle system, randomised loot, enemy leaders who bring the battle to an end when killed and a fascinating interplay of weapons and classes, it encourages you to think tactically and several moves ahead... but knowing that time is still counting down albeit as a slower rate. Do you go for broke and kill the leader or attempt to wipe out the entire unit for extra rewards? Do you have time? Only you can make the call, and it's yet another example of how Oreshika eschews traditional JRPG design to give us uniquely tough decisions to make.
Oreshika's most unique feature, of course, comes down to blood and time. Or more accurately genetics. No matter how attached you are to your clan, they're doomed to die after just 18-24 months, meaning that you'll constantly have to source new replacements. You can draft in newcomers from other clans, hiring them or even adopting them into your cursed ranks, but the main source of new blood comes from the Gods themselvs. At any point, you can choose to mate one of your party with an enormous number of varied deities, creating an offspring that shares their genetic code, strengths and weaknesses.
Though I would have appreciated more in-depth explanations of how the genetic stats work, since it's difficult to make informed choices, it's a fascinating system that proves to be a constant source of new surprises and welcome depth. The more you play, the more potential classes you'll unlock, and the more new family you'll come to love and mourn.
It's great to play a game that genuinely gives your actions consequences in gameplay terms, not just the storyline, and to create your own unique clan with its own tragic storyline. The fact that your clan leader always takes your name seals your emotional attachment. Hell, it brought a lump to my throat every time the game booted up and greeted me with a single line:
“My name is Jonathan Lester.”
All this innovation does come at a price, however, and Oreshika has a couple of major flaws worth bearing in mind. The first is a simple quality of life gripe: there are no large-scale maps of labyrinths, which is a seriously inconsiderate omission considering that you'll need to continually backtrack as you find new keys or hustle to a story events under tight time limits. Very annoying.
You also need to be aware that Oreshika is a marathon... so you will inevitably hit "The Wall" sooner or later. Regardless of difficulty setting, you'll likely encounter it during the 8-15 hour mark, when you suddenly realise just how repetitive its two-year cycles are and how frustrating it can be when you miss or fail one of its time-critical missions. Your willpower will wane, your spirits will plummet, and what happens next depends entirely on what kind of gamer you are. If you love to binge on a strong story and smash through it, chances are you'll bounce straight off The Wall and into another game; promising that you'll return at some point but never quite mustering up the courage.
Others, however, will claw and scrape and eventually pass through the wall to find a brand new addiction lurking beyond, a beautiful and rewarding thief of time that's worth savouring little and often, and returning to at your own pace to enjoy over the course of countless hours. Chances are you already know if you're that kind of gamer... hell, that's probably why you own a Vita in the first place.
- Compelling, innovative and heartbreaking time management, breeding and clan creation
- Rewarding exploration over dozens of hours
- Excellent and tense combat, utterly beautiful stylised visuals
- You'll create your own unique story and face your own consequences
- Genetics could be better explained
- Undeniably frustrating and repetitive in parts: you will inevitably hit “The Wall”
- Inconsiderate lack of large-scale maps
- Kõchin takes some getting used to
The Short Version: Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines is an RPG to sink into and savour. You'll create your own doomed clan over dozens of hours and generations, writing a unique and deeply tragic story as you court Gods, explore dangerous labyrinths, watch your children die and ultimately reclaim your honour.
Impatient gamers will find Oreshika demanding and frustrating, but if you frequently still play our Vita, chances are that this is exactly the kind of game you bought it for. Don't let it slip under your radar.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platform: PS Vita (reviewed)
Developer: SCE Japan Studio