If there is one element shared by every one of Nippon Ichi Software’s games, it is what I call the “zany factor.” No matter the premise, setting, or genre, NIS tends to put silliness first, and although the company’s games are typically fun, few dare to tread new ground. Zettai Hero Project, one of their most creatively risky titles in recent years, charmed with its addictive roguelike gameplay and comical story of an accidental superhero. It may have gone unnoticed by many, but ZHP evidently performed well enough to warrant further exploration of its concept, as its spirit lives on in The Guided Fate Paradox. While it may seem different on the surface, TGFP carries over quite a bit from its predecessor, from a similar story (a young man is suddenly shouldered with the burden of saving others) to a nearly identical gameplay structure. It’s actually so similar to ZHP that I initially had difficulty appreciating its differences, and when coupled with the extreme “zany factor” in the story’s first couple of chapters, my disinterest in The Guided Fate Paradox began to solidify. Upon digging deeper, however, I found an earnest but imperfect game with surprising depth to both its characters and its mechanics.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Renya, a thoroughly average high school student, wins a lottery at the local shopping mall. His prize? He gets to become God. After ascending to Celestia and meeting his new angelic subordinates, Renya learns that his job as the Big Guy In The Sky entails entering a machine that creates copies of the real world and slaying its digital “aberrations” in order to grant people’s wishes.
…wait, excuse me?
This highly unusual scenario undoubtedly takes some suspension of disbelief to accept, although fans of anime will adjust quickly. Much of the humor and setup in the game’s early chapters can be incredibly polarizing; boob jokes, forced laughter, and wholly unrealistic conversations between bizarre characters are apparently the norm in Celestia. I had all but written the game’s narrative off as utter schlock, but by the third or fourth chapter, characters begin shedding their hyperbolic personalities and revealing unanticipated depth. A manipulator, a backstabber, an unrequited lover… these are the real angels of Celestia, and they’re embroiled in a conflict with the Netherworld that Renya is initially oblivious to. The story is not overly sophisticated, and it is punctuated with constant comedy that can be hit-or-miss, but it is certainly more interesting than it may appear at first glance.
Similarly, The Guided Fate Paradox is a roguelike that does little at first to distinguish itself from its peers. For those unfamiliar with the term, “roguelike” refers to a type of RPG where grid-like dungeons are randomly generated within a certain set of parameters, and players act along with their enemies on a simultaneous turn-by-turn basis. Most tend to have an overhead perspective, but TGFP employs an isometric viewpoint identical to Disgaea. The core gameplay system is actually quite simplistic: Renya and an angelic partner plumb dungeons, defeating monsters and obtaining items, until reaching a final floor where a boss awaits. Complexity resides in the game’s intimidating character progression systems, and mastery is required to avoid a swift death, since enemies can go from pushover to powerhouse on a floor-to-floor basis. Equal parts addictive and frustrating, my deaths and triumphs often led me to feel like I had only been playing for a brief amount of time, despite the clock proving me wrong by several hours.
Both Renya and his chosen angelic partner have five equipment slots that can hold all manner of bizarre items like laser cannons, tank treads, fish heads, bat wings, and more. These items show up on character models in real-time, which can result in some truly amusing visual comedy; nothing beats shooting mermaids with a flamethrower as a half-hovercraft, half-zombie god of death. Once a piece of equipment has seen enough use, it creates a “Holy Icon” that can be placed on a License Board-esque “Divinigram” to permanently bolster stats. Equipment can then be forged and synthesized at a blacksmith, resetting attunement and providing endless opportunities for growth. In addition, “Holy Artifacts” can be placed on the Divinigram for unique perks like increased inventory space, and a flow of “God Energy” can be directed to bolster these artifacts.
All of this tweaking is essential, because Renya and his angels return to level 1 whenever they leave a dungeon, and while they retain a fragment of their strength each time, proper equipment and Divinigram modification make up the bulk of character progression. These systems, while complex and incredibly unwieldy, aren’t too hard to understand. I would have preferred a more thoughtful, streamlined approach instead of an unrefined attempt at adding intricacy via additional menus. It doesn’t help that the Divinigram is kind of ugly, especially considering the amount of time I spent staring at it. Another time-waster is the game’s odd pacing; early on, every one-to-two-minute dungeon floor is typically followed by a cutscene that is double or triple its length. This is a non-issue later on, when gameplay takes the center stage, but it strikes me as a disproportionate amount of story for an otherwise fast-paced game.
Sadly, the entire game suffers from a fairly low-budget feel; gone are the razor-sharp HD character models of Disgaea 4. Sprites have few frames of animation and are noticeably pixelated — and not in a way that makes it seem like a stylistic choice. Characters that appear in the game’s “Copy World” are silhouetted, faceless sprites, and while this is explained via the narrative, it feels like a cop-out. The large character portraits used in cutscenes are nice, but the designs themselves scream “I’m a generic archetype!” The soundtrack is pretty unmemorable as well, save for the game’s melodramatic theme song, the first movement of which was constantly stuck in my head. The voice acting is tolerable, but characters say some absurdly unrealistic things; Lilliel’s constant “mwa-ha-ha,” Cheriel’s overly breathy voice, and Lanael’s penchant for giving herself bizarre nicknames are all eyeroll-worthy.
As far as roguelikes go, The Guided Fate Paradox is certainly unique. It has a high barrier of entry thanks to polarizing humor and unnecessarily complex game systems, but patient players will find a meaty dungeon crawler to sink hours upon hours into. If you’re like me, you may be turned off by the game’s asinine first impression, but assuming you find the premise appealing, you might find yourself surprisingly addicted to this unorthodox title.