Help, it’s a killer video game! If you die while playing you die in real life! That concept’s been around pretty much as long as video games have and it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. Franchises like .hack and Sword Art Online represent a contemporary take on this idea, focusing on killer MMORPGs in particular. With Death End re;Quest, both Idea Factory and Compile Heart – famous for what feels like the endless Hyperdimension Neptunia games – toss their hats into the killer-MMO ring. They actually do a pretty good job of it, as it turns out.
Arata Mizunashi is a developer working for indie game company Enigma whose life gets flipped, turned upside-down. At one point he worked on the virtual reality MMORPG World’s Odyssey with his friend Shina, but after the game was cancelled and Shina disappeared, his attention turned elsewhere. Arata never stopped looking for Shina, though, and eventually he finds a trace of her in a mysteriously active server for World’s Odyssey. The game was never finished, after all. It shouldn’t be running. It certainly shouldn’t have people playing. And the people playing certainly shouldn’t be in any danger of dying horrific deaths due to ingame events…
Death End re;Quest’s gameplay is split between Arata’s side of the game, consisting of visual novel-esque plot segments that take place in the real world, and Shina’s side, which include the RPG adventures of World’s Odyssey. The two need to work together to figure out how to get Shina out of the game, find her missing body and ensure that she doesn’t bite the dust ingame and immediately follow suit in reality. They’re joined by a cast of characters that include the rest of Enigma’s development staff in the real world and some suspiciously realistic NPCs in the MMO.
The real-world segments are all pretty straightforward. You’re told what to do and where to go and spend most of your time reading as a result. Death End is very, very fond of its text boxes, so you can expect plenty of words throughout; there is, mercifully, an option to auto-scroll the text as you listen to the game’s voice acting instead. This wordiness extends to cutscenes throughout the experience, which might end up being a little divisive. Further, you’re periodically offered decisions to make, but these typically amount to “continue the plot or reload from a save.” It’s somewhat reminiscent of a choose-your-own-adventure book, but at least you can save during most dialogue scenes.
As for the MMO segments, they’re where you’ll find the heart of the gameplay. Exploration and adventure are pretty much akin to how they work in the Neptunia series, so you’re looking for goodies and attacking enemies on the map to gain an advantage. Despite ostensibly being something similar to World of Warcraft, World’s Odyssey actually runs on a turn-based combat engine. Characters are able to move about the battlefield freely on their turns, as well as performing up to three actions between attacking, skill usage, item usage and defense. Mixing up your actions will result in learning new skills for later use, so there’s some value in experimenting with different strategies. Key to World’s Odyssey’s combat is the use of knockback to send enemies barreling into each other and the walls of the arena, maximizing the amount of damage you deal.
This is all fairly straightforward, but Death End Re;Quest is at its best when it’s messing with these established systems. World’s Odyssey is a game in distress, to say the least, and it shows both in combat and in gameplay. You can use the various glitches that are infesting the game to your advantage in numerous ways. You’ve got “Field Bugs” that show up in combat and do different things when stepped on, acting as a sort of bittersweet land mine. Clearing out enough Field Bugs will enable Arata to intervene in combat with a variety of effects. These range from straightforward stat modifications to summoning previously defeated bosses and even changing the genre of the game – the latter isn’t nearly as exciting as it sounds, amounting to a pricey super attack.
Really, the idea that Death End re;Quest shines when it’s messing with established ideas also applies to the presentation. World’s Odyssey would be a fairly tame MMO experience if it weren’t going to Hell, but as it stands, the game is very clearly falling apart. Glitches and graphical errors are everywhere, lending the “in-game” segments a very disturbing feel. Idea Factory hopes to capitalize on this with the writing, so this is probably the darkest title they’ve released. That’s a noble goal, but thanks to some bizarre localization issues it doesn’t always succeed – see, for instance, a character yelling “OUCH!” as she’s brutally murdered.
Still, if you’re willing to overlook these issues and have patience to spare, Death End re;Quest has a fair amount to offer. We’ve all seen this plot before, but this time enough is shaken up that the affair remains interesting throughout. From a gameplay perspective, once things get going they really get going, and players who “click” with its unique combat system will have a great time seeking out new skills and experimenting with extended knockback chains. Honestly, it’s wonderful to see Idea Factory/Compile Heart spread their wings and trying something new, even if it still manages to feel somewhat familiar.