There’s a multitude of games built around the hypothetical. Each offers a succinct, moderately thoughtful response to imagined scenarios like apocalyptic situations, or geopolitical predicaments. But Toshima-based Compile Heart habitually digs deeper. From Hyperdimension Neptunia’s allegory of anthropomorphic game consoles, Omega Quintet’s idols protecting humankind’s hopefulness, and even Dark Rose Valkyrie’s rumination on treachery amidst an escalating epidemic, the developer’s plotlines are consistently cerebral.
With the release of Death end re;Quest for the PlayStation 4, Compile Heart is poised to substantiate their approach. Other mediums have attempted to explore the intersection between virtual and real-worlds, resulting in efforts such as Tron, Summer Wars, Sword Art Online, and the .hack series. But few efforts are as fantastically philosophical or as psychologically effective as Death end.
The game’s premise it rooted in a massively multiplayer virtual reality title known as World’s Odyssey. Early in the game’s development, progress comes to an abrupt halt when the director, Shina Ninomiya mysterious disappears. A year after the vanishing, programmer Arata Mizunashi discovers that the game’s servers are inexplicably live, and that a character named Shina seems trapped in the perpetually glitching virtual world. Things get even weirder when items linked to real-world disappearances begin appearing in World’s Odyssey. And when Arata experiences a number of unsettling experiences in real life, signs point to a large-scale conspiracy.
Death end re;Quest’s early hours are marked by Shina apparently stricken by amnesia, which just might be one of the stalest JRPG tropes around. Yet here, the representation of the condition feels fresh. Players are dropped into the narrative mise en scène, while NPCs seem to speak and behave strangely. Eventually, you’ll become more comfortable and familiar with the setting, but re;Quest’s prologue does a great job at conveying a sense of disorientation and bewilderment.
Death end frequently aimed to create an unsettling atmosphere, habitually reminding players our existence can be extinguished at any moment. Beyond perishing in battle, the game sporadically prompts players to make key decisions, with few clues about the consequence of each response. Offer an unfortunate answer and you’ll instantly die, with your demise often accompanied by imagery that hints at the gruesome. Given the involvement of Corpse Party writer Makoto Kedôin, it’s not surprisingly to discover that Death end opts not to render the viscera in lurid detail. Instead, the title prefers to describe things in lurid detail, offer unnerving sound effects, and let imaginations render the grisly details.
One of the repercussions of this approach, is that you’ll learn to save anywhere. Conversations can become protracted, but unlike most of its peers, Death end allows you to record your progress in the middle of conversations. In dungeons, the rule change and save crystals are scattered infrequently. But death is just as pervasive here, and after losing a half-hour or more of your time, you’ll some subservient to its whims. Given some of the themes buried into the game’s plotline, it’s unlikely this decision was accidental.
Play is split into two parts. Some of the time you’ll be directing Shina, exploring dungeons, solving the occasionally crafty puzzle, and fighting monsters. If you’re played the Neptunia games, you’ll undoubtedly perceive mechanical similarity, although Death end’s tone, topics, and combat nuances are distinctive. Arata’s segments are more like the type of exposition you’d find in an interactive visual novel. When taking control of the programmer, you’ll visit different locations and interact with people to gain new insight, effectively offering an investigative vibe. While you might think the two style are discordant, Death end re;Quest is consistently trying to blur the distinction between the visual and real-world, making the two components fit together quite organically.
Often Arata’s hacking abilities comes into play, changing Shina’s approach as nods to the shooter, puzzle, or fighting genres emerge from the game. The only sticking point stems from Shima’s objective of getting the best ending from World’s Odyssey. While it endows Death end re;Quest with a tangible direction, the game within a game exhibits little of the open world quality shown by actual MMORPGs. Sure, it’s a detail, but I would have thrilling if the title truly emulated the autonomy of the genre. As it stands, there were occasional frustrations instigated by Death end’s linear approach, typically revolving around how to advance in a dungeon.
Combat can often make or break a role-playing game. Pleasingly, re;Quest has one of the best battle systems around. The game’s turn-based system is built upon Neptunia’s already strong foundations, as you freely move characters in circular arenas that depict movement ranges. Here, you’ll execute variations of melee, ranged, and magical attacks. Typically, you’ll want to position yourself so that the last strike to push foes into the outer walls, other enemies, or allies for incidental damage. Sure, it feels a bit like shuffleboard, but the concept really ensures each encounter is enjoyable.
Deviation is engrained in the field bugs scattered around the battlefield. Push adversaries into these and they endure additional damage, which is often crucial given the formidability of foes. If you step on the bugs you’ll become corrupted, which if unchecked, can leave your enfeebled. But reach a specific threshold of corruption and you’ll enter glitch mode. You’ll lose most of your clothing but become massively powered-up, adding a stimulating risk reward to the proceeding.
Naturally, some will be delighted by seeing character models heave their attire. Obviously, Compile Heart is reiterating a point that a lack of modest brings about great strength. But unlike the death scenes, they don’t do anything with the notion narratively, so it comes across feeling like very literal and obligatory fan-service. Make no mistake, I liked seeing it, but I also wish the writing team would have built more lore to explain the nipple and crotch coverings. That would have been truly sexy.
As much as a fervent fan-base would love to see an endless succession of Neptunia sequels and spin-offs, it’s refreshing to see Compile Heart challenge themselves with new ideas. With Death end re;Quest, there’s fleeting moments of familiarity. But more importantly, there’s a game willing to explore darker, more complicated subjects. Despite a few small issues (and the need for completionists to play through multiple times), Death end is a rousing success, mostly because of its willingness to challenge the intellect and imaginations of its audience.
Death end re;Quest was played on the PlayStation 4
with review code provided by the publisher.