Prepare To Be Harrowed
HIGH The main character’s super-adorbs teddy bear avatar.
LOW Spending half an hour looking for a key that blended far too well into the background.
WTF Is gore-porn a genre tag I can add?
Death End opens with a disclaimer warning players about the extreme gore that it contains. This largely not a reference to the art, although there are some fairly intense visuals, but rather the text descriptions that appear during the story sequences. Said story kicks off with an act of such horrific violence that I’m almost sure it was designed to serve as a rite of passage — if players were capable of withstanding such a extremely frank description of the agony of dismemberment, they’d be ready for whatever came next.
I kept playing after that opening scene, which wasn’t the easiest thing to do – it’s extremely unpleasant – and while the journey was worth trip, the game never hesitated to punish me emotionally for having the temerity to continue playing.
A hybrid JRPG/Visual Novel that fits neatly into the ‘horror’ genre, Death End Re;quest takes place in two different worlds simultaneously. One, set inside an MMORPG, features standard videogame tropes – fantasy worlds, turn-based combat, scantily-clad heroines, and fearsome beasts. The other half is the ‘real’ world, where the developers of the fictional videogame are trying to solve the mystery of why their MMO seems to have developed a mind of its own, and how one of their number has wound up trapped inside of it. If inside the game is a JRPG, the real world is pure VN, with the player traveling to locations, having long conversations, and making occasionally-branching dialogue choices.
However, Death End’s two halves aren’t always in complete sync, largely because some of the visual novel’s style creeps into the JRPG, breaking the pace of the story. Long-winded dialogue is expected in the real-world sections – the whole point there is to gradually uncover secrets through conversation, but the JRPG scenes shut down every couple of battles for ten minutes of chatting – and while the dialogue is well-written enough, it’s not so crucial that it couldn’t have been massively cut down.
With dialogue before and after each boss fight, it’s not unusual for the player to encounter more than a half hour of dialogue at a stretch. During Death End’s best sequences, players fight their way through dungeons until they find a glitch or dead end – then it’s off to the real world, where the lead programmer has to delve deeper into the conspiracy in the hopes of resolving the bug and letting his partner progress through the game. Too often, though, the overlong conversations blur the differentiation between the RPG and the VN halves, so it doesn’t feel like a true hybrid, but rather like a VN that occasionally has combat. The developer even went so far as to include a super-easy combat mode so players just in it for the story can breeze through everything but the boss fights.
That said, the combat is fantastic. Fights take place in arenas where positioning is key. Most attacks have areas of effect, so players have to focus on moving their heroes to just the right place and hit enemies at just the right angle to maximize effect. Every arena is also covered in glitches – tiny energy circles that can restore spell points, do damage, or have any number of special effects. A key combat mechanic causing knockback to send enemies flying around the field, destroying the glitches en masse – once most of them are gone, the developer can intervene by employing cheat codes he’d previously hidden in the game’s code.
By applying his skills, heroes can be buffed, enemies crippled, and defeated bosses can be summoned as allies. The most interesting cheats, though, allow the player to swap out the game’s genre for a turn. Instead of choosing from a list of spells, players can suddenly spin a roulette wheel, solve a puzzle, or jump into a 2D fighting game to damage their foes. It’s a crazy addition to otherwise fairly traditional JRPG combat, but I never stopped being delighted by the wide variety of genres I unlocked over the course of the adventure.
The visual design also deserves praise because the monster designs do a fantastic job of reinforcing the themes — the world is littered with classic fantasy monsters like dark knights, huge lizards, pegasi and the like, but all of them are fundamentally wrong in one way or another. The game-within-a-game has been corrupted by a virus, and it’s visually represent that with what can be best described as a fungal infection. Many of the monsters are covered in bulbous black growths that twist and warp them until they’re barely recognizable as the beast they once were. The bosses are even more stunning – huge, arena-filling beasts with unsettling conglomerations of eyes, teeth, and claws designed to haunt nightmares.
While the art is strong, the save system undoes some of the goodwill garnered by again being unable to decide what genre it wants to belong to. In the VN sequences, players can save whenever they want. In the JRPG scenes, they have to find a camp or a save stone. This wouldn’t be a problem if conversations which can result in a game over only appeared in VN sequences, but they also occur within the MMO world, and frequently after exceedingly long conversation scenes. If players make a wrong choice, it’s an instant game over, and they’re forced to reload a save. In the VN world, that’s five seconds of lost time. Iinside the JRPG, that can be an hour of lost playtime. It’s an inexcusable oversight that makes Death End far more inconvenient than it should be — especially when decisions can worded obliquely that it’s unclear what the right answer is. The punishment for a bad guess is just too harsh.
Death End Re;Quest demands more from players than most JRPGs do by requiring players to have both a strong stomach and a willingness to read a novel’s worth of dialogue. If they can take the violence and occasional tedium, however, they’ll be treated to a thrilling journey unraveling a fascinating conspiracy and meet some well-drawn characters along the way.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Idea Factory and Compile Heart and published by Idea Factory. It is currently available on PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4 Pro. Approximately 60 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, and Violence. This is as hard an M as I’ve ever seen, featuring brutal violence, serial killers, and families murdered in front of their loved ones. It starts with a description of excessive violence, and that’s far from the worst thing that happens. No kids near this, ever.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game has no audio cues, and all dialogue has associated text. The subtitle text cannot be resized. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. The game offers standard JRPG controls, with the left thumbstick handling character movement and menu navigation, and the face buttons opening menus and selecting or cancelling things.