Afterpatch Review: Death end re;Quest
By: Fernando Da Costa
Publisher: Idea Factory
Developer: Compile Heart
Available on: PC, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch
A DIGITAL ADVENTURE! - Introduction
One of our age's more prominent conspiracy theories is we’re living in a simulation. What you see in front of you isn’t a solid object but a bundle of data. Our ability to grab hold of it is thanks to excellent collision detection and nothing else. While I don’t believe that notion, the existential ramifications are intriguing enough to explore. Both Idea Factory and Compile Hearts seem to think so, too, because Death End Re;Quest tells the story of a girl that’s stuck in the game she programmed. When approaching this review, the tiny blurb above was all I knew of what awaited me. As a reviewer, I was curious how they’d go about telling that story. As an author, you bet your ass I plan to dissect the product. Is it fantastic, or is it overly glitchy? Let’s find out.
WHERE IS SHE!? - Story Synopsis
World’s Odyssey is a VRMMORPG that was in development at the game studio Enigma. It, however, was cancelled once the director - a girl named Shina - suddenly went missing. After a year passes, there’s still no sign of her return. That is until her colleague, Arata, receives an e-mail. As he immediately goes to check, his eyes widen - it’s from her. What happens next is an adventure like no other. As Arata tries to help her navigate the virtual landscape, she comes face-to-face with NPCs with multifaceted AI, courtesy of the Alice Engine - a sophisticated technology allowing its computerized code to act lifelike. Travel the many locales as you torpedo to the finish line - to trigger the Ending Engage. As this digital world’s mysteries unravel and its truths reveal themselves, the penultimate question remains - can completing the game save Shina?
YET ANOTHER TROPE! - Writing
Amnesia is a cliche of JRPGs that is overused. Unfortunately, Death End Re;Quest makes liberal use of it, with no desire to innovate. What it does, however, it does exceptionally well. The character development, for the most part, is nicely done, with Arata being a stand-out. Watching him go from being reclusive to compassionate was terrific to witness. We see his relationship with all the others flourish. What also deserves recognition is how the literature overturned my initial impressions. For the first few hours, everyone seemed one-dimensional. It was because I kept playing that my opinion changed. Besides, even though a few personalities are still a bit one-tone, they maintain consistency, coming across as entertaining as a result. The villains, for example, are depicted as having vicious proclivities. It was that persistent heartlessness that had me yearning for more.
GIVE ME BLOOD! - Writing
In JRPGs, a topic they seldom touch on is brutality. In Death End Re;Quest, it’s probably most prevalent. Hell, the first ten minutes tell of the decapitation of the protagonist before her lifeless body falls to the ground. We may never see her detached head but see the pool of blood beneath her body. You see, grotesque imagery is often told and not shown. I must commend the excellent writing because it succeeds in painting a picture. It’s revolting and graphic. In that same breath, not having a visual detracts from the impact. For instance, there’s a part during late-game that’s harrowing, and while I was stunned, seeing the bloody scene would have magnified those feelings. In other words, to truly nail the unforgiving reality of the world, an accompanying illustration would go a long way. The gravity of the situation wasn’t what it could be.
That said, the writing is still disgustingly creative, and I adore it. On the flip side, the interactions between characters, specifically party members, are all pleasant and full of banter. Several lines pulled a few genuine chuckles from me, thanks to their lunacy. Some of the more witty lines are said by enemies and are usually done so after savagely mutilating an NPC. There’s no question that Death End Re;Quest gets the harshness across splendidly. Now, I’d be remiss, not to mention the fan service. While the first few minutes slap you with bloodshed, perversion isn’t far - from someone that makes a mousepad with foam breasts to Shina’s nearly nude body arousing an ally. Yes, it’s juvenile but treated as a fleeting thought. The main focus is telling a compelling story. Though, be aware of the gratuitous transformations.
GLITCH IN THE MATRIX! - Writing
The plotline is where literary prowess begins seeing slight faults. You see, the story’s broken into halves - in the digital plane and within reality. The issue isn’t execution, though, as that’s superb. Both settings are married together perfectly, with no sign of divorce. I never struggled to immerse myself, and, as a former MMORPG player, World’s Odyssey felt authentic. The characters are fun, and I quickly invested in most of them. Something else I’m fond of is how suspicious real-world items were popping up in the virtual world. Death End Re;Quest does a fantastic job hooking me in with sublime bait. Throughout my session, I was genuinely fascinated by the bulk of mysteries. Some revelations even got me to cuss audibly. As I’ve said, though, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. While none of the noted blunders are overly substantial, it’s worth mentioning.
Look, I’m a fan of realism, but I believe it must make contextual sense. As we know, the Alice Engine can mimic emotional and human tendencies. Because of the all-female cast, one of them suffers through their menstrual cycle. Now, I appreciate the attempt to ground these characters, but this feels forced. There’s already a plot point that explains her cramps. To have her blame her period feels out-of-nowhere. To further make matters worse, it’s said once and never again. If we’re going down this route, commit to it because if not, it comes off as nonsense. Luckily, there aren’t many examples of this. Regardless, tightening up the writing would have been beneficial. The storytelling, as is, isn’t very intuitive. Without critical thinking, I struggled to connect a few of the narrative beats. Despite that, though, it’s still competent enough to enthrall you.
A JRPG NOVEL! - Gameplay
Death End Re;Quest comes in two different genres - Visual Novel and JRPG. The way they’re separated is seamless, too. Arata’s portion of gameplay is centred around the VN aspect. Plot points take priority with a healthy dose of exposition. When controlling Shina, however, it’s more of a hybrid approach. Exploring dungeons, getting treasure, and the combat adds in the JRPG flair. An avalanche of words rolls in when speaking to NPCs, partnered by gorgeous sprites. What has me smitten is when stuck with either one, switch to the other to rectify it. For example, Shina may come face-to-face with an obstacle - or as it’s known within the world, a glitch. By becoming Arata, he can nullify it by inputting code. At its core, this is just an invisible wall, but because it meshes with the in-game universe seamlessly, it further amplifies the player's immersion.
As per the namesake, some dialogue choices could lead to “Death Ends” - or dead ends, if you will. Selecting those triggers the gruesome demise of one of the girls, causing a game over. A few scenarios are shockingly fleshed out, too, adding an hour of exposition, regardless of leading nowhere. The big sticking point here is potentially losing upwards of several hours of progress. I was able to save before most situations but, for some inexplicable reason, the option isn’t always available. Unless I compulsively visit savepoints, the frustration quickly seeps in as playtime vanishes. It’s strange because I’m actively encouraged to explore bad routes. Doing so unlocks rewards such as money and other goodies. Thankfully, if you do keep proactive, it mitigates the issue. It’s a fascinating mechanic at its core, but it’s marred by poor afterthought.
CREATING THINGS! - Gameplay
Recently, alchemy has had a massive resurgence with multiple titles using it. It’s present here, too, although it's bare-bones. Item combinations won’t ever net you equipment; rather, it strengthens Arata’s programming skills. The thing is, those are inconsequential, and to use any, I had to go out of my way purposely. The abilities the girls have are mighty enough to defeat my foes. I could also use materials to power up summons, but, again, they were hardly utilized. To further drive the redundancy of this mechanic home, the included DLC hands you all of the necessary ingredients, so no hunting is required. Sure, that means no grinding, but it also means no fun. It’s a pointless feature, appearing more as filler and not something thought out. Hell, ignoring it ultimately won’t affect the experience at all. That said, changing the combat genre is a lot of fun, albeit half-baked.
BACK AND FORTH! - Gameplay
The combat system is the classic turn-based, though, not traditional. What I mean is each girl can attack three consecutive times in a single turn. After picking commands, an outline appears to signify the proximity of her upcoming strikes. If positioned right, you can take down a group of foes. As a bonus, a kickback may activate, initiating what I’ve dubbed as murder pong. Essentially, the monster is flung between every girl it touches. If it strays away and slams against the battlefield boundary, it ricochets to massive damage. If it, again, propels itself towards a girl, she continues the tennis match. I loved exploiting this to colossal devastation. Combining abilities is also how brand new ones are taught. My only gripe is there’s zero inclination of recipes. I swear I attempted the exact amalgamations numerous times, unable to recall if I had previously.
WHAT A PRETTY DRESS! - Performance & Presentation
Compile Hearts have never been known as graphical powerhouses. Their games usually resemble the late PlayStation 3 era or even early PS4. While that’s all true, however, there’s no disputing it still maintains a specific charm to it. The visuals here are more than acceptable, and I have no complaints. Sadly, I can’t say the same about how well Death End Re;Quest runs. First, there are odd delays between dialogue lines. It isn’t constant, but when I see it, it makes the exchanges feel inorganic. Thankfully, the issue is sporadic, and the severity never broaches outlandish territory. Second, there were sprinkles of frame drops here and there but nothing outrageous. What irks me is crashing - I had one. I’ve said this already but be cautious and save often. While it’s a rare occurrence, nothing is worse than having to lose hours of gameplay.
ANIME GOODNESS! - Sound Design
Voice acting is a fickle mistress and can either be good or bad. I’ve witnessed both spectrums and am confident in saying Death End Re;Quest is positive. Now, don’t expect anything award-winning because inflection is lacking at points. That, however, isn’t a problem because when it matters, it’s nailed. Like, no joke, but just hearing the cries of anguish from all the girls is troubling. It’s a constant theme, and I’ve never been so uncomfortable playing a JRPG. Their screams were legitimately haunting, helping the atmosphere of the world. I could feel the agony they were suffering. Both the horror and the despair were translated beautifully. The music’s passable and does a decent job indicating the intended emotion of a scene. The sound effects are all gnarly, and the opening song resembles that of an anime and had me giddy with excitement - I still hear it.
DO I HAVE AMNESIA? - Accessibility
To borrow a tired comparison, Death End Re;Quest is a literary onion with many layers. As has been well documented, I have a horrible memory. So, it helps that while playing, characters recap past events. They’ll go over what has transpired but do so in a natural and never drawn-out way. It consistently gets the old brain to kickstart and remember. When it comes to learning abilities, however, accommodation tumbles off a cliff. A list of combinations I’ve tried would have gone a long way. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I redid the exact action inputs like some insane man. Sure, it bolsters the in-game time that I devoted to playing but did so the most artificial way possible - padding it out. That’s why I mention tedium above because I consciously knew I repeated inputs but couldn’t pinpoint which ones.
AND THE DIGITAL VERDICT IS…
Death End Re;Quest may be imperfect, but it still delivers a thrilling journey. It’s a riveting tale set in the digital plane of gaming that spoke to my inner nerd. It’s thanks to small details like harnessing telepathy as a substitute for direct messaging that made it easy to immerse myself. The resolution, however, could do with a facelift. As is, it’s muddy and has dreary environments everywhere. The girl’s portraits are another story, though, oozing vibrancy. The voice acting may sometimes lack proper emotional reaction, but they nailed agony. From the blood-curdling screams to their pained speech, it’s deliciously awesome. Gameplay mechanics could use touch-ups and quality-of-life features, however, like an ability recipe guide, for instance. Be warned that the story delves into heavy subject matter like abuse and bullying. Despite the blemishes I talked about, I was still enamoured.
With the sequel slated to come to Nintendo Switch in February, I’m super excited. That said, I recommend Death End Re;Quest, scoring it a 7.
Massive thank you to Idea Factory for the code used to provide this coverage.