It sometimes amazes me the things you learn when researching into review games. Yes, in an exclusive peek behind the curtain, I can reveal that occasionally I have to scour Wikipedia or a game’s official website for minutes at a time, trying to get a handle on what the developers were thinking when they created the latest game I’ve had to review – if only so I can share important background details with you.

In this case, I discovered that not only is Onigiri a free-to-play MMORPG from CyberStep, but it is also a Japanese food, formed of white rice moulded into triangular or cylindrical shapes, wrapped in seaweed and stuffed with pickled ume, salted salmon or a variety of salt or sour ingredients that act as natural preservatives. Given that around this neck of the woods we tend to concentrate on Xbox games, rather than tasty snacks, I limited my reading to Onigiri the game.

Onigiri is literally translated as “Demon Cutter”, and knowing this little bit of information tells you a lot about what you need to know about the game. Set in a fantasy take on feudal Japan, the land is overrun with creatures of myth and legend. A very long time ago, terrible demons known as Kamakui laid waste to Japan, wreaking death and destruction all over the place until the goddess of the Sun, Amaterasu Oomikami, stepped in and sealed the Kamakui away using three great seals. Now one of the seals has failed, and the Kamakui are set free to go back to what they do best. The character that you create is an Oni, one of a race of people living on the Western Island of Onigashima, where it just so happens one of the seals, the one that failed, was located.

The game’s insistence on you playing one of the aforementioned Oni is a bit of a departure for titles of this genre, where there are usually multiple races to choose from. Here there’s one, and the choice you have is whether to be male or female, before taking on the body type that you wish to be. My character, LeGash, was a glamorous female Oni, who appeared to think a thigh length Kimono was the perfect outfit to go demon hunting. So far, so anime.

Once your gender and basic body shape has been decided – although this doesn’t have any effect on the gameplay – then you get to shape your character by choosing how they are going to fight. You do this by selecting traits, and the balance between them will determine which weapons you are going to use to do the most damage. Clear so far? The traits are Power (which is associated with Axe, Oodachi, Spear and Sword), Defensive (Spear and Staff), Kind (Staff and Wand), Daring (Axe, Oodachi, Dual swords, Bow and Sword) and Cautious (Dual Swords, Bow and Wand). Personally, LeGash was a Cautious type of fighter, as I liked the idea of running around with a bow and bringing the pain from a distance.

So, having chosen my character, I was set loose in Japan with a sword (well, more of a dagger) and only a waypoint indicator to follow. These start off as a really good idea – an arrow is projected onto the ground at the feet of your character and pointing where you need to go. However, as you progress and pick up side quests, the arrows can become somewhat muddled, so that the one that you are trying to follow may be obscured by others. They are helpfully colour coded, with gold being a main story mission, and side missions being either green or blue.

Getting out into the world, and there is a tutorial level to run through; this will teach you the basics of combat. Pressing RT actions a basic attack, whether that be a swing of a sword, a smash of a hammer or a blast of magic from a wand. LT unleashes a charged power attack, and you can build charge by attacking with the normal blows. As you do this, flames appear above your health bar in red, and when they flash white you can use the power move. Again, this is based purely on observations as the instructions and the tutorial don’t really go into any depth.

You can change the equipped weapon from a selection of four via the D-Pad, whilst the bumpers amend the power attack that you are going to use. In an interesting move, as you use the power attacks they gain levels and become more powerful. In no time at all it seems you are lighting the battlefield up with lightning smashes and ice shots from a wand, and even poison arrows from a bow.

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Having played through the tutorial and beaten the boss of the dungeon (pretty much setting the pattern for the rest of the game), we are introduced to another feature of Onigiri, that of having an AI controlled companion. In the tutorial, we rescued a pink haired lady called Shizuka, who turns out to be a princess, and has a bodyguard called Yoshitsune. You can summon one of the companions to help you as you explore, which helps to take the heat off, whilst giving them gifts raises their friendship level. As you do this they grow to trust you, and begin to offer services that will help you in your quest.

Shizuka can identify the weapons that defeated enemies drop, and she also has a bottomless purse that can allow you to store all your loot in – running out of storage halfway through a dungeon is majorly annoying. Yoshitsune on the other hand can repair or even create weapons, assuming you can find the “recipe” and the bits and bobs you need. She can also rank up your weapons. This obviously makes them stronger, but you’ll need to be prepared to sacrifice certain ones in order to action it. This loot levelling mechanic is surprisingly in-depth and can allow you to fine tune your approach for any specific dungeon or boss.

So, the rest of the game is made up of talking to people in the hub towns, getting missions and side quests, then running out of town, across fields full of monsters, before ending up at a dungeon entrance.

From there you have three levels; Normal, Hard and Hell, with each having a recommended level in order to progress. Pay attention to this, as the dungeon boss is usually higher than the recommended level of the dungeon, and there’s nothing that kills you faster in this game than being underprepared and overconfident. In an early example, myself and my companion were tasked with killing Tiamat, a five headed dragon Kamakui. Well, we rampaged through the dungeon and then had an epic fight with this dragon, finally killing it at the cost of almost all my healing items and resurrection eggs. Before we could say “Yippee” another boss appeared; a blue skinned, six armed fellow with a sword in each hand, who then proceeded to batter me. I had nothing left to resurrect with, so I had to go all the way back to the start of the dungeon. Heading back in and all the monsters had respawned, including Tiamat. I was somewhat crushed, to say the least.

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I then teamed up with a friend who had got to level 39, and we went back in and did the dungeon again. Once more I was taken out by the blue chap, but as my friend was still alive and fighting, I was at least able to respawn outside the dungeon, run through its empty halls and join in the fight again. Rinse and repeat twice more and we finally beat him!

The mechanics involved in the team play aspect are as confusing as anything I’ve ever played. First of all, the person who wants to play has to form a party (within the game) and then they can invite friends, who have to be in the same instance – they may have to stop their activities, load into a different world and finally accept the invite. Without a word of a lie, it took myself and a friend a good ten minutes to work this out as we scoured the menus, trying to find the correct options.

Whilst that was a pain, sadly, it’s with the wonky controls that I blame my poor performance in Onigiri. There is a lock on function, but it only seems to work for the ranged weapons. With everything else, it seems that the direction you’re facing is the direction that you’re going to attack – never mind where the highlighted monster is. Add to this the weirdest dodge mechanic I’ve ever used – stop all movement then flick the left stick in the direction you want to dodge – and fights are somewhat frustrating to say the least. I can’t begin to comprehend why the developers would want you to stop moving in order to dodge, and it basically means that if you are running to the side to try and avoid being hit, you cannot dodge without stopping. When you stop you get hit, so you quickly learn that dodging is a waste of time.

Visually and Onigiri is nothing to write home about, unless the people you are writing to get excited about graphics that look like they’d run comfortably on an Xbox 360. The special effects just don’t look that special, and cinematics are clunky. The highlights, strangely, are the static boss introduction and loading screens, which are done in a cool Manga style and look suitably stylised and threatening. Animation is also somewhat stilted, as if a few crucial frames of animation are missing from each move you pull off.

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As far as the sound effects and music go, the best that can be said is that they do their jobs without being overly obtrusive. The swords swish, the bows twang, the wand does a kind of magic noise, and it all keeps within the period of the game.

So as you can see, the game has its faults, but please don’t write it off as just another F2P failure, full of microtransactions and no value. Microtransactions are available, but in my run through, I’ve never felt that I had to pay to win. The real hook of Onigiri is in the characters that you meet on your journey and the story they begin to weave. As you get further in, meet new friends and begin to build relationships, you start to care about what happens to them, and each time the NPCs level up their friendship, they reveal more about who they are and their backstory, some of which are very deep and in depth.

In conclusion then, the first 15 minutes of Onigiri does all it can do to put you off. Press on through this however, and there is a surprisingly deep game to be found, one with a very good story centred around good and evil. Yes, the graphics wouldn’t make an Xbox 360 sweat, but they are kind of besides the point. This is a game about characters, and if you give them a chance, they might just grow on you.

Plus it’s free, so what have you got to lose?

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