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Published April 18, 2017

I first heard about Fatal Twelve last year at AnimeFest in Dallas. It was a part of a rather impromptu presentation by Sekai Project that I enjoyed, but mostly because I was roasting most of it on Twitter. A few titles stuck out to me though as having strong potential and this was one of them, mainly because it was notably darker in both tone and style than the other games in the presentation. It was a welcome inclusion and one that left more questions than answers on what exactly we were getting.

Fast-forward a few months later and Sekai Project, along with the developer AEIOUKopmany, are about to wrap up the crowd-funding campaign for what has become a massive project. That campaign also included releasing a demo for the game and, my regulars know me. It takes a lot these days for Sekai Project to make an impression after the last few years of dropping the ball on some major efforts…and WC. So, I’m very happy to say I am thoroughly impressed with Fatal Twelve. The demo did exactly what it needed to do and succeed on all levels.

How it managed to do this is important to document for anyone looking to grow in this genre of gaming. On the surface, Fatal Twelve sells by being just another entry into the beaten-to-death subgenre of the ‘death game’. Your Danganronpa, Nonary Games, Saw, Running Man, Battle Royale, etc. that we have seen repeatedly enough to be able to accurately predict who will die in what order during the opening credits. Fans of the subgenre will rejoice: looking forward to a cute girl (we’ll get to that creature soon enough) replacing a talking bear-doll-thing and leaving lakes of blood in their sadistic wake. Yet, you play the demo and realize this game isn’t trying to follow that mold. It has its own ambitions, a dedication to telling a true horror story, and a devotion to an artform that is all but lost in the realm of visual novels: that of narrative subtlety.

But enough of my gushing. Let’s get into the details of why Fatal Twelve’s demo won me over so decisively.

Starting from the beginning, we have our protagonist Rinka Shishimai. And yes, I know the name is one piece of a lot of lion symbology in the game. However, we’re on a clock here, so we’ll save that introspection for another feature. You begin to see some of the ambition with the game through her as we spend the bulk of the demo, and presumably the start of the game, following her schoolgirl life from the moment she dies to the moment she realizes she’s dead. On its own, it’s a brilliant turn because it immediately answers what would’ve have been the major question on the audience’s mind, ‘How does Rinka die?’ With that out of the way, they can invest us emotionally into her journey and they do so in two ways.

The first is with her character at face value. She fits the everyman (or everywoman as it where) role that VN protagonist often take quite well. She is immediately caring, hard-working and simply enjoys being her age at this moment in her life. The only bump in the road we get is the brief comment about her two-tone hair color. We’re told its natural, yet it’s been the cause of some ridicule in her school. Right after this, we are introduced to girls with purple and pink hair respectively. This could be nothing, but an argument can be made that all of this foreshadows Rinka is far more important than even she knows.

What’s interesting about this take is that it puts her into apparently familiar territory: a generic protagonist. GFP? Is there’s such a thing? We’ll explore that later. For now, how we spend our time learning more about Rinka is the second way the game invests us into Rinka. This decision to show her death early own allows the audience to experience the events between her death and when she realizes she’s dead. It all seems like familiar Slice of Life fodder with Rinka planning on school events with her friends and going to an amusement park with an obvious crush (we’ll get to her). It’s then promptly flipped on its head when it’s revealed that the world isn’t exactly real. It’s an alternate reality that ignores the various events that kills the twelve participants and allows them to exist long enough to play the deadly game de jour.

This is brilliant. While it could have some narrative issues if the developers aren’t careful, by using basket of familiar tropes and clichés, we’re walking into the real narrative with plenty of knowledge of not only our main character, but the people around her. We also have something few death games give its audience: an actual moment of serenity outside of the confines of the game. The audience has a chance to see Rinka and her friends happy and it allows us a clear high point. It fleshes Rinka out as more than just a victim of her circumstances and makes her more human than the often-fantastical survivors we get in these scenarios.

It also makes what’s the come more tragic. Everything about these scenes scream ‘normal’. Even if we find out down the road that she is something more than human, that will only be due to light foreshadowing at best. Everything else about her life was typical and unassuming. Not only didn’t she not deserve to die like she did, she clearly doesn’t deserve to go through the Divine Selection process. That genuine empathy and likability goes a long way in scenarios like this one and I hope it will carry through in the full game.

This also applies to that obvious crush I was talking about: Miharu Mishima. During my Twitter Let’s Play, I joked a lot about her obvious crush on Rinka. Like Rinka, this slice of SoL story-telling makes us immediately familiar with the character, which is subverted the moment the game starts and the audience finds out Miharu is also dead. Not only that, but she is familiar with the layout of the game and what needs to happen. This adds an entirely new level of complexity to her interactions with Rinka. Either she was faking the intensity her crush the entire time to get more information on Rinka, which you need to survive the game OR she really does feel as strongly as she does and realizes that any hope for a relationship between them beyond friendship is over. There is no guarantee either will survive the process, so the only truly fond memory she’ll have of Rinka is the time she had before Rinka realized she’s dead.

It’s so subtle throughout the demo. If you blink, you will miss it. But as tragic as Rinka’s death and situation is, Miharu’s may be even more tragic depending on how things play out. Both characters are so well-layered and complex just from the demo that I’m excited to see how both will approach the game narrative proper.

Beyond these two is the premise of the ‘death game’ itself: which is a misnomer because everyone involved is already dead. For me, that’s what takes Fatal Twelve from a mystery with horror elements to flat-out horror. A lot of this is due to Parca: self-proclaimed goddess of destiny who will be serving as the main villain/gamemaster of the story. After experiencing several different styles and approaches to this character in other death game scenarios, from Monokuma in Danganronpa to The Host in Date or Die, I can honestly say that Parca is the first to legitimately terrify me.

Why? Because Parca is just a deity fulfilling her role in the cosmos. That’s it. Although there might be some manipulation involved, there is no grand master plan because there is nothing for her to lose. The Divine Selection process will play out regardless of what Rinka or anyone else does when they’re not in her realm. Everyone is dead so there is nowhere to escape to and it also makes defiance pointless…because they’re bloody dead mate. The only hope they have is to see the process through: either resigning themselves to their fates and enter the void, or return to life after sealing the fates of eleven other people.

So then, how do you survive Divine Selection? You must find out information on the others in the game: the key information here being how they died and what they regret now that they’re dead. I am fascinated to see this plays out, because it’s almost guaranteed not all the recently departed will be interested in playing the game. I am sure there will be those doing whatever it takes to get other players’ information to survive. We already get a hint of a few willing to ruthlessly play the game in the demo. However, there will also be a few that have no interested in prolonging what they may see as inevitable.

This looks to add some weight to the choices the audience can pick for Rinka and the role she’ll play in the game. It’s poised to spin darker and darker the deeper you go and that will only add to the horror of this game potentially being how Rinka and others spend their last moments of existence. There is a natural sense of despair woven into this idea that becomes starker and more hopeless as more people are eliminated. I look forward to exploring that and seeing what that dread does to everyone involved.

I cannot end this feature without discussing how well everything is directed. While I have some issue with the art style, it is used about as well as one could hope for. I mentioned on Twitter how you could tell exactly who was looking where in certain scenes and what they’re feeling at that moment. You can even see it in one of the screenshots here of Miharu and Rinka and the despair Miharu is going through as she realizes Rinka doesn’t fully understand they’re both dead.

This idea carries over in every scene and Event Graphic and the developers do their best to have the art act (for lack of better words) for them. Like the narrative itself, it’s such a subtle thing because most people who aren’t VN artists don’t notice these things. However, think about all the VNs with mostly static sprites staring at either the ‘camera’ or each other, only to burst into emotion when the situation calls for it. Now, contrast that with Miharu clearly, consistently watching Rinka and her expression change over the course of the day or Parca’s regal malevolence in just about every scene she’s in, and how quietly sadistic she becomes when she explains certain rules she knows can only lead to a bad end. It is a welcome attention to detail that makes the presentation worth so much more.

I also really enjoy the soundtrack. It’s one of the crowdfunding bonuses and anyone who listens to it long enough knows why. It focuses more on building the atmosphere of the game and, once the vocal cast is added, should bring everything together well. At least, that is the hope. You can hear some of the samples in the crowdfunding hype video, but it leads to my only true gripe: I don’t speak Japanese. The voice cast could be ordering a Royale with Cheese and be very excited about getting extra fries for all I know.

‘Soooooo, what’s the problem JP?’

Well, from the Kickstarter:

Not only is this campaign set to fund the development of this new title, but it’ll also fund voice acting with top caliber voice acting talent ready to bring each character to life.

Okay, so one of the major goals of this campaign was to ensure voice acting…for a VN publisher with a strong Western following…that most of their audience won’t be able to understand and know if it’s good or not. Huh.

Even the bonus ‘mini drama CD’ won’t be audibly translated into English. You’ll be able to follow along with the script…somehow. That might be a challenge I inflict on young Chris Tenarium. Regardless, my point is that people paid good money not just to make this game happen, but to specifically make the voice acting happen. In which case I, as a humble critical voice, would just like to see some method of ensuring people get their money’s worth: especially if Japan and the West get Fatal Twelve at the same time or if we get it first.

Again, that is a small gripe on a damn near perfect experience. After the handling of some IPs Sekai hyped to the Moon and back, it will be very nice to see this get a strong roll-out because the demo is filled to the brim with visual and narrative goodness. I cannot wait to see where this story takes us and am hoping for the best. At the moment, the Fatal Twelve Steam page is listing January 2018, but the website is listing later on in 2017 as an official release. So, we’ll have to see how things flesh out now that the crowdfunding campaign is over. For now, just pick up the demo if you have it and spend a little time with it. JP3: OUT.