"Death end re;Quest has restored my faith in Compile Heart games that aren't Neptunia."
Upon launching Death end re;Quest, you get this message: "This game contains graphic depictions of violence and grotesque scenes." Well, isn't that the truth.
A girl faces a monster alone, her strength to continue all but gone. She is distracted by a disembodied voice, and the monster makes the first move, piercing her with a spike. Falling to the ground and coughing up blood, she laments over the decisions that led to this point. The monster, hungry for its next meal, grabs her. In one bite, the girl is cut in half. The lower half of her body falls to the ground with a loud splat, and a man cries out in despair. This is just the opening five minutes of Death end re;Quest. Welcome to World's Odyssey. (This is a much gentler description than the game uses to describe this scene, by the way.)
Enigma Games is a video game company founded with the intent of creating amazing new experiences for players. Their project, dubbed World's Odyssey, is an upcoming VRMMORPG that would have revolutionized the gaming world. However, the Alice Engine they created for it has too many bugs to be workable, and the project is shut down. Much of the blame is placed on Shina Ninomiya, the game's director, and she disappears not long after the game's shutdown. Just over a year later, her partner at the company, Arata Mizunashi, receives an e-mail from Shina regarding the bootup of the World's Odyssey servers. As it turns out, Shina is now stuck as the only player in the game, and the bugs have gotten out of control. The game's UI prevents Shina from logging out, and the only failsafe option is to have her complete the game. In addition to trying to get Shina out of World's Odyssey, Arata has to contend with supernatural events that are bleeding into the real world from the MMO.
You might be able to guess the premise behind Death end re;Quest based off its title. There are multiple ways to get death ends (game overs) based on choices you make in the game. You have to think logically, consider the situations the characters get into, and decide on the best course of action. If you would prefer to avoid (or intentionally see) the death ends, you can do that with a simple push of the R3 button, which marks death end choices with a skull icon. There are also times when you don't make a choice; instead, your actions on the overworld determine if you get a death end. For example, you can get a death end if one of your characters runs off in an event scene and you then try to leave the area without them. Death ends aren't all bad, since you get rewards for seeing them, but you have to go back to a previous save point. Thankfully, you can usually save during dialogue, which cuts down on backtracking if you happen to get a death end. I did feel bad about intentionally getting them sometimes. A few of the death ends are pretty brutal in their description of what happens, and if you have an active imagination, you can come up with some pretty horrific scenes. Think of Mortal Kombat fatalities, and you have a good idea of what happens in some of these endings. I winced more than a few times at the descriptions.
You can think of the story as having two different parts: the main gameplay with Shina, and the mystery/visual novel segments with Arata. The story itself is dark in tone, especially when it involves the real-world segments. Slowly uncovering the true nature of the supernatural events and learning more about what was happening to the real world had me glued to the screen. I got goosebumps and chills a few times throughout the game, and I was legitimately nervous playing late at night. Death end re;Quest isn't a horror game, but it is very unsettling. As the pieces slowly came together, It felt like I was watching a great mystery/thriller movie or anime. The game's atmosphere really sucks you in.
I'm an advocate for having characters carry the story, but Death end re;Quest is a bit of an exception. The cast is okay, but nothing special. Shina starts off with amnesia, and I was really not a fan of her until she regained her memories a couple of hours in. Her constant whining and crying turned me off so much that I had to take breaks from the game itself. Characters are broken into archetypes and don't evolve much past their background stories. This is a shame, since there is potential here to create some great cast members.
The battle system in Death end re;Quest is similar to previous Compile Heart games. Battles take place in a small arena, where up to three of your characters face off against the enemy. Every character is required to use three skills or attacks per turn, and the game features a "knockback" mechanic, where you can send enemies flying after three regular attacks, or by ending your turn with a knockback skill. The distance an enemy travels when knocked back depends on their weight, and if they bounce off other enemies or walls, they incur extra damage. If you knock them into other party members, those characters will also hit them with a knockback attack. Just imagine playing a game of billiards on the battlefield: launching angles, knockback points, etc. Speaking of skills, they are learned at random by using a combination of a character's existing skills. The upside is that new skills are executed immediately upon learning them, a feature I found efficient to utilize when fighting powerful minions or bosses, since it's basically like a fourth skill you can use. There is also a "corruption" system in play. As characters take damage from enemies or run into "field bugs," their corruption percentage goes up. Reaching 80% will transform them into a more powerful form, with access to more attacks. Enemies can also become corrupted, which will make them significantly more powerful. Unfortunately, the gameplay never gets any more interesting after the opening chapters. After you learn the basics and what happens when you involve other characters in your party, that's all you ever do throughout the game. It got to the point where I would actively avoid battles if I could help it, as they were slow and uninteresting.
The saving grace of the battle system is the genre swapping. If you eliminate a certain percentage of "field bugs," either by knocking enemies into them or running through them yourself, Arata will be able to alter the field of battle. He can increase or decrease the corruption levels of enemies or your own characters, change field bugs, and also summon past bosses to fight alongside you in battle. However, his most interesting ability changes the actual genre of the game. He can program a slot machine to do damage, use the characters' SP (skill points) to make a shooter, make the field 2D so it becomes a fighter, and so on. This is the only thing that keeps battles interesting, and it works well with the game's theme.
The soundtrack is not amazing on its own, but it shines when it plays during the game itself. Some of the most disturbing moments of the game are amplified by the haunting background music. The best example of this is when Arata's segments of the game end in a cliffhanger. The music keeps you on edge after the scene is over, leaving you with the feeling that something is about to happen. The one thing that quickly got on my nerves was the sound of the characters gasping for breath on the overworld when you're moving around. Maybe the developer thought it would be a nice touch to make the characters seem tired from all the running, but it doesn't actually affect anything, and it gets annoying after only half an hour.
The graphics are a bit of a mixed bag. While the art itself looks nice, I am not a fan of the dungeons. I know the game has a dark tone, but the dungeons are a little too dreary and depressing for me. There isn't a ton of effort put into the overall design either; each dungeon looks like one generic hallway after another. The game also repeats a couple of dungeons, which does not help matters.
Death end re;Quest has restored my faith in Compile Heart games that aren't Neptunia. I feel most of the positive things I have to say about the game come from its engaging story, but the rest of it holds up well and delivers a really good experience. If you get nervous about the supernatural or grossed out by blood and gore, I wouldn't recommend playing this game. However, if you can stomach it, Death end re;Quest is worth giving a shot.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.