Review: The Tale of Onogoro
Virtual reality (VR) games don’t often have central characters you can connect with as, for the most part, you are that character. But every so often a developer tries just that, Polyarc’s Moss, for example, Ghost Giant or Astro Bot Rescue Mission. This connection with a virtual character, where you cooperatively work together to form a bond is key to Japanese studio Amata K.K’s work, from the brutal escape room title Last Labyrinth to the studios’ latest project; The Tale of Onogoro. This time around there’s no blood and gore, just a chained high priestess and some big ol’ monsters to fight.
To begin with, The Tale of Onogoro has the feel and presence of an adventure RPG, promising and engaging story, big boss fights and some rather magical weaponry. And it does have those elements yet the package is very different, this is a puzzle experience through and through, with action elements to add some pace and drama to the proceedings.
If you like Japanese narratives then this is quintessentially traditional, you play the hero, there’s a damsel in distress and, of course, you’ve got the old friend who’s betrayed you turning into the villain of the piece. Where things take a more unusual turn is in your relationship with this heroine, Haru, a priestess who has summoned you from another realm to aid her due to the fact that she’s attached to a massive rock. Yes, queue up those outdated ball and chain jokes because that is literally one of the core mechanics in Onogoro. Haru’s actually more of a warrior priestess as she fights giant creatures called Kami but because of the betrayal, she and the Quelling Stone are now best of friends thanks to a chain around her ankle. Thus you need to pick her up and carry her everywhere.
Is this a fun mechanic? Umm, not by the end of the game as she continually moans that you’re movements are too fast and to be careful not to drop her. To begin with, though, it’s one of the main ways the videogame builds that partnership between you both, as you’re both useless without each other. You need to defeat five of these Kami to succeed and she has the knowledge to do so – and no, you can’t throw the Quelling Stone at the giant monsters sacrificing Haru. In fact, there’s no ability to throw.
You’re in Haru’s world in spectral form so all of your interactions are confined to using the Celestial Weapons, two hip-mounted guns that can remotely pick up the stone as well as pull in elemental energy that can flip switches or be used to shoot enemies. The only other interaction you can have in the world is with Haru, holding hands to regain energy or to answer a question by nodding or shaking your head.
So when it comes to interactivity The Tale of Onogoro isn’t exactly dripping stuff to play with. The focus is on puzzle solving, with no exploratory deviation required. To begin with, Onogoro is a very slow starter, like trying to warm up on a cold day. Haru provides all of the background narrative, in-game rather than annoying, immersion-breaking cut scenes. This means she talks a lot, so much so that there are points where I just wanted to get on with things rather than stand there listening for another two minutes.
The puzzle mechanics are wonderfully simple, colour-code elements with yellow acting as earth, green for wind and red for fire. You extract the magic from a corresponding stone to then shoot foes or hit a switch, that’s it in a nutshell. This isn’t playschool though, the depth comes from mixing all these up with the environment to set things on fire, carefully navigate balls through the skies and trying to keep your cool when Haru gets continually shot.
Amata K.K. has managed to fit a massive amount of puzzle variety into The Tale of Onogoro making for a pleasant, engaging puzzler. There were certainly moments where it did get a bit mundane, saved by the inclusion of those boss battles. Because of the way the Celestial Weapons work these action sequences are more like giant puzzles themselves, just with the added danger that you could die. These scenarios require even greater management of your and Haru’s positioning, because if either of you both takes too much damage then it’s over, doesn’t matter how far away from you she is.
Should that happen then the only way to heal is to grab both of her hands, slowly recharging the health meter. This is quite possibly the most annoying and engaging part of the entire videogame. It’s a powerful moment between you both, grabbing each other’s hand to save yourselves. But, and there’s always a but, trying to do this mid-battle quite often not attaching the first time and thus dying, does ruin that emotional moment.
If you like a challenge then don’t expect a hard slog from The Tale of Onogoro. The difficulty does gradually increase yet there’s isn’t a sudden steep arc, everything is fairly self-explanatory and at no point did I get stuck, only dying a couple of times on the last boss due to that hand-holding debacle. So you should expect to complete Onogoro for the first time in around five hours without too much trouble.
What the developer has cleverly done is include some much-needed replay and speedrunner mechanics to add further value to the whole experience. In a very arcade fashion, the levels are split into chapters that are timed with a three-star score awarded at the end. Two Nexus Points are also hidden in each area for those completionists. Just enough that you might be tempted to blitz that awkward area once more.
The Tale of Onogoro really is a mixed bag of tricks, with some clever yet not too tricky puzzling in addition to the epic boss encounters to get the energy pumping. It would’ve been nice if Haru wasn’t so dependent on you, you can’t venture too far away and for someone who was a badass Kami fighting priestess, she really is demoted. I’d have liked the puzzles to have been a little more outlandish considering the setting, there are no hints and I never felt like any were required. Whilst not as striking as Last Labyrinth, The Tale of Onogoro definitely feels like Amata K.K. settling into a solid VR rhythm.