Warning: This preview includes detailed mechanical spoilers but minimal narrative spoilers.
Oniken, like La Mulana before it, is a love letter to gaming days of yore. An era where limited color palettes, memory and chiptunes more or less forced developers to focus on aesthetic design and gameplay rather than on intricate narratives or showcasing high-fidelity graphics. An era where protagonists like Oniken‘s Zaku, a superhuman hero fighting against totalitarian militants in the apocalyptic world of the year 20XX, could thrive and be the norm rather than some tongue-in-cheek throwback. Yes, Oniken, rather than just referencing old games or featuring pixel art due to budget constraints like many other indie platformers, is full retro (or retreaux, if you prefer). The art, music, story and four-button + D-pad controls all work to emulate the look and feel of an 8-bit game, and the disciplined design makes the overall experience very charming.
Unfortunately, the 8-bit era also spawned the term Nintendo Hard, which was basically shorthand for “Expect to fail. A lot. And maybe break a controller or two.” In a way that I can only describe as the inverse of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the “full retro” part rears its ugly head by glorifying uncompromising level design. The developers pride themselves on declaring that the game is hard, but I think that’s a little inaccurate since, with the exception of boss battles, the only challenge in the game comes from avoiding instant death traps and annoying enemies. If it weren’t for enemy placement that’s strategically calculated to screw you over, most enemies would be utter pushovers. And if it weren’t for water and pits signifying instant death, platforming would be a breeze. Even then, the threat of instant death only becomes troubling when combined with enemies that knock you around. As you might have guessed, aggravating enemies that do just that show up for such occasions like clockwork.
Surprisingly, since it’s contrary to the typical desire of making nostalgic games as difficult as possible, the game does offer you a few concessions. Most notably, Zaku can use his katana to destroy many enemy projectiles. Since many games of the era focused on dodging projectiles instead of defending against them, mastering this skill can greatly alleviate the challenge that enemies and environmental dangers pose. However, the ability to crouch is also included, and it serves as a more traditional technique that permits defense via evasion. If that wasn’t enough, Zaku, rather than dying in a single hit, has a sizable health bar that can be refilled with pick-ups and that is only truly in danger of emptying when facing particularly stubborn enemies, full-fledged bosses or the aforementioned instant death traps.
Beyond that, two power-ups exist to make your life a lot easier and (like the health pick-ups) can be collected from gray supply boxes that show up from time to time. The better of the two power-ups are grenades that are thrown in an arc and explode upon impact. The other power-up passively extends the range of Zaku’s katana attacks and allows him to temporarily enter a “berserk mode” that enhances his damage output and makes him invulnerable. “Hold on!” I hear you exclaim. “The second one sounds awesome and makes the first one sounds mediocre by comparison!” The second one is indeed better, but stored charges are progressively lost when damage is taken, so this handy ability can only be used by people who are playing perfectly instead of by people who could actually use some help. By contrast, the grenades are plentiful and don’t disappear upon injury or even death, so you’ll probably be using them a lot more often.
The current version of the Oniken beta only sports three levels and lacks some interconnecting cutscenes, but is otherwise pretty polished and seems indicative of the final product. If you like the old school masochistic style of difficulty (or can at least tolerate it in exchange for great music and pixel art), then check out Oniken and keep an eye out for a full release sometime in the future.