It’s always a pleasure when a game comes along out of nowhere and gives you a delightful surprise by being “good” in some way.
Re;Lord 1 ~The witch of Herfort and stuffed animals ~ (just Re;Lord hereafter for the sake of everyone’s sanity), a game developed by Escu:de and recently released in both all-ages and 18+ English versions by Sekai Project and Denpasoft, is the most recent example of this happening to me.
Not only is it an interesting, unusual and enjoyable game from a mechanical perspective, but it’s also pretty fascinating to contemplate from a narrative perspective, too. And it has some lovely art! So let’s take a closer look.
Escu:de is not a developer that I was particularly familiar with prior to encountering Re;Lord, though its history goes all the way back to 1998, making it a veritable veteran of the Japanese PC game development sector.
Its titles over the years have run the gamut from straightforward visual novels and dating sims to titles that combine visual novel elements with more fleshed-out “simulation” mechanics or adaptations of tabletop games such as mahjong. In some cases, the company has even made spin-off fandiscs for other company’s visual novels that feature more in-depth gameplay than their source material — 2008’s Konboku Mahjong ~Konna Mahjong ga Attara Boku wa Ron!~, a fandisc for Akabei Soft2’s 2006 release Konna Ko ga Itara, Boku wa Mou…!!, is a good example.
Re;Lord was first released as an adults-only title in Japan in 2014 and expanded into a trilogy of games to tell its complete story over the course of the subsequent three years. The first of these has now been brought West by Sekai Project and its 18+ imprint Denpasoft… and based on the strength of this inaugural episode, I very much hope we see the other two in the near future!
Re;Lord casts you in the role of Wilfried Heisenburg, a young demon who is the sole “survivor” of a coordinated attack by three witches on his homeland of Zaalrant. Well, “survivor” isn’t quite the right word here; his countrymen still live after a fashion, but they’ve all been transfigured into either tiny fairies or stuffed animals, which is of course a huge indignity to the proud demonic race.
Wilfried, having been working on a means of counteracting the witches’ magic with his childhood friend Ria Carossa, manages to escape and plot a counter-invasion of the Herfort district, an area once controlled by his father Darius, but which has since been subjugated by the witch Erika Anders and her attendant Fine Classen. The game tells the story of his attempts to learn how to be a leader, as well as how to harness the power of “magic”, an inherently more powerful source of energy than the “sorcery” demons typically use.
At this point it’s worth noting that Re;Lord’s background lore is well-crafted and detailed. We learn that the setting in which the story unfolds is split into three distinct nations, referred to as “worlds” owing to their vast cultural differences. There’s the demon world, which is currently under the thumb of the witches; the human world, which makes use of things that we take for granted in modern society such as electricity and firearms; and the world of angels, which we don’t actually hear a whole lot about in this initial installment.
As we join Wilfried at the outset of his quest, we also learn that the various “worlds” have come to live in somewhat uneasy peace with one another, even exchanging technological innovations in some instances. The demon world, for example, has adopted things such as television, telephony and the Internet from the human world, though they power their electrical and electronic devices through a material called “magicite” rather than more conventional means.
Wilfried, it transpires, is dissatisfied with the state of the world — primarily down to the fact that, despite the fact the three nations had enjoyed productive trade and diplomacy in recent years, both the human and angel realms had chosen to adopt a neutral stance in the conflict against the witches, leaving the demons to fend for themselves.
“Since it would be out of the question for us proud demons to grovel at the feel of other nations for aid,” Wilfried explains, “that unfortunately implies that we shall be forced to wage our war without any support.”
Wilfried is actually a pretty fascinating character on the whole. Although initially presented as somewhat ridiculous, obsessed with capes to a fault (particularly those with popped collars) and seemingly a little in over his head when it comes to politics, over time it becomes very clear that he is sincere in his beliefs of demon supremacy — one character even describes him as having “right-wing ideals” at one point.
This aspect in particular is what, at the time of writing, makes Re;Lord something of a timely release in English. Real-world political tensions and paranoia over topics such as “white supremacy” and the “alt-right” are at an all-time high across the world (particularly in the United States), and, whether intentional or not, Re;Lord’s narrative and the character of Wilfried in particular serves as a powerful allegory that allows us to explore these themes safely.
Not from the perspective you might expect, however; while many modern creative works with a political spin take great pains to distance themselves from or even condemn topics such as right-wing politics and the idea of racial supremacy, Re;Lord embraces it and manages to tell an interesting story as a result. This isn’t to say it condones it, mind, but neither does it censure it.
By following along with Wilfried, we come to understand how people might find themselves aligned with such political ideologies — in Wilfried’s case, it’s through blind admiration of his (thoroughly unadmirable) father and a fascination with outdated historical texts — as well as the fact that, despite holding viewpoints many of us might find uncomfortable at best, abhorrent at worst, even the most staunch proponent of a particular political ideology is “human” (well, demon in this case) at heart. And these people often draw comfort and support from those around them who seem to support their views.
This aspect of Re;Lord’s narrative is further emphasised by the strong Germanic flavour to much of its aesthetic. The setting of Zaalrant is loosely based on the real-world German state of Saarland, many of the characters have distinctly Germanic names, and if you needed any further evidence of Wilfried’s ultimate designs on being a right-wing dictator of the demon realm, he has a habit of bellowing “Sieg heil Zaalrant!” at any opportunity to demonstrate nationalistic pride. I’m sure you don’t need me to spell out the reasons for this particular aspect of the game’s presentation.
We get numerous early indicators that Wilfried is on track for some sort of tragedy as a result of his ideals, though this is a mystery to be revealed in full throughout the subsequent two episodes. In other words, despite the fact that Wilfried is actually quite a likeable character in many ways — political ideologies aside — it’s clear that he’s being set up to be a tragic hero in the classical sense of the term.
What makes Wilfried truly interesting, though, is that he’s not demonised (no pun intended) or treated as a monster for his viewpoints. In fact, we’re shown a rather balanced depiction of the sort of person he is and the reason he is that way. On numerous occasions he is depicted as having a surprisingly kind streak, too, particularly when it comes to the bumbling, clumsy and perpetually unlucky attendant Fine. In other words, the narrative is saying, even enemies on opposing sides of the political spectrum — or opposite sides of an armed conflict — can find common ground and a means of relating to one another, even if it seems they’ll never agree on the “important” things.
This is actually quite a common approach in Japanese popular media, and always leaves one as an audience member with a nice feeling of being “trusted” by the creator — along with the sense that the creator in question is not trying to push a particular agenda, but rather depict something so the audience can make their own mind up about it. We see it in games like Rance, where the protagonist is utterly remorseless in his behaviour but somehow still likeable and memorable, or The Witch and the Hundred Knight, where the leading heroine is tragically flawed but fascinating to spend time with. We also see it in anime shows such as Welcome to the NHK and Oreimo, where the idea of social isolation through otakudom is explored and presented without criticism or preaching, and titles like Kaiji, which explore issues such as how a feeling of “giving up on life” can lead to addiction to gambling.
Such is the case with Re;Lord; disagree with Wilfried’s politics or way of doing things all you like — and chances are you will — but there’s little denying that he stands true to his beliefs and is able to justify them to anyone who might ask. That’s how you create an interesting character… and you make it even more interesting by leaving it up to the audience as to whether they condone or censure his actions.
Erika and Fine represent an interesting inversion of Wilfried’s situation. While Wilfried is tragically flawed in the sense that he blindly follows his ideals and refuses to accept that his father is not even a fraction of the man he believes him to be, both Erika and Fine also suffer varying degrees of “blindness”.
Fine, for example, is clearly young and innocent and has difficulty treating anyone as a mortal enemy. In the early hours of the story, she is a regular visitor to Wilfried’s base, often bringing them cakes and cookies even after they have already found themselves in direct conflict with one another on numerous occasions. She’s also loyal to Erika to a fault, even as it becomes clear that the witch’s reasons for invading Herfort might not be as straightforward as simply subjugating the demons.
Erika, meanwhile, likes to position herself as a powerful witch, but, like her attendant, has difficulty in doing anything irreversible that might actually hurt someone. We also see on numerous occasions that she’s desperate to find some sort of personal connection with Wilfried, attempting to bond with him over their apparent mutual appreciation for a long, flowing cape, but nearly coming to blows over a disagreement on how one should wear one’s collar.
The sexual aspect of the 18+ version of the game enters the picture here, too. After defeating Fine for the first time, Wilfried rapes her in the mistaken belief that “seducing her” will make it easier to steal her magical energy — a questionable idea that he picked up from his father’s philanderings as well as some rather traumatic lessons he learned as a youngster. Fine, meanwhile, accepts her “punishment” for what Wilfried has, by this point, firmly positioned as her transgressions against demonkind: “only those who are prepared to one day be conquered have the right to conquer others,” he says. As a result, she comes away from the encounter oddly untraumatised by everything that happened — not helped by the fact that Erika, as a virgin, is thoroughly fascinated in what Wilfried did to her, even as she attempts to hide it.
This aspect of the narrative can very much be summed up as “sex is power”. Not only is rape used as a symbolic gesture of Wilfried’s complete dominance over his opponent in each stage of the game, but all things sexual (particularly masochism) are also shown to be the main weakness of Wilfried’s father, who even goes so far as to betray his own son at one point purely so he, still in stuffed animal form, can continue to be kicked around, abused and used as a breast rest by Erika. Indeed, once Wilfried and his friends finally rescue him from captivity, it takes Fine stepping on him to break him out of his sulk — even though Fine has no concept of why he might derive pleasure from this.
So we’ve talked a lot about the story by this point, but what about the “game” side of things? Make no mistake, this is emphatically a visual novel with gameplay mechanics, rather than a “game first, story second” sort of situation, but Re;Lord distinguishes itself from pure VNs with an interesting structure that complements the narrative content well, with each new story episode feeling like a suitable “reward” for clearing a particular bit of game.
There are three main aspects to Re;Lord’s gameplay: a strategic overview map, battles against monsters, and battles against Fine or Erika. In the former instance, we’re not talking particularly in-depth strategy; more than anything, the game resembles a block puzzler, requiring you to build a path using shapes made of between one and five tiles and cover as much of the map as possible before your turn limit runs out.
This aspect of the game starts extremely simple, but once you get into the second and third stages, more strategic elements start to show themselves. Most notable among these is the fact that monsters on the map can “destroy” tiles you’ve captured if they are adjacent to them, so you either need to defeat them quickly or box them in using “rare” (unbreakable) tiles if they are too strong to defeat at your current power levels.
The map gameplay starts simple but as you progress it becomes more interesting, introducing aspects such as hidden clues, character events, optional battles and treasure chests. You can also extend your turn limit by destroying enemy bases, which otherwise continue to spawn monsters every few turns — you can even take advantage of this for some light “grinding” if you want to, though there’s no real need to in order to clear the game.
Encounter a monster, enemy base or checkpoint guarded by monsters and the combat sequences come into play. Rather than being a straightforward turn-based RPG-style battle, these see you squaring off against your foes from a first-person perspective and making use of mouse gestures to cast either fire or wind-based sorcery to defeat them. Wind spells can be cast in a straight line to “slash” but are somewhat weaker; fire spells, meanwhile, are slower to cast but are more powerful and can explode in a grid arrangement. Different enemies have different weaknesses, and as you progress through the game, you unlock three supporting characters with cooldown-based abilities to help you out.
Combat is very much twitch-based rather than strategic. You’ll need to be quick and accurate with your mouse to cast your spells, since you have a time limit to complete the battle, but you also need to keep an eye out for enemy attacks. These are represented by a circular meter on an enemy; when it fills, they’ll unleash an attack or spell. You can block these by holding the right mouse button to deploy a defensive spell, which reduces the damage you take. If you time your block perfectly, you perform a “Just Guard”, which nullifies the damage completely — though this is made more challenging by the fact that the timing is determined by when the animation “hits” you rather than simply when the meter fills, and some animations are slower than others.
It’s a simple idea, but it works extremely well. Given that the game as a whole is quite short, there are relatively few enemy attack patterns to learn, but getting those Just Guards remains consistently satisfying as you progress, particularly once you get to the more challenging optional battles in the second and third stages of the game. Of particular note is the hidden “superboss” in the third stage, who will thoroughly test all your skills but reward you with an additional game mechanic that will prove very useful for subsequent playthroughs on harder difficulty levels.
The battles against Erika and Fine unfold largely like combat against the random monsters, except you’re fighting one big enemy instead of a number of smaller ones. The twist here is that you’re able to shred her clothing using your attacks, gradually exposing her to the elements. You also build up a meter with each attack, and when this reaches maximum you get a brief “Guard Break” period of being able to attack her rapidly without interruption, coupled with her being forced into a somewhat more compromising position than her usual battle stance. This is primarily useful for destroying her clothes, though you do get an experience point bonus if you knock her out while she’s in Guard Break status.
The clothes shredding is primarily for fun in the random battles against Fine and Erika which occur every few turns on the map, but once you reach the end of a stage you’re given a specific objective in this regard to unlock a “Finisher” move that will defeat them immediately. For example, in the first stage of the game, you need to specifically expose Fine’s breasts, which distracts her enough for you to be able to finish her off — though if you wish you can continue attacking the rest of her outfit and only trigger the finisher when you’re ready.
The reason you might want to do this is that in the sex scene following their defeat, your opponent’s outfit will be in the state you left it in at the end of the battle — a nice touch. You also get an experience bonus if you manage to strip every bit of clothing and accessory off your opponent before defeating them — though doing this against the tight time limit is easier said than done, particularly when both Fine and Erika have all sorts of elaborate ribbons, frilly lingerie and the like tucked away in inconvenient locations!
On the whole, Re;Lord was a really pleasant surprise. Like most eroge, it is marketed very much with an emphasis on its more light-hearted elements such as its “strip battles” and its “slapstick humour”, and while those things do exist as part of the experience as a whole, the complete package is a surprisingly thought-provoking, interesting game with some intriguing, unusual and addictive mechanics to enjoy.
Do note, however, that since this is the first part of a trilogy, it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Here’s hoping that Sekai Project and Denpasoft bring us the remaining two episodes so we can find out the truth about what Wilfried is really up to!
Denpasoft provided a review copy of this game.
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