Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: March 17, 2014
ESRB: T for Teen
It has been two years since the release of The Guided Fate Paradox. This was Nippon Ichi's second foray into their curious spin on turn-based dungeon-crawlers and roguelikes while following the spirit of the obscure, and overwhelming titled, Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs Darkdeath Evilman on PSP. While both games had a distinctively different overall style, The Guided Fate Paradox creatively expanded upon many gameplay principles introduced in Z.H.P..
Now, I am not going to dance around the fact that I liked The Guided Fate Paradox a whole lot. So much so, it may have placed abnormally high on my 2013 GOTY list. And while my opinion of the title cooled off a little bit after replaying it recently (though, I still like it a lot and my save file somehow lingers above one-hundred hours total...), I didn't expect the would-be spiritual sequel, The Awakened Fate Ultimatum, to be so disappointing. Not because it is different, but because it takes so many steps back with a similar formula.
Before getting into what is the same (but not as good) as a game, the differences in story are actually one of The Awakened Fate Ultimatum's stronger points. Much like Guided Fate, the initial setup has a high school student taken from their normal mundane life and made into the "God" of Celestia. Unlike Guided Fate, which did so in a tongue-in-cheek way via a local mall lottery, the main character Shin Kamikaze becomes a "God" after being murdered by devils and is forcibly revived by angels through something called the "Fate Awakening Crystal" to participate in a war between angels and devils.
One of the key narrative differences between this and earlier Nippon Ichi RPGs, aside from obvious changes in lead characters/setting, is how much deceptively darker the pervading story tone is. For example, the roguelike spiritual predecessor Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger Vs Darkdeath Evilman had a fairly playful and over-the-top attitude like to many Disgaea entries, while The Guided Fate Paradox straddled the line between fairly serious and very unserious storytelling, like NIS's Soul Nomad & The World Eaters. Awakened Fate, however, has plenty of grim reminders about the mortality of characters and there is a real somber tone throughout—even with its occasional comic relief. For instance, many story choices seem rather ambiguous and generally call you out on the consequences of either "Ultimate Choice" decisions when there are honestly no "good" choices.
Speaking of that, another primary distinction between The Awakened Fate Ultimatum and its predecessors is its variations of the narrative and gameplay in the form of its angel & devil affinities.
In a story context, there are many choices that seem to align with either the angel Jupiel or the devil Ariael. As much as it pains me to even think of this comparison, it definitely seems to be marketed like Time & Eternity's shtick on paper because of the contrast between the two heroines. Now, thankfully, Awakened Fate respects its characters far more by actually having worthwhile events around them. So, it isn't exactly a "pick your waifu" affair, but rather it usually correlates with fairly serious events... while also picking favorites (Ariael ftw). That said, both the characters and the overall narrative have problems with certain rather predictable tropes, which interferes with the overarching storytelling more than it should later on despite its murky (albeit messed up) "Ultimate Choices" at times.
For gameplay context, Shin actually uses both the power of angel & devil forms in the midst being "Deitized" for his randomly-generated dungeon-crawling expeditions. Story decisions also grant bonus CP (Crystal Points), which power up either of these godly forms and switching between the two basically becomes the bread & butter of the core gameplay; switch to angel form to fight devil enemies and vice versa. Angel form is more offensive focused while devil form leans more towards a defensive style in its stats and abilities. It is a simple but neat gameplay mechanic—well, for a short bit.
"Simple", or rather "simplified," seems to be the purveying idea over its predecessors. There is a distinct lack of variety and depth to nearly every facet of its gameplay, especially when compared to The Guided Fate Paradox in particular. Most changes are intended for the greater accessible good. Certain gameplay structure oddities are cleared up from earlier NIS releases like a (more direct) total level count, simplifying primary stats, and (very slightly) lowering the consequence of dying in dungeons. Problem is, actually leveling up is rather slow, as the player will still find themselves clobbering most enemies in dungeons out of necessity in about the same amount of—if not more—time than previous games because of the generally slower flow. Dying is also arguably more punishing than earlier games because of the stronger reliance on stats/gear, even if the game itself is generally easier.
I could go on for ages as to how The Guided Fate Paradox almost feels like the much-improved sequel that somehow got released before this title. There are simply way more engaging aspects to Guided Fate's gameplay, from actually having distinct dungeon themes, tons of equipment/skills (and the ability dual-wield weapons to get access to even more), having allies join you in combat, deep character progression, lots of cosmetic personality, to different enemy types and very unique bosses/battle scenarios. But, Awakened Fate's dungeon-crawling gameplay basically feels the same from start to finish and lacks any such variety, even with its initially cool angel and devil form mechanics.
For almost literally every enemy, you simply switch between the angel and devil forms to do more damage, and there are very few actual enemy types because they need palette swaps for each of Shin's form. Just the same, bosses are also not only very sparse (and recycled!) but just as uninspired. Most bosses play out like a really slow Rock 'em Sock 'em Robot standstill until you win through attrition. Character progression is also quite lacking, as it is eerily similar to something like Final Fantasy XIII's simplistic Crystarium skill tree. The only real perk to this system is that much further in its progression Shin can essentially have access to 14 different skills at once, since abilities aren't tied to weapons and are unlocked through this leveling tree.
The main grievance to me is that it is not even that the gameplay is "bad" per se (comparatively, it is), but it is remarkably... unremarkable and devoid of not only substance and change in gameplay throughout, but just plain personality too. In its transition to a 3D chibi art style, it loses a lot of the signature Nippon Ichi 2D sprite quirkiness and a cohesive visual style. Character portraits seem fairly detached from the gameplay, and while the new in-game 3D visuals may seem cute at a first glance, in motion it feels rather stilted. The cracks in what seems like the title's lowered budget become more apparent with the so few enemy types, dungeon themes, or even just forgoing animating cutscenes altogether. To add to that, more than half of the soundtrack was recycled from the The Guided Fate Paradox. Which, admittedly, I still think the music is pretty good, as well as some of the new compositions, but the tracks loop pretty frequently wear out their welcome during the fairly lengthy visual novel-esque scenes.
The Awakened Fate Ultimatum is not simply disappointing because it is not as good as either of its spiritual predecessors as a game, but rather just doesn't stand out among many plain better dungeon-crawler and roguelike titles. It is a mix between the two that isn't likely to satisfy fans of either camp, much less those hoping for a faithful spiritual successor to The Guided Fate Paradox because of its drastically simplified gameplay systems, like myself. The only real impetus to wade through its so-so gameplay is to get to its surprisingly dark storytelling scenes and ambiguous "Ultimate choices." Unfortunately, even those will probably not be enough for most people because of its middling gameplay and certain, predictable narrative flaws. All that is left is a shallow husk of two outright better Nippon Ichi games, that also happens to have an interesting story around it at times.
+ Intriguing, dark narrative tone and ambiguous storytelling choices
+ Angel and devil forms allow Shin versatile abilities in combat
- Real lack of variety in dungeon design and enemies
- Unimpressive 3D visuals in-game and recycled music
- Gameplay mechanics and skill progression have been significantly simplified from games like Guided Fate and Z.H.P.
- Some rather cliche story points later on
Overall Score: 5.5 (out of 10)
Nippon Ichi makes many attempts to create a more approachable roguelike dungeon-crawler but in doing so sacrifices most aspects that would make it stand out. What is left is a narrative that, while interesting, is not enough to salvage an overall experience that has simply been outdone by both of its predecessors years ago.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.