I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Content Warning: Death End re;Quest 2 deals with themes of child and domestic abuse, please read forward with discretion.
Death End re;Quest 2 is the sequel to last year’s Death End re;Quest. I know, right? That’s the kind of hard-hitting investigation that makes me qualified to be a games journalist. Unfortunately, it’s a somewhat irrelevant fact as far as covering either game. The sequel has little in common with the original, whether it be in its gameplay loop, aesthetic, pacing, most of its story, or even themes. This makes it hard to bring out the usual “If you liked the first one you’ll like this one” that eases the process of reviewing sequels.
Unlike the first game, which seemed clearly influenced by a Japanese metal scene that in the west is best represented by Blood Stained Child and a bunch of Bandcamp/Comiket exclusive bands that I can’t mention in a family publication, this game bears a strongest influence from British boarding school novels and Persona of all things. If I were to keep forcing the musical analogies, it would be best described as Harry Potter by way of Korn and Nine Inch Nails. This is all as bizarre to experience as it is to read, and it is intended to be.
But what is DERQ 2, apart from a collection of really strange mismatched descriptions? Well, it’s a JRPG in the Compile Heart mould, taking Neptunia’s combat system as a base —as do most of their games these days— and adding its own gimmicks, such as the opportunity to play pinball with enemies if you use certain attacks with the knockback property. Or the “field bugs”system, which makes it so certain spaces in the arena give you buffs and debuffs, on top of scaling the meter needed to access character’s powered up states.
The greatest deviation from the usual Compile Heart formula is the game taking on a slightly Persona-esque rhythm. It sees you talking with friends over the course of a day, then going out and hunting monsters in the haunted town by night, with the daily plot slightly guiding progression through the interconnected dungeon-town.
It’s all very unremarkable. It works if you like this sort of thing, and it’s relatively well paced and balanced. The whole experience gets a little bit of spice from the “Berserker,” a ghostly shadow that roams the overworld and will insta-kill you if it gets its hands on you, adding a little bit of danger and tension to even the most low-level areas. Later on he gets a random chance to intrude in any encounter that’s not a boss fight, beginning a turn long wind up before he begins to unleash his insta-kill attacks on large portions of the battlefield, forcing you to position very carefully and fight at different ranges.. It’s a little annoying sometimes, but it helps give an immediacy and peril to turn based combat that is not very often there. Overall, the combat is neat at points and it’s fun if you like turn-based combat, but it’s nothing out of this world.
The story, on the other hand, is what is fascinating about this game, because it really is unlike anything I have ever played; albeit, that is not necessarily a good thing. The opening hour is a grim and dark shock spectacle for its own sake, portraying the protagonist Mai killing her abusive father in self-defence after he starts beating her. She is then relocated to a religious orphanage for teens with troubled pasts, wherein she proceeds to be a misanthrope to all the kids in there, some of whom are just colossal pricks. The whole thing is depressing and, as our very own John here put it, very “school shooter”.
Later, however, Mai makes friends with the hilariously named “Rotten Dollhart” and the game begins to soften. She makes friends with some kids, struggles to get along with others, tries to apologise to the people she was rude to, and the plot takes on a very school-drama vibe for a little bit; fighting evil by moonlight, winning love by daylight, that sort of thing. It’s all quite disconnected from the antics of the opening or the conspiratorial occult hijinks of the previous game. But it is where the misanthropy fades and the game shows displays an earnest attempt to understand what it’s like to be a teen recovering from tragedy, trying to be as sympathetic to Mia’s justifiably high guard as to the people who feel rightfully skeeved out when dealing with her.
Eventually the real plot has to come a-knocking, though, and that’s where the really uncomfortable stuff actually comes through. Chapter V is when DERQ 2 decides to basically give out thesis statements one after another. It essentially declares itself to be a story about how adults often take out their strife on children when they can’t deal with their own problems, and turn to religion for empty comfort in lieu of actually solving anything. Those are the game’s words, not mine. At one point the main character flatly says “You’re oddly trustworthy for an adult”. And if that sounds like extremely heavy stuff… yeah well, it is.
Every unhappy home is unhappy in its own way, so while I do have some experience with some of the things DERQ 2 tries to tackle, I can’t speak for everyone, nor can I assure readers that it won’t treat them in ways that rub other people the wrong way. All I can say is that, while it did dig up some painful memories, I found the writing’s heart to be in the right place, and sympathetic to the plight of both parent and child in these situations. But it crucially understands that something’s gotta give and just because abusers may turn to such behaviour for an understandable reason, it’s not something that can simply be tolerated. However, this is all if you are cool with these kinds of being represented as a bunch of kids beating up on evil monsters representing these societal ills. This is where the Korn or NIN comparison becomes appropriate, being as they are, musical projects often dealing with trauma and abuse by victims of the same, that have helped people with said issues, which can also be found highly objectionable by those who couldn’t see eye to eye with the way they chose to address those topics. Personally, I am of the mind that the purpose of a story tackling these kinds of themes is to make visceral and personal what some people can only understand intellectually, and as such I think any imagery can be coupled with any theme. But if this is not something you subscribe to, you may be better off skipping this one altogether. Go play the first one for a “my VR MMO became real” thriller instead.
The game takes place inside a video game as a very insular plot point. It’s all very arcane and complicated, reality is a video game since the end of DERQ1 or something to that effect. When it deals with its own plot mechanics it buries its head so far up its own butt that it basically becomes a black hole. Most of the time, however, the writing is taken up by the dynamic of the kids at the school, which is sometimes goofy, sometimes sad, sometimes surprisingly gay in a totally non exploitative way —even when Rottie’s unrequited crush on Mai is played for laughs, the presence and constant nonchalant mention of other lesbian couples makes it clear this is a joke at Rottie’s expense and not the idea of a lesbian couple. When it focuses on the characters it’s always charming, and sweet, but most importantly it’s not asking you to understand how learning programming can somehow make you a god capable of controlling reality, or whatever.
Aesthetically the game is quite over the top and ridiculous, just how I like it. With every character sporting long, flowing, colour-coded Harry Potter coats, and every major location being mainly drawn with a single very striking colour as its main motif, be it the haunted city’s blood red, the nearby rural mountain in deep purple, or the lakeside hills in serene green and blue. The grandfathering of DERQ 1’s aesthetic conceits making it so these mostly supernatural phenomena appear in the world via glitches and pixely distortion rather than magical smoke auras is also a very unique take, which makes even the most generic designs look just a little bit fresher. There are unfortunately some minor sections, many less than the first one, inviting you to glare at the girls. And while it is not the focus of the game, and in fact they seem to have been added entirely as a sort of franchise obligation, they can betray the tone of the rest of the piece quite heavily when they do show up.
In the end, DERQ 2 is a game that I’m not sure I like all that much; it is more unique than it is good. Given its sensitive subject matter, it’s really hard to recommend it in my usually somewhat flippant “just check it out for yourself” manner. In general, it’s hard to recommend in any absolute terms, as it is a strange title with oddly high thematic interests for its developer, that is nonetheless troubled and pushing on the boundaries of comfort. However, if you have a steely disposition, a like for JRPGs, and around 40 hours to burn, it is a very unique blend of influences and ideas that you will not see anywhere else.