“A person is very strong when he seeks to protect something.”
-Akihiko Kayaba, Sword Art Online
“The following is a contributor post by the Middle-aged Horror Mage.”
JRPGs are a dime a dozen nowadays, but plenty of developers are keen on trying new things to both spice up the genre and to stand out from the crowd. Stagnation is still a very real issue, though. Some JRPGs release with bog-standard turn-based combat, a passable cliche-filled narrative with a roster of equally forgettable characters, and seemingly use nostalgia as their only selling point.
The developer *slash* publisher combo of Idea Factory and Compile Heart seem to churn out new JRPGs every couple of months, including the popular Neptunia series and its many, many spinoffs. For a developer to release these games at such a high frequency, one has to imagine a lot of corners being cut or, at the very least, poor translation and minimal effort put into any sort of variety.
Their games may not be for everyone, even seasoned JRPG fans, but I’ve definitely enjoyed my fair share of their catalog. I’ve come to admire their art direction, which consistently features detailed character portraits, hand-drawn backdrops, and really hone in on the anime-inspired fantasy settings they’ve become known for. I consider myself a fan of the Neptunia series and recently enjoyed Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force for this very reason. Their localization team is fantastic, breathing life into whatever silly (sometimes fanservicey) humor the script calls for. And, to Idea Factory’s credit, their games aren’t shy when it comes to trying new things — for better and for worse.
Death End Re;Quest is really no different. It distinguishes itself by blending the common JRPG formula with a visual novel. It’s like playing two games in one, though both stories tie into one another entirely. On one side you play as a group of girls who find themselves stuck inside of a VRMMORPG, exploring fantasy environments and battling baddies. On the other, you play as a game programmer in the real world who is trying his best to save his friend trapped inside the MMO. The JRPG segments often hit roadblocks that require the player to revisit the “real world” and investigate things via visual novel-style text walls and decision making. It’s very, very cool.
Like the examples I gave earlier, Death End Re;Quest contains plenty of wonderfully drawn character portraits and backdrops, as well as a pretty rad soundtrack that we’ll get into later.
It doesn’t exactly knock it out of the park in every category, though. The JRPG environments are super bland and uninspired, sometimes the music abruptly cuts off during dialogue scenes, and I found the visual novel’s “real world” story to be far more interesting than the JRPG’s for a good majority of the game.
This is still a really cool game that I have no problem recommending to JRPG fans, though mostly those familiar with the quality of game Idea Factory puts out. You’ll be putting in work unlocking various endings in New Game+, dealing with the occasional sexually-themed joke, and will likely find that it’s not up to the quality standards of something like a Persona or a Fire Emblem.
With JRPGs being, as I said, a dime a dozen, Death End Re;Quest does plenty to distinguish itself, and I found it mostly enjoyable throughout.
Let’s dig a little deeper with our signature 8-bit Review, yeah?
Narrative – 8/10
This category is definitely Death End Re;Quest’s strongest showing. The game itself is an “isekai” tale of two stories, with one taking place inside of a virtual reality MMO and another in the real world.
Everything centers around an ambitious VRMMO called World’s Odyssey that was said to be at the forefront of video game innovation. However, the game never came to fruition when its director, Shina Ninomiya, mysteriously disappeared. The MMO’s development studio, Enigma, began working on other projects until a year later when one of its developers, Arata Mizunashi, notices World’s Odyssey’s server is somehow back online — and Shina is the only player logged in.
Death End Re;Quest clearly has commonalities with the wildly popular Sword Art Online, where players wore VR headsets that connected to their brain signals in order to fully immerse them in the experience. You aren’t just controlling a character; you ARE the character. And when you die in the game, you die in real life. While wearing the VR headset, the player is fully comatose and can only awaken when they manually log out or trigger “ending engage” by defeating the final boss. Should someone in the real world attempt to remove the player’s headset, a failsafe would trigger, frying the player’s brain in the process.
So you have Shina playing a fantasy version of herself inside of World’s Odyssey and Arata on the outside doing everything in his power to ensure she reaches the final boss and triggers the ending engage. But why did the game’s server suddenly reboot? And why is Shina the only player inside?
Conspiracies abound as you play as Arata and uncover everything from cults, ritualistic murders, and doppelgangers to corrupt organizations and world-changing events. His sections play out as a visual novel with very few decisions to be made by the player along the way. Most decisions simply offer two choices, with one being “correct” and the other ending in a game over screen. The writing during the visual novel segments is absolutely superb, though!
If you’re into horror and the occult, you’re going to find a lot to love while playing as Arata out in the real world. There’s quite a bit of intrigue, whodunnit mysteries and graphically detailed walls of text covering all sorts of murder and mayhem. I was on the figurative edge of my seat reading paragraph after paragraph, always looking forward to what would happen next because the pacing never let off the gas. It really is one bonkers scenario for Arata after another, with plenty of character growth in between for his fellow real-world castmates, and I always eagerly anticipated the next “real life” scenario.
The same can’t be said about the JRPG segments while controlling Shina — at least, not until the final few chapters of the game.
The world inside of World’s Odyssey has been corrupted by bugs, which is causing the usual MMO fodder to transform into far more menacing monsters. Nothing inside of the game is safe, though. Once friendly NPCs are mutating into hostile deformities, the ground is cracking open to reveal rifts that transport players to random coordinates on the map, and even the player characters are showing signs of corruption. Shina herself logs in with spider legs protruding from her thighs, while other helpful characters have grown scorpion tails and float around on living thrones.
Shina meets a host of female characters along her journey, all of which seem to react as an NPC would — they’re programmed by the developer to act certain ways, have preset personalities, etc. — but their appearances don’t match what Shina and Arata created years ago while World’s Odyssey was still in active development. The game hints at these characters possibly being controlled by other people like Shina; those who’ve been reported missing out in the real world.
This is the lion’s share of the story, really. Shina and her merry band of personality-filled heroines march toward the final boss to trigger the ending while data corruption and coding errors prevent them from doing so. You’ll switch between Shina’s JRPG segments to Arata’s visual novel “real world” setting in order to investigate further, fix the game’s coding, and allow Shina to progress further.
The visual novel as a whole is strong, but the JRPG is only interesting when it’s dealing with Shina’s disappearance and the true nature of the other girls. Otherwise, the JRPG is a super generic case of “the power of friendship” that we’ve all played hundreds of times by now. It’s a bit jarring when the character development within the visual novel is so well done, while those in the JRPG are bland character tropes. I mean, I get that it’s supposed to be that way — it’s supposed to mimic an MMO, after all — but that doesn’t make it any more fun to experience.
That being said, the story alone is worth checking out if you’re into horror, thrillers, and visual novels in general. It’s absolutely enjoyable from start to finish. The JRPG sections, however, are mostly good. Just expect some dull moments between all the fun stuff!
Gameplay – 7/10
The gameplay only really matters during the JRPG scenarios since the visual novel is expectedly just a lot of reading. As I mentioned earlier, the only interaction you’ll experience during the real-world visual novel is making dialogue choices that either end in progression or a “bad ending” game over screen.
The JRPG, though, has quite a few systems in play that keep it from feeling too familiar.
Combat presents the bulk of the gameplay, which (like the game itself) blends two mechanics together: turn-based combat and pool. Yes, pool. When Shina or any of the other girls attack an enemy, some abilities can cause a knockback effect that’ll send them flying into other enemies or right into the business end of a party member’s weapon of choice for extra damage. Enemy weight is taken into account as well, so smaller dudes get launched across the screen while heftier ones barely move an inch.
With corruption being a major factor in World’s Odyssey, the floor of the combat arena is often littered with glowing tiles called “bugs.” You can position your character anywhere on the battlefield during their turn and stepping on these bugs can cause a variety of problems, from paralysis and poison to physical damage, while also refilling your SP meter that’s used to perform special attacks.
Each of the playable characters is corrupted in some way, but manage to hold it together through the story segments. In combat, however, their corruption gauge fills up whenever they take damage or step on a bugged tile. Should their corruption reach 80% they’ll enter Glitch Mode (a.k.a. “scantily clad mode”) and have access to a new special attack that deals a ludicrous amount of damage and resets their corruption to zero. If they reach 100%, they essentially die and cannot be used for the rest of the battle.
I found the game to be fairly easy and rarely took enough damage to reach Glitch Mode on a regular basis, but thankfully you can gain corruption percentages by stepping on the aforementioned bugged tiles. You always want to be using your strongest attacks during boss fights because some of them can destroy you in a single turn. The A.I. is all over the place, though. Some enemies waste their turns healing themselves while at full health, and often miss their debilitating attacks if their level is anywhere under your party members. It’s not uncommon to see larger enemies struggling to path along the terrain without getting stuck on walls or corners.
Aside from the ping-pong-meets-turn-based combat, Death End Re;Quest also mixes things up by allowing Arata to change the game’s genre mid-battle by installing cores. What was once a turn-based RPG is now an on-rails shooter, a slot machine, a billiards table, or a fighting game. It’s not executed perfectly, but I’ll be damned if I can’t count the number of RPGs putting this type of spin on their combat system on one hand.
And that’s not all.
Arata can hack the game to buff your party members or erase bugged tiles during combat, and should the right criteria be met he can even summon any gigantic boss creature you’ve defeated along the way. These summons deal a hefty amount of damage while also buffing the party during their appearance, and they can also be leveled up by feeding them random items you collect at shiny gathering spots while exploring dungeons.
Unlike traditional JRPGs that unlock abilities by leveling up or equipping new pieces of armor, Death End continues to defy the norm by hiding them behind a string of attacks. For instance, during any character’s turn, they can choose three commands to string together (a standard attack, defending, using an item, or using a specific special attack). Executing specific strings of attacks then has a chance to unlock brand new abilities to add to that character’s arsenal.
Every new ability has a very specific thread of attacks that need to be performed, so you can essentially follow a guide and unlock everything from the start, but the high-end ones will likely require more SP (think mana) than you currently have at lower levels. It was always a neat feeling accidentally unlocking new stuff to use, but eventually, I wanted to see everything combat had to offer and ended up using a guide.
While combat is pretty awesome, though not perfectly executed, the same can’t be said about exploring the game’s many uninspired dungeons. Each of these is visually uninspired, with bland themes and barren rooms that exist simply to house enemy encounters. Dead ends are typically met with treasure chests or some sort of gathering point for random materials, but rarely did I tell myself I was having a great time exploring them. They were just there — nothing more, nothing less.
What appears to be a central theme here in Death End Re;Quest is Idea Factory and Compile Heart’s desire to try something new within a familiar genre. DERQ is not just a visual novel, it’s a JRPG. It may follow a given formula, but it adds heaping scoops of its own secret sauce to really set itself apart from the rest of the pack.
Visuals – 6/10
With a majority of Death End falling into the visual novel category, expect a lot of fantastically drawn character models discussing story beats within static dialogue screens. Within them, Idea Factory continues to impress me with the quality of their character illustrations and hand-drawn backdrops, by way of Japanese artist Kei Nanameda (Mary Skelter: Nightmares, Mugen Souls Z, Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force, and Trillion: God of Destruction).
As to be expected, primary stars like Arata, Shina, and the playable party members are given more attention than the rest, but even the in-game vendor and occult-fanatic-slash-barista have so much character within their designs that everyone ends up feeling distinguished.
I know I’ve said this a few times now, but the visual novel segments are far and away the best part of Death End. While exploring World’s Odyssey with Shina, every environment is incredibly bland. All of them. They all follow typical MMO/RPG themes, like volcanic zones, forests, and caves, and none of them end up being very memorable. The playable character and enemy models are good, though. It’s just a shame the dungeon design feels wholly out of place.
Clearly, the ping-pong combat that lets you summon boss monsters and hack the battlefield is the star. I just wish the same effort went into creating better environments to explore. World’s Odyssey is supposed to be a groundbreaking effort from developers at the forefront of their profession, but the explorable world doesn’t reflect that at all.
Audio – 7/10
Death End has plenty of solid musical tracks, from metal-as-hell riffs to almost NieR-esque vocal melodies.
Some noteworthy tracks to check out include this Persona-ish “Event Theme”…
…this aforementioned NieR-style vocal track, whose title I don’t know…
…and its rockin’ battle theme.
The quality of the music aside, I did experience an issue where the music would abruptly stop during a conversation so that it could load up the next track whenever the mood shifted. It’s not as if the music transitioned, it was more like someone behind the curtain hitting fast-forward and it was always jarring to hear.
In terms of voice-overs, the entirety of Death End is dubbed in English if you’d like it to be. I played through the game with English voices and thought the overall quality was quite good. Some characters, such as the child-like Al, along with each playable character’s bug companions have ear-grating voices, but that’s kind of the point with them. There’s even dialogue between the party where they discuss how annoying and off-putting the bug voices are.
For the most part, Death End has a solid soundtrack with a few noteworthy bangers and a solid English voice cast to boot. The music can feel a little samey at times, but it’s never, ever bad.
Accessibility – 8/10
As the score implies, Death End is definitely what I’d consider an accessible JRPG. Like I mentioned above, it’s mostly a visual novel anyway, so the lion’s share of the game is simply reading a bunch of (well-written) text and making the right dialogue choice (which can even be cheesed by pressing in the right analog stick, displaying a skull icon next to the “bad” ones).
There are a handful of difficulty options to choose from, with “very easy” being aptly named. You gain tons of XP and gold in this mode, leading to your entire party being severely over-leveled so long as you pay attention to optional side-quests. For $0.99 USD, you can even buy an accessory on the PSN store that’ll double your XP gained if you want to dramatically speed things up.
Regardless of difficulty, there are a few tricky boss fights that require a little bit of strategy, but nothing more than buffing attacks, raising your party’s defense, and healing as needed.
The standard difficulty provides a decent challenge, though, but you can still drastically out-level the enemies pretty quickly once you’ve opened up an optional dungeon called Pain World that you can repeat as much as you’d like. This is a great way to obtain some of the better gear and items, also making progression easier. This is all standard JRPG stuff, though.
Basically, Death End isn’t the toughest JRPG around and if you’re more interested in the story (i.e. the best part of the game), you can pretty much steamroll it on the easiest difficulty setting.
Replayability – 8/10
Let me start off here by saying that I’ve scored Death End high on replayability because you do need to play through the game multiple times to unlock all of the endings, along with what the game refers to as the “true ending.” This isn’t very fun, mind you, but it can be cheesed in New Game+ by saving before the final encounter and choosing which ending you’d like to unlock before the final boss battle. Your first ending is seemingly random (focusing on one of the game’s important characters) but, according to the internet, you can use the strategy above to shorten the experience.
Death End is quite a lot of fun, but most of that fun (for me) lies in uncovering the story. You can jump into New Game+ and skip all of the dialogue for the 8-or-so unlockable endings, but at that point, I’d probably just recommend looking them up on YouTube unless you’re into Trophies.
So yeah, while the replay value is quite high, it isn’t too enjoyable.
Uniqueness – 9/10
Clearly, Death End Re;Quest has a lot going on. It’s not your typical JRPG because it spends most of its time being a very, very good visual novel. And even when it *is* a JRPG, it’s allowing you to change the genre and summon defeated bosses in combat, as well as introducing a really cool knockback mechanic that never overstayed its welcome.
This is definitely one of the most unique JRPGs I’ve ever played, and even if everything doesn’t work as tight as I’d like, it goes without saying that Idea Factory and Compile Heart did an admirable job with this one.
My Personal Grade – 7/10
Overall, I had a mostly great time with Death End. I tend to enjoy Idea Factory games anyway and I can confidently say this is their best work yet. It does enough interesting stuff that offsets the shortcomings and it’s 30-hour runtime ensures that nothing really stumbles for too long.
If you’re a fan of visual novels and JRPGs in equal measure, this is definitely one to add to your backlog. It’s not perfect, the JRPG segments are a bit lacking until the late-game stuff, but the visual novel bits are super good — the occult, ghosts, doppelgangers, secret societies, and ritualistic murder? Yes, please!
There are some things here that may turn folks away, though. Idea Factory games aren’t shy about shoving scantily clad ladies in your face, complete with overflowing cleavage and boob jokes, and while it may be a running gag here and there it’s not something that appears during the more serious visual novel segments.
Those looking primarily for a new JRPG to play, but aren’t too keen on reading text for 30+ minutes at a time should probably look elsewhere too, as I’d estimate Death End is 60% a visual novel and only 40% a JRPG.
That being said, while I did have a great time with this one, I do wish the same attention went into designing the environments as it did the writing. I can’t stress enough how dull each of the dungeons looks and how fun to explore they aren’t.
Aggregated Score: 7.5
Trash is the Middle-aged Horror Mage and a self-proclaimed JRPG and horror game junkie. He’s oddly excited by the fact that he can be brutally murdered in Puppet Combo’s ’80s-inspired slasher game Christmas Massacre as an NPC and urges you to support indie horror. Follow him on Twitter @Trashlevania for exploding head memes, cute goat pics, and Japanese wrestling nonsense!
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Categories: Game Review