Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), PC

Compile Heart and Idea Factory are well known for making moe games. If you don’t know what that is, you’ve lived a more wholesome life than me. Moe games are essentially excuses to watch cute anime girls get undressed and blush for you. Sure, there’s a thin veneer of an excuse in a paper thin RPG plot, but these games are really played for the same reason anime fans watch “slice of life” shows or invest in hundred dollar “action figures.” It’s all about cute girls doing things.

So when this developer duo announced their latest game, Death end re;Quest, I was ready to write it off as another pastel colored heap of fanservice. However, the very first trailer revealed a gimmick that made me want to check it out, the ability to change the game’s very genre. I’m glad I did because Death end re;Quest is so much more than an exploitative moe game. I mean, it’s still that, but it’s also a fantastic experimental dive into unexpected and rewarding genre breaking gameplay.

An interactive visual novel

DERQ puts you in control of two main characters, Shina Ninomiya and Arata Mizunashi, both developers of a recently failed VR-MMO called World’s Odyssey. Shina has somehow been sucked into the world of the game and cannot log out, having gone missing for over a year. Arata is on the outside looking in, researching Shina’s disappearance as well as a number of other strange occurrences linked to their game through hacking and feet on the street detective world.

And before you write this off as just another wish-fulfillment isekai (trapped in another world) plot, DERQ actually subverts the genre by making Shina’s experiences while trapped in a videogame truly horrifying.

Yes, many isekai plots do the same, but they never back it up. The game world is always so much better and cooler than the real world.

But World’s Odyssey is truly a nightmare. First of all, the programming of the game is constantly trying to rewrite Shina’s memories, attempting to turn her into another blank slate RPG stereotype. Second, the game is broken. It was supposedly shut down but whatever phantom skeleton of the game that’s left is overrun with bugs and glitches. The most banal of these bugs manifests as corrupted enemies that you have to take out in battle, but more serious bugs break the environments you are in, screw with your brain, and tear you limb from limb in graphic and psychologically disturbing scenes.

This isn’t Sword Art Online.

The plot is told in many different styles, from in-game cut scenes to e-mails and documents found by Arata. However, most of the time it progresses in familiar visual novel style, with text being displayed over slightly moving still images of whatever character is speaking.

Be prepared to do a lot of reading, because DERQ loves its plot. Some text-based interludes go on for almost a half hour without any gameplay in between. It’s clear that it’s taking a lot of cues from the visual novel genre, and you have to be at least somewhat used to this genre to be able to get through the walls of text. However, I personally found even the densest bit of plot exposition to be rewarding.

Do you want to play a game?

The gameplay of DERQ is broken up into two major genres. Shina’s half of the story takes place entirely in World’s Odyssey, which plays fairly similar to your standard RPG. You’ll explore areas, collect items, talk to NPCs, roam dungeons, so on and so forth.

The battle system is by far the most unique thing about the RPG experience. Every turn you can move around the battlefield freely and then use a string of up to three actions. Some of your attacks can knock the opponent back into field hazards, the edge of the battlefield, or even other party members. Successfully doing so will deal extra damage and optimizing these billiard like ricochet mechanics is really fun.

Mixing and matching your battle actions is also fun. For the most part, you will just be using your attacks. However, finding special combinations of attacks will unlock new actions to take, and you actually learn these actions permanently. And when I say permanently I mean PERMANENTLY. Even if you were to die and reset all the way to the beginning of the game you’ll STILL have these actions.

Why? Well to figure that out we have to look at the other side of the gameplay which once again takes cues from visual novels.

When you aren’t wandering through the RPG world as Shina, you will wander the real world as Arata. This plays a lot like a mystery themed visual novel, something similar to Phoenix Wright or Danganronpa. You’ll visit different real world locales, investigate them for clues, interrogate persons of interest, and eventually figure out the information you need to allow Shina to progress a little bit farther in the game world.

Getting meta

This is part of why DERQ’s text sections are so long. They too are part of the “game.” You’ll get info in these sections that helps you solve puzzles and unravel mysteries, so pay close attention. In fact, DERQ borrows so much from visual novels it even lets you view a timeline of all the important scenes in the game, and lets you replay them whenever you want.

However, on your first playthrough you might notice that huge sections of the timeline are missing. Two scenes will appear to play back to back yet somehow show up several sections apart on the timeline? Why is this? The same reason why you gain your skills permanently. DERQ likes to get meta with both its story and mechanics.

You see, you’ll often be asked to make decisions in the visual novel sections of the game and these will spiral your story off into vastly different branches. In fact, some choices will just kill you outright. That’s it. Game over. Do not pass GO. Do not collect 200 dollars.

If you think this might be frustrating, it is, but DERQ does a lot to mitigate that frustration. For one, you can save at any time during any text section. Two, while dying makes you lose your XP and levels you keep your items and skills that you have learned. Three, you can instantly skip any text you have already seen before.

But the main thing that makes dying less frustrating is that dying isn’t really a Game Over in the traditional sense. In fact, you have to die in order to see more of the plot. You’ll go back to a save point and find that the story progresses differently now, showing you new scenes and filling in parts of the timeline that you haven’t seen before. This makes DERQ highly replayable and even after you have finished the game you are going to want to experience it all again to flesh out the timeline and see the true ending.

What’s your favorite type of video game

It’s not just the dialogue branches that kill you in DERQ. Some enemies have unavoidable instant kill attacks as well. How on earth are you supposed to get past them.

This is where you can call in Arata for a small assist. When Arata isn’t sleuthing around the real world, he is providing you with support from his computer terminal by hacking the game. Every battlefield will be slightly corrupted when you first enter it, with bugs strewn across the floor. Running into these bugs usually causes damage or some sort of minor status effect (though some will actually heal you). You can either run across them yourself to clear them, or knock enemies into them to do extra damage, but the point is, the fewer bugs on the screen, the more access Arata has to hacking your battle.

At first, Arata can just provide you cheat-code esque buffs. He can prevent you from taking damage, greatly increase your damage output, or even insta-kill some minor enemies. However, if you clear enough bugs, Arata can invasively hack the game and change its very genre!

So if you are constantly going up against enemies with insta kill attacks, just change the genre so that it can’t hit you. Turn the game into an FPS and strafe around it while peppering it with bullets. Change it into a fighting game and unload on it with combos. Granted, all these genres shifts aren’t nearly as deep as full fledges examples of the games they are based on, but they don’t have to be. The very fact that DERQ even has this system in place is frankly a design triumph.

Some things to bring up to QA

But just because a game is innovative doesn’t necessarily make it good. There are a lot of flaws with DERQ that get in the way of your enjoyment of an otherwise quite incredible game.

First of all, the game suffers from tonal whiplash. At times everyone is going around doing a cute girl thing but then one wrong choice catapults you into a death scene described with such gruesome imagery it comes off as torture porn. Seriously, these scenes describe organs and viscera flying everywhere, exposing bone and… ugh it’s just not great to think about, especially considering all the moe girls in this game are drawn like they are 12 years old.

(Honestly she’s the oldest looking one I could find. I felt too embarrassed to post pictures of the other characters in glitch mode.)

Speaking of 12-year old moe girls, there are points of the story that delve into a sexually exploitative area that makes me very uncomfortable. For example, every character has a “glitch mode” that makes them essentially turn evil and while the dialogue and voice acting is incredible, it also causes them to strip nearly naked. Again, I understand that these characters are all either technically adults in the game industry or just A.I. constructs in a game world, but they are still drawn like very young kids and that just doesn’t feel okay. I know that there is a lot of harem anime out there that uses this art-style right now, but I don’t like it and I don’t like this.

As much as I was engaged with the story, I will admit that DERQ’s sense of pacing is all off. The beginning is very slow, causing you to sit through hours of cutscenes before even getting to a single battle. Heck, you are three hours in before you even get to your first dungeon. From there on it loves to interrupt engaging battles and interesting dungeons with huge story dumps which would have been fine to sift through if I was allowed to just finish the dungeon first.

While the general audio visual design of the game is pretty good, the sound effect design in general can use some work. In particular, many of the sound bites get too repetitive. Every couple seconds Shina gasps for air while running in a dungeon. It’s always the exact same “gasp for air” sound bite and it gets very, very annoying only a few hours in. The same goes for the sound bites that are played when you find a treasure in a dungeon or use a map action. Everything is super repetitive and dry. At least the battle sounds and soundtrack are varied enough that they give you a little relief.

My final score for World’s Odyssey is…

For all its flaws and questionable content, Death end re;Quest was an incredibly compelling game. Yes, I had to look past some of the more unfortunate anime tropes and shallow design, but the very idea of a genre bending, subversive, visual novel/mystery/RPG with meta replay elements was so intriguing to me I had to see this one through to the end. It’s just so ambitious and that alone needs to be praised.

Death end re;Quest isn’t for everyone. In fact, it’s going to make a lot of people (especially those who don’t have experience with the sketchier side of anime) to feel very uncomfortable. However, if you can get past the flaws in pacing, the repetitive sound design, and the garbage heap of moe exploitation, then you will find, not one of the best, but definitely one of the most interesting RPG experiences of our current generation.