Battle Royale. The Hunger Games. Zero Escape. Danganronpa. Saw.
There is no question that media presenting a story wherein people have to fight and/or solve puzzles for the sake of survival has become a popular subgenre. Behind almost all of these stories, of course, lies a few important questions: who set up the game, and how can we overthrow the system?
These same questions are posed in the live-or-die visual novel from aiueoKompany, Fatal Twelve. In this game, a supernatural twist is thrown in the mix: the twelve participants of the “game” are already dead. However, fate — in the form of a goddess named Parca — offers them a second chance at life. The catch, of course, is that they will compete to determine who survives. Parca makes it explicit in the exposition that, like the Highlander, there can be only one.
The player experiences this story from the perspective of one Rinka Shishimai, a second-year student at Amecha Girls’ University High School. After Fatal Twelve’s introduction, we learn that Rinka died from a terrorist bombing in a train. Now she has come back to life, and the memories of her death, as well as the deaths of eleven other individuals, have all been rewritten as though the events never took place. If Rinka wishes to survive, she will need to “elect” the other participants during the Court of Fate — a dream world that opens up at midnight between Sunday and Monday. All participants are required to attend. Even if they try to stay awake, they will pass out at midnight so that they can join the Court of Fate.
How does one participant elect another? This is, in my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the game’s rules. Information is key. Gaining knowledge of another participant’s full name, their cause of death, and their greatest regret at the time of their death is what it takes. As that knowledge is gained in the real world, a magical book auto-generates a card stating the information in physical form. There are three cards per player, for a total of 36 cards. And to make things more interesting, every participant starts with a randomized draw of three cards. Thus, everyone has a little bit of information, but not enough to immediately elect another person. Gaining information through investigation proves difficult throughout the entirety of the game, as the cause of death is undone during the Divine Selection period, so there are no news reports of the incidents where the individuals actually died. Figuring out another person’s regret is even more challenging, unless you can find a way to get them to open up emotionally, or have a conversation with someone they know well, or…threaten them, somehow?
A few additional rules apply during the 12-week Divine Selection period. For example, the participants cannot die by natural means. Because their life force is being sustained by Parca, they are essentially invulnerable until they are elected and eliminated, at which point their “undone death” re-enters the memories of all humankind and events revert to normal. Though most of the participants died in different places that day, Rinka has to consider an extra burden when she discovers that at least one other person in the Court of Fate was on the train where she lost her life. If those events are recreated, how would she survive?
Worse yet is that Rinka’s best friend, Miharu, also appears in the Court of Fate. Miharu was not on the train on the day Rinka died, so her death is unknown to Rinka, though the game offers up some clear hints to the player (and Rinka) as to how Miharu died that day. As the elections take place week after week and the numbers dwindle, the larger question looms: if it comes down to Rinka and Miharu, what will they decide? Or is there some way to beat the system? Can two live? For that matter, is there a way to bring back all twelve and snub the rules set by Parca, the Goddess of Fate?
Finally, there’s a cat. A very awesome cat with a name I first learned when reading Dante’s Divine Comedy: Lethe. I’ve never seen a visual novel make such great use of a cat before. And I have played many a VN in my day!
Offering any further details about the game’s plot treads on major spoiler territory, so I will have to stop here. My own sense about this game is that the twelve participants, down to each person, are multifaceted and worth getting to know. The developer did a fantastic job putting together a diverse cast of characters, and somehow found a way for all of them, regardless of their home country or ethnicity, to end up in Japan for the events of the Divine Selection. Some characters are given more screen time than others, particularly Odette and Alan. They serve as foils to help determine who Rinka and Miharu want — or do not want — to become as they mature.
Fatal Twelve, like other visual novels, offers a variety of endings. Not a full twelve, as you may have guessed. There are, in fact, seven endings: one “true” ending, two “good” endings, and four “bad” endings. Reaching these endings was, for me, a little disappointing. I know some fans of the genre will disagree with me on this point. What I mean by this is that generally, the player only makes one or two key choices to find their way to a good or bad ending. With “skip read text” available and fully functional, tracing the various story paths is a little too simplistic. Suffice to say, there really isn’t the need for a walkthrough to figure out how to change the outcomes. The answers are obvious.
And honestly, that might be my only complaint about Fatal Twelve. It’s a great mystery story, packed with hints of adventure, romance, insight on the human psyche, and lots of metaphysical goodness to round out the experience. However, given the complexity of the narrative and the fantastic setup, and especially given the developer’s penchant for branching out to exponentially more “bad” endings (see Sound of Drop), there are some missed opportunities. Then again, this game is already so long and packed with so much text, I cannot fault aiueoKompany for drawing the line where they did.
What blows my mind about Fatal Twelve is that it was built in Ren’Py (the visual novel equivalent of RPG Maker), the key staff adds up to like…four or five people, and this is only the second full game they’ve taken to market as a team. Fatal Twelve was crowdsourced via Kickstarter and had a dual-language (English/Japanese) day one release with the support of publisher/localizer Sekai Project. Listen, I’ve played Clannad, Steins;Gate, EVE Burst Error, as well as VN/hybrid classics such as the Zero Escape series and the Phoenix Wright series. For a small team like aiueoKompany to stand up to the likes of them is no small feat. But that’s exactly what they did. A small, dedicated team wrote a great story, developed a strong cast, threw down fantastic art assets for characters and environments, added top-notch Japanese voice acting, and topped it all off with music that rivals the venerable Takeshi Abo. I could praise the team behind Fatal Twelve for passion and effort alone — and I do! — but to see their vision come to fruition with such great results is also a reward unto itself.