A lot of the games that come out of Compile Heart and Idea Factory can best be described as JRPG comfort food. From the campy adventures of Hyperdimension Neptunia to the trope-filled fantasy of Fairy Fencer F or Dragon Star Varnir, Compile Heart know how to deliver enjoyable, if unsurprising, video game experiences.
They aren’t afraid to shake things up though, and that much was made clear with the 2018 release of Death end re;Quest. A morbid, gruesome RPG that told the twin stories of a corrupted MMO game world and a crumbling real-life game-studio in the midst of scandal and subterfuge. Rather than follow up on the setting and story of that game for a sequel, Compile Heart and Idea Factory once again crafted an entirely original and unexpected story for Death end re;Quest 2 that essentially results in a full-on horror RPG.
For as much bloodshed and mutilation as there was in the first Death end re;Quest, it wasn’t exactly a scary game. It also wasn’t an entirely shocking venue for a video game story, because as refreshing and intriguing as the characters and plot developments were, it was still a game about yet another amnesiac protagonist sucked into yet another virtual MMO reality. The sequel immediately establishes the most unique setting I’ve ever experienced in a JRPG. You play as Mai Toyama, a girl who is left orphaned after her abusive father dies by her own hand. A social worker helps her move into Wordsworth Women’s Dormitory in the quiet town of Le Choara, but Mai doesn’t want to go there for a second chance at a peaceful life – she’s in pursuit of her younger sister, Sanae, who abruptly stopped texting her and went missing just over a year ago.
Elements of the world and setting of Death end re;Quest 2 mirror plenty of other iconic Japanese horror games, from indie gems like Umineko to iconic adventures like Resident Evil 4. None of these games are dungeon-crawling, party-managing RPGs though, and seeing this sort of grim, unsavoury story serve as the backdrop for a game like this is incredibly refreshing.
There are layers of mystery to unfold and question surrounding the town of Le Choara, the practices of Wordsworth, and the mysterious religion of El Strain that ties it all together. What makes this mystery even more exciting is how disconnected, yet seemingly still influenced by the first game it all is. Despite being a brand new setting with a brand new protagonist, you’re still finding glitchy visual oddities around town when you explore, and the protagonist of the first game, Shina Ninomiya, is working as a new maid at Wordsworth. It isn’t clear at all how all of these elements fit together during the beginning of the game, but as layers start to unfold and plot elements reveal themselves, it comes together magnificently.
You’ll unravel these mysterious through daytime conversations and night-time exploration. During the day, you navigate a menu that lets you pick from some of the 20 different students at Wordsworth to strike up a conversation with. Once those events are done with and you end the day, a big story scene ends up causing you to sneak out of the dorm and head into the 3D and fully explorable town of Le Choara.
Each of your characters has a special ability they can use to help in navigating these dungeons, from Rottie being able to float over barriers or onto floating platforms, to Mai’s ability to hack nearby computers in order to control security cameras and reveal hidden paths. Awkwardly, the mini-map in the top left of your screen already shows you these “hidden” pathways, making the PCs pretty useless.
Rather than diving into a handful of different dungeons throughout the game, Le Choara acts as one large, interconnected hub of explorable environments full of treasures, plot beats, and gruesome enemies. For as gorgeous as the portrait illustrations and menu designs of the game are, the 3D modeling in Death end re;Quest 2 is relatively basic. Still, the lack of technical quality is made up for with the unique design work that goes into the decrepit and corrupted environments, as well as the genuinely disturbing and twisted enemy designs.
Death end re;Quest 2 doesn’t rely on pure shock value and over-the-top gore like the previous game did, but instead delivers a constant stream of disturbing, tense, and atmospheric imagery and story beats that are a far cry from what the studio usually delivers.
Of course, you’ll need to get over the dramatic story and tense atmosphere and start battling some baddies. For me this is where some of the most enjoyment in the original game came from. Combat encounters in Death end re;Quest are similar to the Neptunia series in which your characters can freely move around an enclosed battlefield and line up their attacks to get as many enemies within the area of effect as possible. Death end re;Quest put a spin on that by having your enemies get knocked back by your attacks, pin-balling into each other and the borders of the arena for extra damage. Death end re;Quest 2 amplifies this with Super Knockbacks, which let you time a button press to send foes flying even further.
The standard ebb and flow of RPG combat combines with the knockback system beautifully, but I was thrown for a loop by the insane difficulty swings of the game. In the first few chapters, enemies are child’s play and can often be wiped out in a single turn. At a certain point the tables turn. Now boss battles become teeth-clenching encounters where your foe can eliminate party members in a single hit, and later on every enemy in the game is able to do this. I appreciate the option to engage in punishingly difficult gameplay like that, but when the game flip-flops from easy-peasy to lemons getting squeezied into a paper cut, regardless of your difficulty setting, it’s mostly a pain.
There was a similarly cruel punishment in the original game, with dialogue options and certain gameplay moments that could lead to you and your party dying excruciating deaths before a Game Over popped up, forcing you to reload your last save and potentially lose oodles of progress. Death end re;Quest 2 rectifies this, so that the frequent Game Over screens that you encounter will give you the option to reload right at the choice or event that triggered said ending. There’s even an Episode Chart that rewards you for exploring these branching story paths and Game Over events with money and unique items, although the fact that you aren’t able to dive into previous episodes to unlock these items and can only be rewarded for what you’ve already done is a bit of a bummer.