Outside In: Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines User Reviews Edition

A hard reconciliation to make between Oreshika's past and present for many Japanese players.

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It’s two days late at this point, mostly because I was feeling a little writing burnout after churning out the previous four editions of this feature on a daily basis, but I promised you all that I’d take a look at Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines’ online reception last time and by the gods that populate that series, I’m going to do that one way or another! If you’ve been following this feature, you probably get what this is about already, but if you’re just joining us for the first time, it might be wise to check out at least the introductions to the first and second installments to get a solid idea of what the point is and what I’m doing to accomplish said point.

But before we get to the user review breakdown, I figure it might be a good idea to quickly discuss just what the Oreshika games are about. The Vita sequel that’s set to come out overseas is the first in the series to get translated and while in terms of narrative premise and whatnot it may more or less be a standalone game, the first game has a huge legacy in Japan that needs to be properly understood in order to understand players’ critical reception to it this time around. So with that in mind…

What is Oreshika?

[Editor’s Note: The screenshots in this section all come from the PSP remake of the first Ore no Shikabane wo Koeteyuke.]

Oreshika, an abbreviation of the full Japanese title Ore no Shikabane wo Koeteyuke (commonly translated prior to the Vita localization announcement as “Over My Dead Body”), is an RPG series developed by Alfa System and published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Consisting of technically three games, the first installment on the PS1, a 2011 PSP remake, and a proper sequel on the Vita, the fundamental premise of every game in the series is that you play as the head of a family that’s been met with two curses for varying reasons depending on the game. One of these curses results in every member of the family experiencing a highly accelerated life cycle that ends within two years at most. The other curse is that your family can’t reproduce with other human beings. While there’s nothing you can really do about that first curse, the second one can be circumvented by reproducing with Japanese gods. The resulting children will still be stuck with the two-year death sentence, but it does mean that as long as you can keep extending the family lineage, you have a shot at one day breaking your family’s curse many, many generations down the line.

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The underlying gameplay that fuels an Oreshika game can be overwhelmingly complex up front for those new to the games, especially in the case of the first one, so I’ll skimp on a lot of the nitty-gritty details for the sake of time and sanity. Essentially, the gameplay revolves around you planning your family’s development and quest for salvation one month at a time. There are a lot of different ways that each month can be spent, but practically speaking, your choices usually break down to dungeon crawling, reproducing, and training new members of the family at home so they can be ready for said dungeon crawling.

Dungeon crawling is mostly self-explanatory, although the combat has a slew of twists too numerous to list here; in a nutshell, though, that’s obviously the part where you’re running around the game world levelling up and getting better and better equipment so that you can one day take on the one who got your family in this mess. Reproducing, meanwhile, entails having one of your family members hook up with a god so that they can create a new member of your family. Different human family members and gods have different genetics, which in turn affect how that child will level up and which classes work best for them. Typically, reproduction is done within the later part of the two years of a given human character’s life cycle, but that timing can vary due to a whole lot of circumstantial factors. Finally, training is basically a process whereby one member of the family trains a new child so that they can be deemed fit to join the combat party; ideally their trainer is their parent, especially if the child is set to have the same class as the parent, but again, the ideal candidate can vary wildly at any given time. Most of these options are driven by menus and in some cases you can focus on more than one thing each month, but in the case of dungeon crawling, that one month passes in accelerated real time as you explore an area with your party of up to four characters, each of whom are your own family members that you’ve reared.

Suffice it to say that you have a lot to think about every month as you play an Oreshika game. Speaking from experience, it can be difficult to completely wrap your mind around everything at the outset, but at least in the case of the first game, it’s all brilliantly executed and a huge reason for that and, in turn, its legacy in Japan, lies in how all of these systems are structured and contextualized. Unlike a lot of other games of its genre, especially those developed in Japan, the first Oreshika game is designed to be a pretty freeform experience. You have that overarching objective of taking down The Big Bad eventually, but how you get your family to that point is entirely up to you. You’re not funneled from one place to the next in a specific order nor made to acquire new characters to fight with as you see fit. Instead, the game basically from the opening screen gives you just enough setup to let you know what’s going on and then lets you explore the world on your own terms. You’re not even limited to a specific order for tackling dungeons; they’re just all designed to each have different sets of enemies roaming about such that the advantageous time to explore them will depend entirely on how you’ve grown and developed your family.

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This isn’t to say that the first game in the series is completely lacking in specific narrative developments; things do happen when you accomplish that main objective, but for the majority of the time, the story is ostensibly about your own struggles in the game’s world and how you overcome or succumb to them, accented mainly by occasional lines of world-building dialog when you encounter boss characters and the like. You’re writing your own history to the point where the game even keeps track of what individual characters did during their lifetimes. The fact that every member of your family in the game will eventually die, either naturally or in battle, makes the journey feel much more personal than in a lot of other RPGs, especially those from the PS1 era. Every parent, every child and grandchild and so on, everybody in the family that you raise yourself has that distinct purpose of furthering that greater cause of lifting the curses to the best of their abilities and while few of them will ever see that dream realized for themselves, the genetic mechanics in the game ensure that even when they die, their children succeed their legacy, picking up where their parents left off, especially with respect to skills learned and what they can pull off. Indeed, it’s this process where you progress in your objectives little by little by making the most of the cycle of inevitable death and birth that the series derives its name, the Japanese title essentially an exclamation imploring the next generation to succeed where the previous one failed.

The first Oreshika game is therefore a poignant one centered around the concept of offering relative player freedom within the gameplay confines of an RPG. In spite of the heavy menu prominence and turn-based combat that typify many games of its type, spiritually, the game is much more akin to old PC RPGs like Ultima that served as the progenitor for roleplaying mechanics in games from around the world, including Japan. This freedom coupled with the sheer brilliance in execution of the actual mechanics, particularly with respect to the relationship between the genetic system and level ups (all characters level up at the same XP thresholds, with stat bonuses depending on how strong the genes inherited from their human and god parents are, meaning that each generation gets stronger than the last one faster and faster), as well as the exploration and combat mechanics in general, made it a truly seminal game in Japan at the time of its release, one that’s gone on to demonstrably influence many, many games in its wake, including other RPGs that actually did get localized. When the PSP remake arrived over a decade later in 2011, the core experience remained so uniquely strong in spite of that legacy that even some Japanese developers once again called it their personal game of the year, despite so much of the content being otherwise familiar territory behind the very pretty graphical veneer it garnered in the remaking process.

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There’s a lot more that can be said about the Oreshika games and the legacy of that first game especially; having played much of the PSP version just earlier this year, I totally found it deserving of the universally high praise it’s gotten in Japan and could go on endlessly about what I love about it as one of my now all-time favorite games. But I should probably save those reflections for another day, for I’ve got another task at hand. Hopefully you all have gotten at least a decent sense of what made that prequel such a special game to many people, because for reasons that will become apparent very soon, that legacy has played a huge role in the Vita sequel’s review reception since coming out in Japan back in July.

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Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines (Screenshots)
PS Vita
Developed by Alfa System and published by Sony Computer Entertainment
Released in Japan July 17, 2014

Review Scores

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Famitsu Score: 36/40 (8/9/10/9)
Average Amazon Japan User Review Score (as of August 24, 2014): 2/5 stars, 324 reviews total*
Amazon Review Score Breakdown:

  • 5 Stars: 30 reviews
  • 4 Stars: 34 reviews
  • 3 Stars: 21 reviews
  • 2 Stars: 58 reviews
  • 1 Star: 181 reviews

MK2 Ranking and Average Score (as of August 24, 2014): Ranking N/A (insufficient reviews posted); 55/100, 4 reviews total

*Amazon Japan sells Oreshika: Taintend Bloodlines across three different editions, meaning that reviews were split across different product pages. For the sake of readability, the review averages and star breakdowns have consolidated the relevant numbers into one centralized listing.

Introduction

There isn’t necessarily a whole lot to say going into the actual analysis and commentary portion that the preface hasn’t already covered. As one might expect for a game being brought up as a sequel to one of Japan’s most beloved 32-bit RPGs, anticipation ran high for this game, for while a remake of the original game did come out for the PSP in 2011, people had otherwise been waiting 15 years for a proper sequel. If it’s somehow not apparent already just looking at the numbers and the one pie chart we’ve got today, things mostly didn’t turn out so great for those who spoke up about the game online at Amazon and MK2. In the case of Amazon, the low average and extremely high number of 1 star reviews can be attributed, in part, to reviewers letting their sentiments predominantly determine the score, rather than taking a more muted and balanced approach like the MK2 reviewers, but their complaints still come from an arguably legitimate place knowing the near-universal love the original game has, so let’s see what went right and what went wrong one step at a time.

The Good

Mechanically speaking, Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines is still very recognizably an Oreshika game, and on that front, the game mostly succeeds in achieving its aims. All of the defining systems I discussed earlier, from the forced death to the reproduction to the dungeon crawling and time passage systems, are pretty much intact and refined over their previous incarnations, which were already widely considered to be well-developed. Among the most appreciated improvements that the Vita sequel offers are those pertaining to how it handles children’s inheritance of physical characteristics. While the original game’s sprite-driven nature meant that children only carried on a handful of minor traits like hair, skin, and eye colors, from their human parent, this time around, now that the game is fully polygonal, it’s possible for children to inherit physical aspects of their godly parent, too, including outlandish aspects like horns and other decorative bits, as well as having things such as character heights and victory poses be variable from person to person.

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Combat in the game has also been routinely stated to be as smooth and dynamic an experience as ever. Although there are specific sorts of combat-related issues that many reviews have taken issue with, which I’ll cover later, reviews generally agree that the raw mechanics themselves are solid and not where the roots of those problems lie. While not widely mentioned by a lot of reviews, especially in the face of the game’s criticisms, of the players who discussed the game’s online connectivity features, whereby you can visit other players to do things such as adopt children, mate with and recruit their unlocked gods, and check out their dungeons —unlike the original game, the lay of the land for each player is randomized, resulting in different players having access to different gods and dungeons— many expressed enjoying that ability to reach out to other players and connect with them to expand upon the base content that they already have natively. Beyond that, similar to the PSP remake, praise abound has been heaped upon the game’s music and art direction, the latter in particular being lauded as beautiful time and again.

Bearing all of this in mind, as Amazon Japan’s handful of middle-of-the-road 3 star reviews tend to note, Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines may not necessarily be all that problematic for those who play RPGs predominantly for their systems, rather than their narratives, especially those who haven’t played the original game and lack that potential baggage coloring their outlook on the sequel. By many accounts, the game plays solidly and isn’t really considered to be a mechanical train wreck. But for those who do care about their RPG stories and/or have a history with the previous Oreshika game, things can get complicated fast.

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The Criticized

Nueko, the woman you see in the above screenshot and in the header for this article, is the biggest culprit behind Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines’, ah, tainted reception, regardless of the otherwise solid foundation that many agree that the game is built upon. There are a handful of reasons for this dramatic about face from many reviewers, but a quick profile of her is probably in order first, given her relative lack of coverage in preview and marketing material prior to release. To trim her backstory down to the bare essentials, she’s more or less an amnesiac goddess who, having originally been sealed away, comes to join your party early on after being rescued by a major character in the game. She originally appeared in a similar capacity in scenario writer Shoji Masuda’s light novel series Onikiri Nueko: Hyakki Yakou Gakuen, which has implied connections to the Oreshika series, but isn’t otherwise overt about them to avoid potential copyright issues, having written the series independently when not working on either of the Oreshika games proper.

Many players’ problems with Nueko, even in reviews that have positive scores, stem from her implementation as a character relative to what the Oreshika games are ostensibly about on a philosophical level. This comes from the fact that uniquely, unlike in the first game and the PSP remake, Nueko is a character that forcibly becomes a permanent member of not only your family in the game, but also your combat party, forever occupying one of four slots that are meant to be composed entirely of characters of your creation. It cannot be understated how unprecedented this is by Oreshika standards; in the original game and PSP remake, your custom family members that you raise are the only ones you ever take into battle. This coupled with the fact that her introduction in the story results in a shift that makes the plotline center squarely around her until the very end, rather than your in-game family and their struggles as you endure them personally, has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many. Although the title still implies that the game is meant to be driven by the player and their own personal story that they create as they fight and maintain their own family lineage, Nueko’s presence reduces that role to that of an escort. It’s her story, not yours. You still have to deal with lifting those curses and whatnot, but her problems come first; you fight, you die, and reproduce not for your own sake now, but for hers when she enters the picture.

In their 59-point review, MK2 user mura calmly and succinctly articulates why this change in focus is such a big deal for many players. “Nueko shows up as this major new character, but the underlying gameplay systems don’t really take her presence into account at all,” mura explains. “Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines fronts as a game where your own family’s legacy is carried on from generation to generation, a game where you remain cognizant of your past as you keep working in the present. This is accented by features such as having the game record your family history and even including clan ranking. The problem with Nueko, then, is that when it comes time for her to join your clan and fight with you, she’s practically forced into that existing structure with little done to comfortably accommodate her. She doesn’t even try to blend in as a family member aesthetically by adopting your costumes or anything; she just sticks out like a sore thumb, making it hard to develop any attachments to her as a character. Her existence also throws a wrench into how your family tree is structured, something that I can imagine rubbing a lot people the wrong way. It’s just hard for me to understand why they so thoroughly reconstructed the gameplay from the first game, only to then transplant her into that structure in the way that they have; it breaks to a degree something that didn’t need fixing.”

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That lack of real justification in the face of so meticulously making the core gameplay recognizable to series fans is likely the biggest reason why so many reviewers find themselves disillusioned with the game. Oreshika on the Vita doesn’t give players a good enough reason to accept Nueko’s inclusion in the game in exchange for the autonomy in how they develop their family and overally history, as well as interact with the other systems in ways that they’ve come to expect between the original PS1 game and the PSP remake. Indeed, while the game is stated to have a tendency in its dialog to try and sell players again and again on her value and importance as a character, many agree with mura on MK2 when he says that not enough opportunities are afforded to be able to form a real connection with Nueko and in turn care about her plight. Instead, the game is perceived as expecting you to accept her presence in your family and the impact that it brings both tangibly and symbolically and just tag along with her as the game makes the journey hers to forge, even though her problems are dubbed to have little to do with your own. This is rendered an even harder proposition to swallow considering that Nueko also needs to be revived every two years despite otherwise being unable to die permanently, an expensive process that costs special tributes that are normally spent on gods when choosing them to produce children.

Although Nueko’s characterization is the breaking point for a large number of reviewers, she’s not ultimately the only problem befalling Oreshika. A handful of other aspects of the game design are singled out as being hindrances as well. These issues largely revolve around the game’s dungeons, which are randomly generated. In particular, many reviewers express feeling frustration over having progress in some areas gated behind locks that require a key to open. While many such gated areas reportedly function merely as optional shortcuts, some are unavoidable and require searching other dungeons altogether in search of the corresponding keys with nary a hint as to where to look, resulting in the potential loss of precious monthly time that could be more effectively spent elsewhere and your party members inching ever closer to their inevitable deaths. This is further compounded by the game’s knack of making dungeons especially large, ratcheting up the likelihood of forced meandering during such segments of the game. While keys can be bought from NPCs or other players, their costs have been widely derided as being excessively high in a series where there tends not to be that much of it to go around in the first place.

One other fault that many people find in the game is in the way it handles unlocking additional gods with which to have children. Gods that have fallen from the heavens can appear in dungeons as you explore them and if you defeat them enough times, they can return and be selected as a parent for future children. While this basic idea was also present in a somewhat similar capacity in the first game, the difference that riles people up is that gods aren’t necessarily permanently unlocked when they return to the heavens; they can arbitrarily come back down to Earth again, forcing players to repeat the process in order to regain access to them, or even disappear entirely for narrative reasons with little notice. The whole ordeal can get so bad that Amazon reviewer Shii describes the god listings displayed during the procreation process functioning more like a missing persons list than anything else. Furthermore, there’s a lingering sentiment that gods also tend to roam the dungeons in overly large numbers, becoming yet another obstruction in players’ efforts to use their alloted month well.

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While not as widely brought up as many of these other issues, some reviews do also mention their play experiences being marred by glitches, freezing issues, and endless load screen loops, despite the game ostensibly getting a launch day patch. Nothing explicitly game-breaking has seemingly been found outright in terms of progress being forever obstructed, but the freezing issues especially are said to have a knack for showing up at inopportune times, including during saving, which can render game data corrupt.

Conclusion

Sony recently announced that another patch is due for Oreshika in September. If their notes on the matter are to be believed, it’ll attempt to address at least the balancing issues that people have had with the game, including those pertaining to Nueko’s revival costs and god spawns. As it’s standard for such patches to be included out of the box in localized versions of Japanese games, it’s entirely possible that those problems will be less severe, if not a non-issue altogether, than what Japanese players have had to deal with. But the matter of Nueko’s existence still remains regardless, her place in the game too fundamental to the its structure and storyline to shift with just a series of patches. Harsh though many critics’ scores are over her inclusion, especially on Amazon, as a western fan of the PSP remake, such allegations are nevertheless troubling when evaluated in isolation of the scores, especially considering how widely echoed they are. Even in the more rhetorically reserved MK2 reviews, Nueko is mentioned as dragging down the game over and over among users, making it hard to pinpoint how the game will ultimately fare once it makes it way to the North America and Europe.

Putting Nueko off to the side, if the main mechanics remain as sound as many of the reviews describe, including negative ones, that may well be enough for its reception to be more positive. Few western players are admittedly going to be like me and have that prior history with the first game to judge it on its merits as a successor. Expectations are just naturally going to be different about a game’s potential when you pick one up as a newcomer, rather than as a veteran. On the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily take prior knowledge of a game’s past to recognize whether a dissonance exists between its premise and its actual execution. All it takes is some critical thinking to see whether a game is walking the walk as much as talking the talk and in an environment where virtually no game is above scrutiny, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some express discomfort similar to Japanese players. If Nueko really does hijack the game, as many have written, Oreshika may well have a hard time making a completely convincing case to overseas players, regardless of their prior circumstances.

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And with that, the trial run for Outside In comes to a close, postponed though it may have been. This past week has seen some ups and downs as I’ve tried to work out the best structure for it and convey my basic intent in creating this series —remember, it’s not about reviews, per se, but rather learning what other people think about anticipated games in a language you might not otherwise be able to read. But I’m eternally grateful for everyone’s patience, feedback, and most importantly, support during this time. This feature may not be for all readers, and that’s perfectly fine, but the voices who have been cheering me on have been so loud this past week that it’s given me confidence that this feature has a place on Gematsu moving forward. It’s also given me the confidence to pursue more original reporting for this site as time goes on, something I’m deeply passionate about pursuing as one of the resident translators here, and while I likely won’t have anything to show on that front for a while, I’m deeply thankful knowing I have an audience willing to listen to what I have to say. It gets said a lot with these sorts of things, but Outside In really wouldn’t be here without your passion and support, as you’re the ones I do this for despite how much of a time sink each edition can be, especially this one.

From here on out, new editions of Outside In will come out irregularly as games are released in Japan that merit them. Most likely, there will be a gap of at least a week or two between a game’s release and a corresponding Outside In to give people time to player and hash out their thoughts. Tentatively, the next game to get this treatment will likely be Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, as it comes out in Japan on the 28th, but if you have other suggestions for games you’d like to see covered, you’re of course free to throw them in with your comments along with any other feedback and remarks that you might have.

Thanks again and see you with another one of these when I do!

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