Visual novels certainly have their place in the video game world, and rightfully so: they bring a new variation of literary interpretation to masses who might, otherwise, ignore the storyline. By bringing in something that stimulates the brain in more than just textual approaches, we get a bigger and better picture of the tale being told. There’s even this interesting take on things in Japan that I can only refer to as the RPGnovel. That is, having a great story that translates better with some serious action and interaction, but still relying mostly on reading and pacing from the player’s part. I’ve taken my fair share of these in the past, and the Japanese indie publication, PLAYISM, has focuses a lot of their recent releases in this direction. Now, one of their most successful titles, Angels of Death, has made its way to the Nintendo Switch. But players might need to know: is this niche brand of PC game mighty enough to make a meaningful impact on the portable gaming wunderkin?
Angels of Death is a four-part game that absorbs roughly two hours per chapter. You begin as Rachel, called Ray, who wakes up in a bizarre hospital room of sorts with no clear memory of what happened. Very soon, she begins to realize she is not in the same place she checked into and, instead, is on the B6 level of a massive murder castle. The only way to survive is to make it to the surface, and she enlists a psychopath named Zack to help her. Ray’s only condition for the two of them escaping is that Zack MUST kill her when they reach freedom. But it takes very little deductive reasoning to realized there’s something more at foot here, and Rachel is being tormented by memories and thoughts that sit quietly below the surface. By the time you get to the end of the first chapter, the rules and interpretations of everything change dramatically, and you’re dragged along onto a truly demented story of sadness, tragedy and loss. The player must slowly unravel the dark and unsettling tale of what brought both Rachel and Zack to his odd facility and if redemption exists for these two damned souls.
Angels of Death is brought to us in the faithful RPG Maker style of gaming that really serves two purposes. For one, it creates a format and an interface that most players are quite familiar with and need little introduction except for where it deviates from the traditional game. In this case, Angels of Death cares not about things like EXP, hit points or anything other than the inventory of the character. But the other nice part about this exhibition is it allows the game to focus on its story, leaving the player in an interesting situation of control without control. This isn’t going to be like a lot of Japanese horror games or stories you may have played: there’s only one real ending, since getting killed by random things doesn’t count as an ending. But you are here to take in Rachel’s story, from start to finish, including some glimpses into the rear view mirror to see what befell our heroine(?) prior to the game starting. This particular setup really does work well, because Angels of Death would be completely humdrum if it were just a visual novel. You’d read, stuff would happen, and maybe you’d be a bit shocked but that’s it. Having players need to explore and respond to certain things with reflexes and timing makes it so much more engaging.
Despite being four chapters, you’ll be able to consume Angels of Death in a single sitting if you’re truly committed to the plot, and you will be. After you are able to “escape” the initial murder castle, you quickly begin to spiral out of control in several different directions, as the story will jump from Rachel to Zack and back again, giving you different moments of control. Rachel has a lot of baggage to unpack, and having it done in the RPG style allows for short, natural conversation blurbs to bring you along while visual cues let you know other things that are happening. There is some kind of a soundtrack that occurs, but most of it is ambient noise, which only makes it more sinister and foreboding. When Rachel is witnessing a horrifying confrontation between a husband and wife, the surreal, abusive nature of it is only amplified by the constant, uncaring clock that ticks away in the background.
Oh, and I suppose that’s something that needs to be stated again and again: this is not a game for children. I think the line for “horror” has been blurred in recent years with jumpscare games making players shriek in fright without having anything else behind them. But, in true Japanese horror fashion, the psychological nature of the crimes and the characters should certainly raise eyebrows, if not draw curled lips of disgust. Rachel’s wish for death doesn’t stem from martyrdom, but guilt, and early clues in the game still can’t prepare you for the nature of her ghosts. Zack’s manic glee with destruction is honestly a bright spot in comparison to the morbid fascination other characters have with death, religion and “wellness.” By the time you get to the finale and watch the game end, you’re not really sure if you’re happy or sad or just relieved that the game is over. As a result, I don’t know if I’ll replay it, but I’ll happily take a look into the anime that recently launched. Another artists interpretation of the game? Yes, please.
It’s still bizarre that there’s this practice nowadays of taking freeware games and releasing them as paid content, but it does make sense in the case of Angels of Death. Besides the massive localization/translation work that had to go into four chapters of a multi-houred game, there’s the matter of porting it to the Switch. Having a game come over into the Nintendo ecosystem is no simple feat, even though it feels like hundreds of games are arriving each week. PLAYISM, the company that did the publishing, has been on the ball with support, which is actually why this review is coming so late. A gamebreaking bug was discovered very early on, something totally unavoidable, and the publishers were quick to act and fix it. Still, given that it occured within the first 16 minutes of the game, I’m deeply surprised that QA didn’t discover it earlier, and I hope that other bugs aren’t discovered as more people play. I didn’t encounter any others after my initial situation, so things should be all set now.
Some movies are worth watching again and again to quip along with your favorite actors and characters. Some are worth sharing with friends so they can appreciate something the way you do. And some exist simply to lay eggs in your brain that never fully go away. Angels of Death is a brain egg game, and the marks it leave could be permanent, depending on who you are. The amateur art styling combined with the grotesque storyline make for all the right moves in a horror experience, and Angels of Death is certainly something memorable. If you’re looking for something compelling and scarring in the same swing of a scythe, then you may want to take a closer look at Angels of Death.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Gameplay - /10
Graphics - /10
Sound - /10
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