What if God was one of us? It’s been 20 years since the question was asked in that one-hit wonder song by Joan Osborne, and now we finally have the answer! Turns out it involves God crawling through a series of randomly-generated dungeons, bludgeoning the life out of a legion of creatures too cute to be called monsters. At least, that’s how it seems in the new RPG from Nippon Ichi Software, The Awakened Fate Ultimatum. Does it blaspheme the name of the great roguelike genre, or will it convert you to a true believer?
The story of The Awakened Fate Ultimatum follows a high schooler named Shin Kamikaze. Despite his awesome name, he’s not so popular. In fact, he’s an extreme loner, so much so that he often prefers hanging out alone on the school rooftop after class instead of heading straight home. During one such visit to the roof, he drifts off to sleep, where he has a brief but troubling dream with a mysterious girl talking about his future. After being woken up by the only classmate he could call a friend, he starts to head home, gets lost along the way, and is fatally stabbed through the heart by a gang of devils who suddenly descend from the sky. Ouch. The last thing he sees before dying is a woman in white, taking him in her arms and driving away his attackers…
Shin wakes up again and finds himself alive in the disheveled laboratory of scientist Ariael Agarie, who informs him that she just brought him back from the dead. She did so by implanting the priceless Fate Awakening Crystal in his chest, supplying his body with the necessary energy to live. The woman that rescued him introduces herself as Jupiel Soraumi, and together the two ladies explain the rest of the situation: Shin had been brought to the flying fortress Celestia. This fortress is the last bastion for the angels, who are fighting and losing a long-running war with the devils of the Netherworld. Despite the fact that the angels are on the brink of extinction, they have an ace up their sleeve: as a side effect of the Fate Awakening Crystal, Shin Kamikaze has become God.
The remainder of the story then follows Shin’s personal development, as he comes to terms with his newfound power and responsibilities. Alongside Jupiel and Ariael, Shin will lead the charge in a series of military operations targeting strategic facilities in the demonic Netherworld. Between missions, the plot is delivered in the tried-and-true visual novel format. Along the way, you’ll make several choices that shape the way the story plays out. There isn’t a huge tree of possible branching paths for the story to take; there’s really only one story, but most choices do have an impact on how the game proceeds to the next choice point. The quality of the story is what you’d expect from an NIS game: well-written and entertaining overall, though the translation can often feel overly-literal and stilted, leaving many lines feeling awkward and unnatural. At times, it feels like it’s taking itself a little too seriously — it gets pretty dark — but it does a great job presenting the player with some tricky moral choices.
My favorite parts of the story were those exploring Shin’s friendship with Jupiel and Ariael. While none of the three are all that original as far as character designs go, the dynamic between them is really well-done, and does more than its part as a major driving force for the plot. Beyond that, though, I can’t help but feel that the plot misses a lot of its potential. The premise is definitely interesting, especially once it’s explained that Shin has the power to alter people’s fates. Despite this, for most of the story, Shin’s godhood is just code for “super soldier,” when his kind of power could be used for much more indirect means of winning the holy war he got caught up in. Overall, this game’s not going to be remembered for an amazing story, but it’s worthwhile.
The plot is accompanied by some seriously good-looking illustrations from Noizi Ito, perhaps most well-known for her work on beloved anime series The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The only complaint about the visual novel artwork is that I wish there was more of it. The main characters could have used another character portrait or two, and some minor named characters reuse “faceless NPC” sprites, which can get confusing. Similarly, the music is well-made, but there’s not enough unique tracks. At the very least, the track that got repeated the most (titled “Crystal Dungeon”) was easily my favorite, and I’m still humming it after finishing the game. Fans of English dubs will be pleased to hear that the voice work is generally spot-on — the main characters’ voiceover is all done very well, delivering and expanding on their characters’ personalities. Some minor characters are not so great, but they don’t have too many lines anyway.
All that stuff about beautiful anime art goes out the window when we get to the gameplay sequences, however. Gameplay in The Awakened Fate Ultimatum takes the form of a top-down dungeon crawler, and everything is adorably rendered in chibi style. The game is clearly inspired by the Mystery Dungeon games, which were in turn inspired by Rogue. Each floor of a dungeon is a randomly-generated configuration of rooms and hallways, laid out on a square grid. Everything in the game is turn-based; on your turn, you can step one space in any of the eight directions, attack an adjacent enemy, or use a skill or item. Once you’ve taken an action, each enemy on the floor also takes an action. While this sounds slow, in practice, it moves very quickly. The enemy’s turn, as long as they’re not attacking you, passes almost instantaneously: by the time you’ve finished your movement animation, the enemy’s turn is usually done. If you’ve played Rogue, or classic roguelikes like NetHack, this will sound very familiar. There are several other cues taken from those early dungeon crawlers: for example, some items are unidentified until used (or taken out of the dungeon), requiring you to either risk using them, or keep them around until you leave the level (thus using up inventory space).
In terms of original ideas, the centerpiece of the game is the “Deitization” system. At any time, you can “Deitize”, taking the form of an angel or a devil and considerably raising your stats. The angelic form is useful against devilish enemies, and the devilish form is useful against angelic enemies. Each form also has access to different skills, which you can use to gain the upper hand; angelic skills usually focus on dealing lots of damage, while devilish skills focus on tricks and long-range attacks. The downside is that maintaining either Deitized form quickly drains your mana every turn, and you can only keep it up so long (especially if you’re using skills).
The problem with all this is that, despite all the mechanics lifted from Rogue, they seem to have neglected the spirit that makes roguelikes compelling. A good roguelike is a very difficult game, not because difficulty is good but because you’re expected to fail repeatedly and often. And through your multiple failures, you learn the kinds of tricks that will help you survive just a little longer, and maybe win! The Awakened Fate Ultimatum, by comparison, is toothless. At no point is the game anywhere near “difficult”, and there are very few tricks to learn. Even the Deitization system boils down to “use Angel Form to fight devils, and vice versa.” Roguelikes also have permadeath, and this game definitely doesn’t. It kind of tries to simulate it; if you die, you get kicked out of the dungeon and lose all your carried items and equipment. Even then, this is meaningless, because you can save and reload between dungeons. The game advertises itself as a roguelike, but it’s not. It feels kind of like playing Rogue, but it’s ultimately a superficial association. In the end, it’s just a dungeon crawler, and not a really interesting one. The best thing I can say about the dungeon crawling is that it doesn’t overstay its welcome – the game doesn’t drag on for too long, and the dungeons are perfectly sized, owing mostly to the fast-paced combat system. I just wish there was more to it.
The Verdict: 5.6 out of 10
Despite my negative tone, I did have fun playing The Awakened Fate Ultimatum, but it doesn’t really do anything interesting. The dungeon crawling is a one-note affair with no sense of challenge and no real surprises — ultimately, you’re just playing a dungeon crawler with a single-character party, which has little strategic space. The story is pretty good, but it’s not great, starting with a cool premise but under-delivering on its potential. I feel like this game is built for people who liked the combat system of Rogue or NetHack but don’t like roguelikes… but the combat was never the interesting part of those games, so I think that audience is small. There’s a really solid foundation here, but it’s in serious need of original ideas in order to make it truly memorable.
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Aaron Dobbe is an Associate Writer at MONG specializing in Nintendo but playing a bit of everything else too. Follow him on Facebook and pester him to get a Twitter.