Imagine being born as an adult, and then only having around two years to live; that's the terrible fate that awaits your cursed clan in Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines. But this depressing destiny doesn't just act as a backdrop for the story – it also forms the basis of gameplay and progression, as you work your way through generation after generation of warriors in search of vengeance.
At the beginning of this role-playing game, you're greeted with a premise involving your clan being punished for their inability to protect the capital's greatest treasures. Not only is the entire clan put to death, but your bloodline is also cursed with the inability to live for more than two years. For reasons that become clearer as you progress, the Gods take pity, and grant you a chance at revenge.
Sadly, the plot itself doesn't do that much to include you or your relatives. By and large, chunks of the narrative are dished out at predetermined points, and the vast majority of your time will be spent growing your clan, rather than following an engaging storyline. Suffice to say, if you're looking for a meaty plot and plenty of character development, you certainly won't find that here.
But that's arguably not too much of a problem. After the suitably morbid introduction, you create your own character, name your clan, and decide on its martial disciplines. These initial choices shape how your adventure plays out, and right from the word go, it's clear that Oreshika is focused on providing you with a customised experience when it comes to gameplay. This is especially evident when you're asked to select a difficulty option, although calling it that is perhaps a little inaccurate. What you're really doing is telling the game how lengthy a journey you want, as some settings allow you to gain experience points and money at an increased rate, effectively cutting the title's running time from a massive 100 or so hours into a manageable 30.
It's a nice touch, especially for those who simply don't have the time to grind for hours and hours inside a dungeon, but that's not to say that the release loses any of its depth. In fact, it can seem incredibly overwhelming at first, as the whole title centres around a calendar system, where most actions, whether you're invading a demon-filled lair or creating a new clan member, take one month to complete. There are always a wealth of options available to you, and the process of deciding what you want to carry out and how you want to do so is bound to have a negative impact on many would-be players who are just starting out on their quest.
Fortunately, it's not long before you settle into the rhythm of things, as you begin to get a grip on the title's flow. Basically, success hinges on your ability to develop your clan in an efficient manner, before tackling a boss enemy on a predetermined date. In that sense, it's a little bit like Persona 4 Golden, as you prepare for the next inevitable story-based battle as best you can, but it's worth pointing out that here, if you miss the set date, you can always just wait until next year.
This gives you some leeway in how you want to progress, and consequently, you're generally free to move forward at your own pace. However, even if you're totally stuck on deciding how to proceed, you can always involve Kōchin, a weasel who's transformed into a somewhat human girl by the same God who's responsible for resurrecting your clan. If you wish, you can leave every detail to Kōchin: she'll sort out your inventory, set you a particular goal for the month, and even suggest what your overall focus should be. It's a thoughtful streamlining mechanic, and it definitely takes the pressure off for players who may feel a bit bogged down.
As mentioned, though, it shouldn't be too long until you're calling the shots with some degree of confidence. Each clan member lives for about two years – or 24 months – and you'll have to spend your time wisely to get the most out of them. After performing the rite of divine union with a God of your choice, a new warrior will join your merry band the following month, and then they'll have to endure a month or so of training before they can join you out in the field. Couple this necessity with the fact that many of your family will likely die of illness before they actually reach two years of age, and the average lifespan, and therefore subsequent time you have to level someone up, rounds off at about 15 months – which isn't long when you realise how quickly events can pass you by.
Thankfully, there's a very gradual and rewarding sense of progression at Oreshika's core. In traditional RPG fashion, defeating enemies in battle rewards you with experience points, which level up your party, increasing statistics like stamina points, technique points, and elemental affinities. Individual characters only see relatively slow growth, but, because of the title's aforementioned union system, the real growth comes from uniting your clan members with Gods, resulting in children who inherit the elemental stats of their parents, allowing them to soak up more damage, and deal out more pain than their predecessors.
Similarly, money earned from being victorious in battle can be invested in your clan's town, which expands steadily throughout your adventure. Pumping funds into your weapon and armour shops means better equipment becomes available, and you can then pass this gear down to your descendants, giving them hefty stat boosts as early as their first month on the battlefield. Along with the rite of divine union, this ensures that your future generations are almost always kitted out well enough to fight increasingly tough demons. Needless to say, the sense of achievement when you've worked your way down many a generation to create a clan of borderline unstoppable warriors is immense, and it's arguably the high point of the release.
As for the fighting itself, battles are turn-based, as you go up against 2D, lovingly detailed demons. Combat works on two planes: the front and the rear – and this is where your initial clan job choices come into play. One of your three chosen classes can be applied to any clan member when they first appear on your doorstep, and it's important to try and maintain a balanced team. For example, the fencer class is heavily armoured, and has high attack power. However, barring times when they get lucky and unleash a flurry of sword slashes, they can only attack one foe at a time, and can't strike at the back row unless the frontal foes have been defeated. Meanwhile, the archer can hit any single enemy on the field, while the lancer can thrust through two demons with a single spear stab. There's a nice mix of disciplines, and it may even take you a couple of playthroughs to work out what combination you like best.
There's also a layer of strategy to sink your teeth into as well, and although it doesn't quite reach the depths that you'd expect, with elemental weaknesses and formations all playing a part, decision making keeps battles from becoming overly stale. Both your own party and the group of foes that you're facing have an assigned leader; yours is always the head of your clan, while the enemy's is a more dangerous demon. The death of a leader means instant defeat, so you'll always be weighing up whether it's worth putting an end to the boss as quickly as possible, or slaughtering its allies first. On the one hand, killing the leader guarantees you loot, which is determined by a slot machine-like system at the start of each battle. On the other, butchering the entire group nets you far more experience, so it's a case of deciding what's currently more important.
Adding to the weight of your choices is the constant reminder that time is passing as you explore dungeons and fight their inhabitants, and as such, proceedings can become surprisingly intense as you slog through a certain location in order to fulfil that month's goal. There's no doubt that many players will be put off by the strict limits that the game applies, but given that the whole title's based upon the passage of time, it simply wouldn't work any other way.
It's a shame, then, that the dungeons end up feeling rather tedious. The labyrinth-like locations offer twisting and turning corridors, elevated levels, and doors that can only be opened with the correct key, and although all of this undeniably adds to the previously mentioned tension, any excitement is later replaced by bouts of boredom, as you backtrack through entire areas just to check whether you've missed a branching path or a hidden door. That said, some dungeon layouts change during different times of the year, which helps alleviate the monotony a tad, but even then, it's not quite enough to stop exploration from becoming a bit of a chore.
As you can probably guess, Oreshika isn't for the impatient. Between the need to grind out battles for devotion points in order to create new clan members, rummage through samey dungeons, and keep a well trained eye on your resources, it's a game that demands quite a lot of effort if you're to get the most out of it. Having said that, it's actually a great fit on the Vita, as the title's monthly calendar breaks things up perfectly, allowing you to push through it piece by piece.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the RPG's most thoughtful inclusions is its online functionality. Instead of merging with the Gods, you can search for other players' cursed clans, and agree to marry off or adopt certain members. It's a fun way to mix your gene pool up, and given that your descendants can all end up looking a lot like your originally created character, even when they're of the opposite sex, you might be thankful for the chance to introduce some new facial features to the family tree.
However, what really sews the release together is its often stunning art style. Graphically, it's crisp, clean, and colourful, while the art direction absolutely nails the mythical Japanese tones of the game. Likewise, the title's audio is also high quality and equally fitting, although we'd dare say that the rather short, looping battle theme will begin to grate sooner or later.
Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines' story could have done more with its fascinating premise, but the real meat of this experience comes in the form of its constant and dynamic gameplay systems, which allow for a superb sense of progression. Creating each new generation feels incredibly rewarding as they carry on the will of their doomed family, which makes it a difficult title to put down – even if proceedings can occasionally wander into the realm of tedium.