The story of Momotaro is a famous one in Japanese folklore. It’s the tale of the boy born from a peach who travelled to the demon land of Onigashima to fight the evil that lies there. However, history tends to be written by the victors, so we don’t really get to hear how the oni felt about this boy and his animal friends arriving and slaughtering them all. Indie adventure title ONI: Road to Be the Mightiest Oni sets out to address this imbalance in the accepted narrative.
You play as Kuuta, an oni who travelled from his home of Onigashima to the island of Kisejima. This island is a training ground for oni, where they can gain power and strength if they can pass a series of trials. The challenges are not easy and many oni have fallen in their efforts, but Kuuta is determined to try.
The game begins as soon as Kuuta arrives on Kisejima. You are free to wander the island at your leisure, although wandering too far makes it clear that certain areas are blocked off by magic barriers that must be broken down. This is achieved by completing combat challenges that progressively unlock across the island. In these challenges, the perspective shifts, Kuuta throws off his backpack, and you beat down a series of enemies with your club.
Combat is standard fare, with a single combo attack available to you. However, the game adds the conceit that enemies can only be truly defeated by destroying their souls. Souls will appear when an enemy is knocked out. If you fail to destroy them in time, they return to their body, undoing all your hard work. If you manage to knock out multiple enemies at once, Kuuta has access to a chain ability where he can zip around bashing souls in a ruthless combo.
Adding to the combat mechanics is Kuuta’s ghost buddy Kazemaru, who you can control independently by holding down a shoulder button and moving the right stick. Kazemaru has the power to draw souls out of enemies, and later gains the ability to teleport Kuuta around and heal him.
The use of two characters in combat sounds complicated, and yet it works surprisingly well. Kuuta’s simple combat mechanics coupled with all of Kazemaru’s moves being tied to shoulder buttons mean it’s easy to wrap your head around. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can quickly find yourself in a vast field of souls waiting to be bonked. Activating the chain combo on huge numbers of souls at once is incredibly satisfying, always ending in a dramatic slow-motion zoom.
When not in combat, Kisejima is free for you to explore, where you can take in the game’s atmosphere at your leisure. Visually, ONI: Road to Be the Mightiest Oni is simple, yet effective. Character designs are expressive and charming, all coupled with some excellent animation. Kuuta running around the island on his little legs as he lugs all his possessions on his back is adorable. In cutscenes, he’ll typically express himself with exaggerated movements and expressions that make him extremely likable. The environment is interesting too, with rolling hills and forests combined with magical floating rocks and other strange elements that add a lot of visual flair.
It’s such a shame that there’s so little to do in the exploration parts of the game. You can pick up collectibles, including mushrooms that act as currency, or diary entries from previous visitors to the island. You can also obtain spirits, which can increase your health if you can get them back to a save point without being taken out by aggressive oni. However, that’s often all there is to find, and the game quickly falls into repetition as you find yourself picking these things up over and over again with no real variation.
The combat being separated into its own pocket dimension adds to this feeling too, as you can’t just stumble into a combat encounter while exploring. You have to deliberately enter it. Progression relies on completing these encounters, which also tend to recycle a lot of the same fight styles. The game does present a welcome break with a unique boss fight or two, but this is an occasional treat rather than the norm.
There are also times when combat encounters can feel dragged out with moments where you simply have to wait for an enemy to do something for you to respond to. One boss, for instance, turned invincible and ran around in circles a lot, while all I could do was watch and wait for it to eventually reveal its weak spot.
The repetitive feeling isn’t helped by the soundtrack. There’s nothing specifically wrong with the tracks themselves, it’s just that they rarely belong to this game or they’re used in a context where they quickly wear out their welcome. It often sounds like the Tetris Effect soundtrack got lost and wandered in by mistake. Now, I love the Tetris Effect soundtrack, but it suits trippy puzzle landscapes much better than it fits a series of combat encounters, and that’s obvious here.
It’s a real shame that ONI: Road to Be the Mightiest Oni is riddled with these problems, as there’s clearly a lot of love and care that’s been put into this game. The storyline is generally excellent, as Kuuta meets a human woman named Kanna wandering the island, unsure how she got there. They befriend each other despite the differences between humans and oni. These scenes are always delivered beautifully, with interesting visual effects using large text representing Kuuta’s thoughts.
The game is definitely aiming to put an interesting new spin on an old familiar tale, and it mostly succeeds. It has a lot to say about the nature of struggle and hatred, sprinkled in as you explore Kisejima. Some of the notes left by previous fallen oni include simple everyday things like shopping lists, and small touches like this highlight the pain that this supposed legendary hero has caused. All this is then contrasted with Kanna, who is kind and friendly, and the opposite of how Kuuta has come to view humans.
ONI: Road to Be the Mightiest Oni is a messy, yet clearly heartfelt, experience. There is a lot that’s worthwhile here, between the gorgeous visuals, interesting mechanics, and superb storytelling, you just have to wade through a lot of samey content to get to it all. Might be best experienced in short bursts.
ONI: Road to Be the Mightiest Oni is available for Nintendo Switch, PC and PlayStation 4 and 5.