A LOT OF FIRE HEART
Alfa System‘s Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines isn’t exactly what it appears on the surface if you’re unfamiliar with its 1999 PlayStation predecessor, Ore no Shikabane o Koete Yuke (roughly translating to “Over My Dead Body”). Certainly, the story is fairly up-front from the start. It’s medieval Japan, and the nation’s collection of holy artifacts have mysteriously gone missing. Sorcerer Abe no Seimei convinces the emperor that the only way to appease the gods for this dire tragedy is to sacrifice the entire clan who was responsible for protecting the holy places. Many years later, things aren’t great in the absence of the artifacts, and the gods still aren’t satisfied, so they resurrect the sacrificed clan in order to finally end the chaos. As the leader of this clan, you are tasked with hunting Seimei down to reclaim the lost artifacts. Besides purely seeking vengeance and justice, you must also eliminate him in order to lift the Curse of Broken Lineage and the Curse of Ephemerality he placed on your clan. And that’s where the game takes a turn, though not necessarily for worse.
The two drawbacks of these curses are what make Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines fun and likely a different experience from any other JRPG available on the PlayStation Vita. First, no one in your clan can live longer than two years (yeah, that’s a pretty short straw). Second, it prevents anyone in your clan from reproducing. It’s not all bad, though! Apparently there’s no stipulation in the curse about doing the dirty deed with gods. So, when it’s time for one of your clan members to return to the earth, one of the newborn youngsters will be ready to take up arms for the cause. Don’t worry, they age pretty quickly.
This may sound a little like Cellar Door Games‘ Rogue Legacy lineage system, and that’s because it is with a few exceptions. Oreshika allows you to manage the equipment and levelling of each member of your clan so that you can have a varied party in battle. It also tracks the traits and statistics of each clan member, and combines his/her genetic code with that of their godly partners when it’s time to procreate. This allows players to strategize how they’d like to develop their lineage rather than leaving it to a completely random, albeit humorous, result. Sometimes there are surprise variations that can either add or subtract from a character’s strengths. You can have prodigies, twins, and downright morons in your clan, depending on who you choose to honor with Divine Union and how often you combine with specific gods. The game makes it beneficial to remain loyal to specific gods throughout generations, but not without the risk of shrinking the gene pool.
Sometimes the game can get a little lost in its complexity too. It can get frustrating when you’re expected to remember that a Fire Heart means a character will be bold but reckless; a Water Mind will correspond to a character’s ability to offer support. From the very beginning, there are 12 traits to track across eight classes and you’ll want to know how each trait can compliment each class to make the most of your characters in battle. It’s true that the game encourages you to experiment regularly in order to better understand all of the variations in power, but after 30 hours of combining hundreds of clan members and gods, I still have to go back to the clan’s Collected Wisdom on the matter for reference.
Luckily, the rest of the game’s complexity features a little more hand-holding. At the start of the game, your clan is introduced to the bubbly (and actually pretty funny) Kõchin, a weasel-turned-human who remains at the clan’s side through its various iterations. She mourns clan members’ deaths, celebrates their new lives, and notifies you whenever they’ve reached a new stage of life.
Kõchin also helps players to understand what to do in the game. From the start, she’s fairly blunt about it: you’re supposed to kill demons and make babies. However, more than that she is there to guide you through the duties of each passing month. Do you want to take the month to build devotion to the gods and invest in union with a particularly powerful one? Do you want to search a dungeon for new abilities or demons? If you don’t want to do any of the planning, you can even just leave the work to her. She seems happy to do it.
The game gives players ample opportunity to spend as much time in the game as they want too. Playing through a month of the game can take as little as ten minutes, depending on which difficulty you play on, making it perfectly at home for a handheld device. However, after those ten minutes, something significant is likely to happen to the dynamic of your clan, spurring you to go for one more session just to see how things will play out.
There’s also a largely unsung social aspect to the game. At virtually any point (except in cutscenes, unfortunately) players can take screenshots to share on Facebook and Twitter. On top of that, you can visit other player’s towns and interact with their clan members, sometimes resulting in adoptions and betrothals that will add to your clan’s strength in battle. Everyone has invested in their town’s differently, so it can be very beneficial to regularly go on expeditions to see what’s new across the pond.
Like any true RPG, Oreshika has a strong economy for purchasing and selling wares. But the merchandise isn’t the only thing to be found in the game’s detailed township simulation. Apart from beating on demons and pouring over the next prodigy, the game allows players to manage and grow their town’s specialties through regular investment. Paying attention to certain merchants sometimes means that they’ll invite craftsman to the town to forge heirloom weapons and armor that will grow with characters and be passed down through generations to become some of the most powerful equipment in the game. Those heirlooms can also be passed between players through the game’s share functionality. It’s as easy as posting the equipment’s QR code to your social media of choice.
The game’s combat isn’t exactly an element to write home about, though it’s far from bad. It’s a fairly clean, turn-based system that encourages balanced teams. At the beginning of combat, you’ll see the possible rewards almost immediately through a slot-machine randomizer. This is helpful for two reasons. One: you can see the other possible rewards still left to earn from any given enemy. Two: you can decide whether or not the battle is important to you, because Oreshika also asks you to weigh the pros and cons of ending a battle quickly. Eliminating the opposing formation’s leader will end combat and ensure you win the spoils. Attempting to wipe-out the entire opposing team can mean more experience for your clan, but it could also allow a leader to escape along with any of those rewards.
Clan members who have not been deemed the leader also make suggestions for how they’d like to act during any given turn. Players are then given the choice of heeding that advice or ignoring it and sacrificing some of that character’s loyalty to the clan. Those suggestions are based on character lineage, so any hard-headed character might consistently make terrible suggestions even if they’re incredibly powerful. Regularly ignoring their advice could result in their defection from the clan. By doing this, the game stresses the consequences of careless breeding.
While all of this seems innovative and fun, it’s often quite simple to win a battle, thereby negating any need for in-depth strategy. The game offers some varied difficulty options, which can be changed at any point in the game, but none of them endeavor to complicate combat.
For a Vita game, Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines is absolutely gorgeous to watch, regardless of what’s happening on-screen. The game features full 3D renderings of each clan member who will resemble members from farther up the family tree or even take on some godly physical characteristics. Battles are displayed like Kabuki theater painted in Ukiyo-e. Abilities have dramatic flourish and the Rite of Divine Union can be a beautiful scene even when it’s time to mate with a god who resembles a drag queen.
But nothing really compares to the game’s heart. The plot is a little shallow from the start, but the stories you’ll create through each new birth and death are what remain powerful at the end. Some characters you’ll hate until they die, only to realize they had regrets for their entire life. Others, you’ll mourn because they were strong and smart. Through Oreshika‘s loony mechanics, it actually manages to create personal, visceral reactions to its regular gameplay. There’s hardly any room for the character development of a single clan member, yet the game manages to make you care about their lives after each death. And they die a lot. When their 24 months are up, the game forces you to recall what they accomplished or failed to do, and it creates a history and significance that feel yours alone.
The Verdict: 8.8 out of 10
Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines suffers from complicated core mechanics that are too numerous to track from memory and a combat system that is inspired, but often seems too easy. Still, those are far from game-breaking concerns when they also make for a unique, significant experience. When a game begins as a fun experiment with medieval lineages, and ends up pulling a positive emotional response from players through its dazzling presentation and simplistic character development, it has risen above its flaws.
While it may not be a game for someone unfamiliar with JRPGs, it’s definitely worth a look for anyone who owns a PlayStation Vita. Who knows? You might stick around for longer than 10 minutes.
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Jordan Loeffler is an Associate Editor for MONG who drives a 2006 Pontiac Vibe with Minnesota license plates even though he lives in Portland, OR. She’s seafoam green, and she drives like a wave. You can also follow him on IGN and on Twitter.