We're currently in a place with the Playstation Vita where every great game that arrives brings an air of sadness equal to its joys. Each artistic success is a reminder of how much of a portable paradise the system can be with even the most basic amount of love and attention. In the case of Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines, we get to see the traditional turn-based role-playing game get a serious injection of innovation that fewer and fewer developers are attempting to bring in favor of desolate open worlds and unworthy side missions.
The core of Oreshika is a traditional one. Four characters wait their turn to attack a horde of enemies by unleashing simple attacks, performing magic, or defending. A summon mechanic opens up later on. Much of your time is spent grinding through a relatively small number of dungeons, fighting many of the same enemies over and over, and bringing the spoils back home to divvy among your playable characters but offering bonuses based on certain conditions. In combat, it's a fine example of its genre, all things considered. But Oreshika brings a new mechanic to the table that makes the game its own compelling beast.
High stats. Low color coordination.
The story is this: It's medieval Japan in the time when the gods controlled every aspect of life. When six holy artifacts go missing, the gods' powers go a little haywire, and natural disasters start tearing the country apart. The emperor, under the advisement of his right hand, a sorcerer named Seimei, decides that the only way to appease the gods into sparing Japan is a massive human sacrifice: the complete decimation of a clan. Your clan. It mostly works, aside from the occasional wild storm or plague, but the gods most certainly don't approve of Seimei's methods, so they decide to pull themselves together and intervene. The gods resurrect your clan and set them on the course to gain enough power to exact some good old-fashioned revenge on Seimei.
There's one major problem, however: Seimei's human sacrifice left the clan stricken with the Curse of Broken Lineage, which means that the newly resurrected clan members can only live for two years, and they cannot reproduce with other full-blooded humans. The gods are at least willing to help there. In exchange for enough of their devotion (earned by slaying demons), members of the clan are allowed to mate with a god/goddess of their choosing to produce offspring who grow at an accelerated rate. It doesn't rid the clan of the curse--the offspring have two years to live, as well--but it allows your family to carry on your work, as well as bringing a whole host of supernatural powers and traits into the bloodline.
Where do we go from here?
And so your clan's quest for revenge begins. After going through an extensive character creator, in which you make a family name, select a few common hereditary physical features, and pick classes for an initial generation of three siblings (fencer, martial artist, or gunner), you spend most of your early time with Oreshika running your clan every month through beautifully rendered labyrinths based on Japanese art, myths, and legends. In addition, you slaughter the demons who live therein, leveling up clan members as much as possible, grabbing as much loot as you can, and making them powerful enough to kill the labyrinth's bosses for massive amounts of power and glory. Once a year, in every area, an event called the Feast of All Demons takes place. During this event, the demon world is accessible from a portal deep in a specific labyrinth, and you have a shot at taking out Seimei, though he's always too strong and often just sends a giant monster to play with you while he laughs the laugh of the criminally insane.
Beating the beast allows you to grab one of the lost artifacts. Losing, or not being able to find the demon portal before a member of your family gets too old/sick to fight, means waiting and training another year to make another attempt. And unfortunately, time is quite literally of the essence, especially in the labyrinths, where it moves on Inception rules (one month = around 10 minutes, with the clock slowing but not stopping while you're in fights). Thankfully, the gods grant you a helper, a weasel who can morph into a bouncy, happy, anime girl at will, who makes up for her grating anime-ness by being a ridiculously useful personal assistant who keeps you on task for the month. She automatically buys new armor and weapons if you let her, organizing your items, telling you everything that happened last month/will be happening in the next, and essentially operating as a quick reference guide for any of the game's mechanics you still don't grasp. There are at least a baker’s dozen of games that could use such a character, just minus the weasel outfit.
If the game was just this, it'd be a fine, fun, slightly more self-serious twist on the Half-Minute Hero formula with the most striking use of the traditional ukiyo-e art style since Okami, and we'd leave it at that. The combat is a little on the easy side if you spend the time to level up early enough. Furthermore, most of the time it doesn't take much to start steamrolling the majority of what you'll encounter, but the gimmick of extensive battles taking time and effort that you may not be able to afford is a strong one to base a game around. There's even a unique set of difficulty options that can either make it so that leveling up is much slower, meaning that enemies are more difficult for a longer time, or, for folks who don’t have time to kill or want to perform dungeon speed runs, can make every encounter worth several times as much XP, but you only get five minutes inside the dungeon. From the pure-blooded RPG side, you can customize just how much of a time suck you want the game to be.
And that's the way the Japanese fire demons have their picnic.
In addition, the game's loot system is a risk/reward proposition, in which you get more experience if you kill everyone on the field, but only killing the enemy leader gives you the loot, and the leader can take off at any time. Getting the game's best items versus leveling your characters is a constant conundrum, and it keeps things interesting throughout. The most egregious issue is that while you get a mini-map in the lower right corner, there's no full-on map to pull up of each labyrinth. This means that there is a lot of wandering around, particularly in twisty dungeons, and that you will be wasting time you don't have because you can't remember what room the portal to the Feast was. Luckily, combat is fun enough where the aimlessness is only an issue when you're trying to reach the Feast, and by then, hopefully, you've been in that labyrinth often enough to take notes and directions.
But Oreshika has deeper ambitions in mind than just being a slick dungeon crawler. More than anything, Oreshika is a better-than-advertised family simulator. The survival of your family's collective knowledge and power is dependent on your ability to breed carefully, to select heads of the family who will command respect, to make sure that each family member is treated fairly and feels useful (e.g., listening to their suggested actions in battle), and to keep everyone healthy and alive as long as humanly possible. There's an almost overwhelming number of stats to watch, measuring everything from a family member's vigor (i.e., how much of their stats they actually have access to, which lowers the older/more frail they get) to their loyalty, and all of them carry elemental/emotional values that affect that family member's actions. Family members that carry higher earth or water affinity in their stats tend to follow orders, fight smarter, and pick up on skills a lot more easily. Fire and air affinities tend to be powerful, but their loyalty stat tends to drop a lot more quickly, they demand attention much more, and they are most often the ones who run away from home when they hit maturity--taking a bunch of your family's wealth with them--if they feel they're not being used properly, listened to in battle, or respected. The game's primary focus isn't just to make yourself a higher level than the bosses; instead, the focus is to raise children who valiantly carry on their parents' work if they're not.
Ensuring the continuation of the bloodline means choosing a god to mate with from the pantheon. There are dozens and dozens of elaborately designed gods to choose from, all with their own genetic makeup, physical traits, elemental affinities, and personalities. Again, the sheer amount of information to take into account is daunting, and it is not really laid out in a way that's easy to read. With practice, however, it gets easier to breed the changes you want into your family, even if you don't ultimately like every consequence. Just like in real life, traits can skip generations, and a mom's or dad's genes could become more dominant or recessive than the other. The son of an expert archer might sometimes end up with terrible aim. Marrying a demure-looking dancer to a fierce warrior god could result in a high-stat badass daughter. Sometimes, well, you just plain end up with ugly kids, but even then, a dumb, clumsy child who's not learning the family trade fast enough can be trained by his or her parent (rendering her unusable in dungeons that month) for a massive jump in stats. There's a staggering number of stats, affinities, and personalities to be found, and so far, I've yet to run into a combination, even among siblings and direct descendants, that cloned someone I'd seen before, even while keeping so much other info from their ancestors.
Trying to hit a cloud. Nobody said these kids were smart.
Perhaps the most fun, useful, and contextually powerful mechanic in the game, however, is the heirloom system. Putting enough money into a weapons shop allows you to invite a craftsman to your town who can make heirloom weapons and armor made that can be passed down generation to generation as long as the family member carries on the name of the one who commissioned it. The initial piece is typically one of the lowest-stat items in the game. However, every time it's held by a descendant and the descendant levels up, the item's stats go up with it. After being passed down a few generations, in the case of, say, a sword, the owner may learn a new skill. Even more surprising, any time that descendant is up against a much stronger enemy or your party is outnumbered, the spirit of one of his or her ancestors may show up on the field to imbue the weapon's next action with a spectacular new power--just when you need it most. Even when the list of available classes opens up even further, the game rewards keeping the family business alive, and it inspires loyalty in the player--if not to specific people, then to the name and the item he or she passes on.
Throughout Oreshika, that quote from Kill Bill about revenge not being a straight line but a forest you get lost in came to mind. After a few generations, my family in Oreshika had already become as large and diverse as any real family I'd ever witnessed. Kids would run off and start families in other areas; daughters of other clans would marry into mine. Dark-skinned cousins would become invaluable experts in guncraft who worshipped a stern-faced, strong-willed, fiery bull god and strictly come to destroy bosses. The sudden passing of the head of the family ahead of their 24-month expectancy would feel like a genuine loss, and the family's status in other lands would suffer for it.
Though Oreshika isn't the first to try and make an old-school RPG feel new or to make customizable characters feel like a family affair--Fire Emblem: Awakening tried something similar on a smaller scale, for example--it does feel like the first to completely bet the farm on that idea and succeed. You're compelled to take inexperienced children through an old dungeon to get them learning new skills. You're compelled to spite disloyal teenagers by letting them leave, casting them out, or marrying them off. You're compelled to have a dying mother train her child before the curse takes its toll. And when you're strong enough, you're compelled to take a family into the fray and lay waste to your enemies like no generation had prior. The Vita isn't dead yet. Turn-based RPGs aren't dead yet. Oreshika makes the strongest argument in a long time that developers should be taking advantage of those two facts.