Death end re;Quest: The Art of Fighting

One of the things Compile Heart’s Galapagos RPG project has been keen to do ever since its inception is experiment with mechanics, particularly when it comes to combat.

Death end re;Quest is an excellent example of this, featuring several layers of mechanics that keep things consistently interesting as you play through the main story and the optional side content. It’s also one of Compile Heart’s better balanced games to date, featuring a smooth incline in challenge factor rather than sudden, unexpected spikes.

Let’s take a closer look at how it all works.

Death end re;Quest isn’t the first Compile Heart game to get a bit experimental with mechanics. Just within the Galapagos RPG project, we’ve had Omega Quintet’s fascinating performance-based combat that places as much emphasis on showmanship as damage output, and Fairy Fencer F’s interesting take on turn-based battles, featuring techniques you’d typically expect to see in a fighting game or brawler such as launchers and pursuit moves.

Meanwhile, in the broader context of Compile Heart’s modern output, the company’s flagship Neptunia series has continually experimented and refined its formula over the years, ranging from elaborate custom combos in the original game to the strong emphasis on area-effect attacks that developed over the course of its subsequent installments.

What we have in Death end re;Quest is a little of this, a little of that… and then a whole dollop of a few completely unexpected things.

The basic format of Death end re;Quest’s battle system initially seems similar to the combat we’ve seen throughout the later years of the mainline Neptunia series. That is to say, on each character’s turn, they are able to move around as much as they like, and their weapons and skills have an area of effect rather than a single target, making positioning of extreme importance for efficient killing.

That’s about as far as the resemblance goes, however, because immediately you’ll see a few differences from Neptunia. For starters, there are no limits on a character’s movement, whereas Neptunia games give each character a “Move” stat that determines the size of the circular area in which they can freely position themselves when it’s their turn. In Death end re;Quest, each and every character can position themselves anywhere in the arena when their turn rolls around.

Core to Death end re;Quest’s combat is what it calls the “Triact” system. This, quite simply, means that on a character’s turn, they are able to perform up to three actions. There are a couple of limitations, however: specifically, all three actions must be triggered from the same position in the arena, and the character must have enough SP to use all the actions before triggering them. That means you can’t put a powerful, expensive move as your first action, use a potion or an SP restoration skill as your second action, then queue up the super-powerful move again. You need enough SP to do all the actions you want to queue up.

The fact that you can’t move between actions in a Triact makes for some interesting tactical considerations, particularly when you’re trying to do disparate things in a turn. Sure, you could use your Revive skill on Lucil, who has been knocked down yet again because she’s a squishy mage, but if you do that you need to be fairly close to her, and thus you can’t quite get close enough to engulf all the enemies in that large circular area-effect attack you were hoping to unleash. Do you leave Lucil knocked out for a turn and hope nothing horrible happens to your other two members, or do you cut your losses and make less efficient use of your attack skill? Or perhaps a different skill?

Careful choice of skill and target becomes increasingly important as the game progresses, too. There are two main considerations when determining your combination of skill choice and target: element and damage type.

In elemental terms, the game eschews the usual “four elements” system in favour of three elements in a triangular relationship: Moon beats Sun, Sun beats Star, Star beats Moon. Each character and enemy embodies one of these three elements — though both characters and enemies often have the opportunity to use skills from outside their main element, too. And just to throw a spanner in the works, certain enemies are capable of countering a specific element before the skill fires off; this interrupts the user’s turn and often does some damage, too.

Meanwhile, there are just two damage types: physical and magical. And you’ll find that this in particular makes an enormous difference to your damage output — we’re talking the difference between three- and five-figure damage per hit later in the game, with most attacks hitting more than once. When combined with the elemental system, you can really output some astronomical numbers by picking your targets carefully and using the best possible skill to deal with them — which isn’t necessarily your “best” or most expensive skill in many cases.

You get six characters in total over the course of the game’s story; there are two for each element, and one of each pair tends to favour magical attacks while the other favours physical. These characters all have their own unique loadout of skills, which means that they all feel useful at various times — though there is thankfully some crossover with useful abilities such as healing and revival skills.

There’s a nice sense of “theme” to how the characters are set up, too. Main heroine Shina, as an intelligent young woman, has primarily magical attacks, for example, while her fellow Moon element character Clea is an ogre (though we’re talking “hot girl ogre” here rather than more traditional interpretations) and as such favours physical attacks. Clea is also introduced to the party as a pedlar of somewhat questionable repute, and as such a number of her skills can make use of the party’s accumulated funds for various useful effects. Her “spend 50,000 to restore everyone’s HP and SP to full” is especially useful if you’re feeling particularly flush.

You’re free to arrange your party how you see fit within certain limitations; there can be three fighters active in combat at any time, and a character can use their turn to swap with their back-line partner if they so desire. You can also keep party members in “reserve” slots but in the base game there’s no reason to do this; it only becomes necessary if you download a DLC character and increase the overall squad size beyond six.

Taking the elemental system into account, it makes most sense to pair up characters with different elements, allowing you to bring both characters of a single element to the front lines if facing a particularly powerful enemy with a specific weakness — or to swap out a character who is continually getting hit in their weakness by a particularly troublesome enemy.

So that’s the basics. Now we get into the interesting stuff. First up is the Knockback system, which you’re quickly introduced to early in the game. Use a full Triact of basic attacks or a skill with the Knockback property and you’ll get an extra “free” fourth hit at the end of your turn which will send the enemy flying backwards, with the distance they fly according to their hidden “weight” stat. Besides taking a bit of damage from the extra hit, they’ll also take additional damage if they collide with another enemy or the arena boundary, and knocking an enemy into one of your party members will allow you ally to get a free hit on them, sending the enemy flying once again for even more damage.

In practice, the amount of damage you do using the Knockback system becomes fairly negligible by about halfway through the game, but it remains useful for another purpose: clearing out Field Bugs.

Every battlefield in Death end re;Quest is infected with bugs, representing the corruption within the World’s Odyssey game in which Shina is trapped. The exact effect of stepping on one of these while moving around in combat varies according to the colour you tread on, but they usually at the very least deal a bit of damage to you while restoring some of your SP. Some also confer buffs up to and including complete invincibility for a short period, but others have immediate negative effects such as inflicting Poison or Stun on your character — with the latter prematurely ending their turn before you have a chance to trigger your Triact. Frustrating, but usually entirely your own fault.

These bugs can be cleared out with no ill effect to your characters by knocking an enemy through them. The enemies take a bit of damage from this and enjoy none of the positive (or negative!) effects you might get from them, so you don’t have to be accurate or tactical about this — just sweep ’em away. The reason you might want to do this is that when the amount of bugs on the field is 50% of its original value or less, you can enlist the assistance of male protagonist Arata Mizunashi. Mizunashi is not trapped in the game like Shina is; he is accessing it from his laptop in the real world, and has access to the back-end code that powers everything. Clearing out sufficient bugs allows him to make use of various techniques that will bring you an advantage in battle.

There are three main categories of assistance that Mizunashi can provide, each of which take the place of a character’s normal turn if they choose to trigger them. The first of these is Code Jack, which has some sort of immediate effect either on your characters, the enemies or the battlefield itself. As you progress through the game, you’ll get more options for this; some allow you to debuff enemies or buff the party, while others manipulate the bugs on the field to become a particular, more advantageous type, making SP restoration and the acquisition of buffs easier.

The second of these is perhaps the most interesting: Install Genre. Here, you can temporarily switch to a different style of play for a short period, and make use of that as a “special attack” of sorts. You begin with the Shooting genre, which allows you to continually attack (and knock back) enemies for as long as your character has SP remaining, but as the story progresses you unlock five others.

The Slot Machine genre allows you to bet your current character’s HP against three spinning reels, with more HP bet corresponding to a larger effect on whatever combination comes up. There are various effects that can occur according to the symbols you get on the reels — this includes one extremely frustrating option that heals both you and all the enemies on the field back to full health. Best avoided during difficult boss fights!

The Puzzle genre switches to an overhead perspective of the battlefield and makes yellow and green squares appear on the ground. Using your current character, you then have three “free” attacks with a strong knockback effect, and using these you must clear out as many green squares as you can by smashing enemies through them. After your three attacks, all enemies will be hit by a blast whose strength is determined by how many panels you cleared.

Next is Fighting, which places you in a side-on perspective and allows you to use strong, medium or weak attacks to hit enemies in succession. You have a limited number of “action points” in this mode, with stronger attacks consuming more, so it’s worth saving the strong attacks for more powerful enemies.

Then we have Billiards, which is similar in execution to Puzzle. Here, we once again get a top-down view of the arena, but this time there are black holes — “pockets”, if you will — distributed around the perimeter. Knock an enemy into a pocket and they’ll take a massive amount of damage, and like the Puzzle mode, this will be followed up by a blast attack whose power is determined by your performance in the minigame.

Finally, there’s Action, in which you can jump on enemies’ heads like in a 3D platformer, with damage resulting from successful squishes.

These “genres” might seem like silly gimmicks — and for sure, there’s definitely amusing novelty value here — but they’re actually very useful as special attacks in various circumstances. Billiards is really helpful for dealing with enemies that are spread out across the battlefield, for example, while Shooting is good for dealing heavy damage to a boss — so long as you have the SP to use as “ammo”.

The final category of assistance Mizunashi can provide in combat is summoning “Entoma Queen” bosses the party has previously felled, each of which represents a major instance of corruption in the game world. Each summoned Queen takes up residence on the battlefield for a few turns, has a couple of opportunities to attack and tends to attract the attention of most enemies away from your party, but probably their most useful characteristic is the fact they bring a passive skill with them while they’re present. The ones which increase your party’s maximum HP or SP also fully refill the attribute in question, making them very useful for recovery and regrouping; elsewhere, more offensive options might allow you to, for example, reduce enemy weights (thereby increasing the distance they will fly when suffering Knockback).

There’s a tradeoff with all of Mizunashi’s abilities, however; making use of them causes the Field Bugs to come back, and if a character is standing in a position where a Field Bug appears when their turn starts, they’ll immediately suffer its effects. With this in mind, it’s worth remembering how the Field Bugs were arranged before you cleared them and positioning your characters accordingly, just in case Mizunashi’s intervention isn’t quite enough to see the battle through to its conclusion.

Field Bugs play into another system, too: the Glitch mechanic. Whenever they’re hit by an enemy attack or step on a Field Bug, a character builds up Corruption, represented as a percentage value. At 100%, the character goes berserk and dies, so this is best avoided; however, at 80%, they transform into their “Glitch Mode” incarnation, which is considerably more powerful and has access to a devastating arena-wide attack that can be used as the third and final skill in a Triact on their turn.

Enemies also have Corruption values that can build up over time; when an enemy hits 100% corruption, they will be fully healed and become more powerful, so this is obviously best avoided. Some of Mizunashi’s Code Jack skills allow you to manipulate enemy corruption levels to a certain degree, but the safest thing to do is usually to defeat an enemy before Corruption becomes a problem!

The final piece of the puzzle is a system called Flash Drive. Characters do not learn skills on level up in Death end re;Quest; instead, the acquisition of new skills is dependent on the Triacts you use. Particular combinations of skills provide the opportunity to learn a new one; this is clearly indicated by a “lightbulb” icon and a percentage indicator when you’ve found one, with the latter reflecting the chance you will successfully learn a new skill after unleashing the Triact. This chance increases as you gain in levels, and success immediately triggers the new skill as a “free” fourth action for the character, allowing you a quick preview of what it offers, be it offensive, defensive or supportive in nature.

The interesting wrinkle here is that characters learn more skills than they can have “equipped” at any one time, presumably in an homage to the “hotbar” structure many modern MMOs use today. Up to three palettes of skills can be saved for each character — though they can’t be switched between mid-battle, only from the field menu — so in order to unlock all the Flash Drives for all the characters you’ll have to experiment somewhat with various combinations.

For the most part, these combinations make a certain amount of sense — using a basic healing ability twice unlocks a more powerful healing ability; using an attack skill followed by its more powerful upgraded version unlocks a third, even more powerful version — but in a few instances you’ll have to combine supportive and offensive skills in creative ways. Thankfully, the lightbulb icon and percentage indicator takes some of the guesswork out of things, and at least means that you won’t waste turns using combos that definitely don’t do anything!

Death end re;Quest’s main scenario gradually increases in challenge factor as you progress, with damage types and the relationship between elements becoming increasingly important the further you go in the game. The early game is clearly designed to be romped through fairly quickly, as levelling goes at a pretty breakneck pace up until 60, at which point the experience required for a level up increases dramatically. This can be interpreted as an homage to the traditional MMO structure, which tends to have relatively quick levelling to the game’s respective cap, and then more gradual progression beyond that at the endgame, primarily based around gear.

Death end re;Quest doesn’t cap at 60, but the more gradual progression from this point onwards feels like the slower pace of a typical MMO’s endgame, which would be entirely in keeping with the concept of the experience. Equipment can make a massive difference to how a character performs, particularly late in the game, and there are various options available at each effective “tier” of weapons rather than straightforward, linear, vertical progression. This keeps things interesting and forces you to make some difficult decisions at times — do you keep the increased attack value, or switch out in favour of having more SP to spend on powerful skills?

Each stat also caps at 999, meaning you can potentially switch to different pieces of equipment as the character’s natural baselines for the stats in question rise high enough. In other words, if you could, say, get Celica’s physical attack rating to 999 entirely through a combination of her accessories and her level, you could switch out her weapon for something that eschews a physical attack bonus in favour of larger increases for the areas in which she is weaker — like Agility, for example, which not only determines combat initiative, but also chance to hit. This is equipment done right, and absolute heaven for min-maxers — like, you know, most hardcore MMO players!

Towards the mid to late game, you also gain access to the “Pain Area”. This long dungeon houses a series of challenging encounters but also plays host to rare drops and valuable equipment, and thus is a good place to test out new skill loadouts, combinations of equipment and various tactical options — particularly as you won’t hit a Game Over if you’re defeated here, you’ll just get kicked out.

Thankfully you don’t have to run the whole thing in one go, as reaching the midpoint of a floor or a completely new floor activates a checkpoint that you can later return to in exchange for a fee, allowing you to exit and restock, save or just take a break when you see fit. The Pain Area is, in many ways, the “raid” of Death end re;Quest, offering the most significant rewards for the stiffest challenge — and requiring a bit of time and energy investment to see in its entirety!

What we can take from all this is that while Death end re;Quest makes no real attempt to actually play like a “fake MMO” in the same way as the .hack and Sword Art Online games, there are plenty of elements in its mechanics and structure that demonstrate a clear understanding of how things are done in these games, and what is important to their players.

On top of all that, the mechanics that form the basis of its combat system — the core of its main mechanical elements, as with most RPGs of this type — are immensely solid, highly creative and pleasingly different from the conventions and norms we’ve come to expect. There are enough recognisable things here to keep things accessible, but plenty of new twists on established formulae keep things interesting and provide the whole experience with a delightful feeling of “discovery” as you uncover new strategies and mechanics and learn to use them to your advantage.

Mechanically, it’s definitely one of Compile Heart’s strongest to date — and yet another example of this developer’s delightful growth in confidence and creativity over the course of the last couple of console generations.


More about Death end re;Quest

Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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