Good evening, my lovely little slaves to fate.
One of the most unexpectedly prolific subgenre of fiction must be the survival game or ‘death game’ subgenre. If my memory serves me correctly, the ‘death game’ subgenre can trace its roots as far back as 1924, when Richard Connell published The Most Dangerous Game. Since then, it has produced some of the tentpoles of modern media, including such works as The Running Man, The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, and, of course, Danganronpa. Considering the core of these works is examining the human will to live at all cost, it’s no small wonder why these types of works not only endure, but thrive.
However, while I would argue that these works have an important role to play in the larger media landscape, the difference between ‘important’ and ‘good’ is something we cover a lot here on VNs Now. The grim reality is that the subgenre is more known for devolving into gore fetishism rather than try to add anything worthwhile to fiction as a whole. Danganronpa fell into this trap regularly. In fact, it’s one of the reasons V3 rings hollow in its final twist, but that’s another critique for another day. Today we’re going to focus on a title that does try to add something to the greater media landscape by shifting the focus from how far people will go to live, to defining what makes life worthwhile.
Fatal Twelve everyone. Let’s jam.
Rinka Shishimai was, by all accounts, a perfectly average teenager. She had a job, friends and did her best to keep her head above water in school. Her life was peaceful, until the day she died. Caught in a terrorist attack, Rinka closes her eyes feeling her life slip through her fingers and wakes up at the feet of the aristocratic and sinister goddess Parca. She has joined eleven other recently deceased souls in a ritual called Divine Selection. Each of them would have an opportunity to have their deaths reversed and returned to the world of the living permanently. However, to do that, they would need to eliminate their competitors for good. One of whom is one of her friends, Miharu Mishima; who is currently harboring the least subtle crush on Rinka in the world.
There is a lot that Fatal Twelve does extremely well and while we will unpack a lot of it in this review. However, with the exception of one detail with Miharu, I won’t be discussing spoilers at length. While that will make for a short review, I hope that will also encourage you guys to pick up Fatal Twelve because it is, hands down, one of the best visual novels of the year. Yeah, I said it and we’re not even at the halfway point of 2018 yet. The only thing that will dip into spoiler territory is when we get into Miharu, but it’ll just be the broad strokes. Either way, you’ve been warned.
Perhaps its biggest success in how it augments the death game to take the focus away from the actual death aspect of it. As I said to start with, the central theme of the death game is what people will do to survive, along with who can hold onto their humanity and who become monsters in an extreme enough situation. With all of the participants being dead from the start, the question is effectively removed from consideration and replace with the larger, far more difficult theme of each participant looking for a reason to live to fuel their participation. And, in a rather bold narrative move, a lot of them don’t have one.
This forces the developers, who have thoroughly taken the threat of death off the table, to define life as a worthwhile goal for those who want to live. And, in a stroke of narrative brilliance, it both does and doesn’t. I cannot in good conscience say that any one person in the game has a better reason for living than anyone else. We root for Rinka by default since she is the main character, but she doesn’t come up with a valid reason to participate until the game is truly afoot. Even then, her reasons are deeply personal and, arguably, trivial. Yet, so are the others as we switch POV.
Life is often trivial, which is what makes it worthwhile. Fatal Twelve postulates that life is worth living, simply because it is life. No other reason is needed. This is highlighted near the finals acts of the game where one player gives another a fantastic rationale for why they want to keep living, but is meet with a deadpan stare. The rationale and backstory given by that character is antithetical to the theme: looking at life as a chase for a spotlight instead of seeking the simple beauty in in. It’s poignant and such a strong theme, I’m surprised we don’t see it used more often.
At the center of all of this is one of my new favorite characters: Rinka. Characters going through a crucible of pain and suffering to develop them as characters has always been a standard go-to for me in the larger study of writing fiction. For Rinka, it’s not only her suffering that helps her develop as a character, but the suffering of the other contestants that she comes across. These experiences knock her out of both her adolescent malaise and the shock of finding out she’s dead and force her on an internal journey: namely to decide exactly who she is, what she wants and if her life is worth fighting for.
Of course, the answer to all of these is yes but usually in the death game scenario it’s by becoming either an efficient player of the game or by being so unrealistically pure and good that the game’s world breaks just by them being in it….no I’m not talking about anyone in particular. Rinka splits the difference by not being cruel, but by affirming and fighting for her will to live. It fuels probably the biggest arc in her storyline: when she has to go toe-to-toe with the suicide bomber who killed her. It sees other characters open up and develop and Rinka to really begin to grow. By the end, I’d almost argue she’s a literal Angel of Mercy whose convictions are strong enough to center the entire game around and let the rest of the POV characters experience growth as a result.
Now, I have seen some of my critical siblings refer to this as a ‘yuri’ visual novel. That is a mistake. Yes, Miharu has the world’s most obvious crush on Rinka: so much so that it is the running joke of the game. However, the reason it’s a joke is because the humor softens just how dark Miharu’s crush actually is. And this is where I promised to spoil a few things so strap in.
We’re good? Good.
Miharu’s crush not only causes her to be violent towards others, it causes her to be violent towards herself. A dream of Rinka in a relationship with another girl is enough for Miharu to commit suicide and it is implied that dream was sent on purpose by Parca, whose spirit is inhabiting Miharu before the events of the game, in order to activate the Divine Selection when Rinka is killed by a suicide bomber. Throughout the ritual, Miharu’s stated goal is to make sure that Rinka survives and because of that blinds her to any other possible outcomes for the event. Ironically enough, that is also Parca’s ideal outcome of the ritual for reasons I won’t get into here. The overall point is that when Parca quips about the others being ‘slaves to fate’, it is damn near literal for Miharu whose will is so merged with Parca’s that it difficult to pry them apart.
Now, I did theorize in my first run at the game that Miharu’s overall feelings for Rinka were manipulated by Parca in a Xanatos Gambit to end all Xanatos Gambits. However, after repeated playthroughs, that does feel a bit far-fetched. However, what isn’t a stretch is how exactly Miharu is going to achieve her stated goal in the ritual: protect Rinka. Miharu is very good at her cold girl act, unfortunately she’s not anywhere close to the more ruthless players in the game. In fact, in some endings, she even gets outplayed by some of the lower-ranked participants. Essentially, she’s a glorified pawn hoping to user her status to take advantage of the others and, fingers-crossed, protect Rinka along the way. This approach would force our girl into a box: with her fantasized validation and reciprocation of Miharu’s feelings the end goal before Miharu dies again. Of course, if Rinka had stayed in that box, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
This is why the bulk of Rinka’s development happens without Miharu and why I disagree with overall yuri box a lot of my critical siblings are trying to put this game into. The relationship and evolution of said relationship does have a role to play, but it is far more important to Miharu’s story arc as it forces her to keep up to Rinka’s character growth. In the end, the resolution to their potential romance is hinted at, but ultimately unresolved because the goal wasn’t to get them together. The goal was to get them both to grow as individuals, especially for Miharu to be able to express her feelings for Rinka in a healthy way that fits into the larger theme and breaks her Tragic Hero complex. And, credit to the game, it achieves those goals.
There is one small caveat to this: deus ex machina. It makes some sense because the entire plot starts with one massive deus ex machina. However, some players will get annoyed with the sheer amount of times divine intervention plays a role in the story on Rinka’s behalf. I understand that frustration and felt it myself to a degree because both the ‘Fatal Twelve’ Ending and ‘Miharu’ Ending follow the same route when activated. This led to some moments that stretched the believably of the world, but didn’t break it: barely.
Ultimately, your mileage will vary on the this one. It’s also why I think there is no definitive ‘True’ End and only three endings that can be defined as good. It gives the developers an out by allowing the audience to choose the ending they’re most comfortable with. All storylines involved are resolved in a way that makes me happy though, so in the end I can acknowledge this as a narrative weakness, but must also admit it didn’t bother me as much as it probably should.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
The Presentation for this game is fantastic. There is a heavy reliance on color here and as much as I would love to tell you that it plays a symbolic role, but I just don’t get that vibe from this game. I could be wrong, but it really feels like it was just a way to make the cast stand out: avoiding either making them cartoonish or too plain to remember. However, while it isn’t symbolic, I do believe Rinka’s color scheme matching the color scheme of the Court of Fate is foreshadowing the events of the good endings. The second the game said she naturally has two-toned hair, you could probably see her larger role play out. Still though, credit where it’s due.
One thing I want to mention about the art is that it is usually not gratuitous in showing death. There is a strong focus here on the character’s feelings and thoughts when the die. It’s a refreshing change of pace that simultaneously removes the gore fetish that is unfortunately sort of baked into this subgenre, but also finds a brilliant way to subvert it. The only two times we see exactly how a character dies are pure nightmare fuel. It is the perfect shock moment: neither gratuitous or unnecessary. And I promise you, seeing them both in the game will stay with you for a long time.
The soundtrack, however, I’m not the biggest fan of. Some tracks are spot on, with the musical suite of the Divine Selection especially sticking out. The rest of it, though, is surprisingly forgettable. I don’t think it’s the fault of the composers. I do think that it’s due to a handful of tracks being repeatedly used that they tended to bleed into the background. This means a lot of the music really doesn’t add to the overall game and that is a shame, because for the most part it is pretty good.
As for the voice acting, it sounded pretty good all things considered. None of the actors felt flat at any point that I could tell. However, I do know that the English translation takes some liberties from the script. This isn’t a big deal and isn’t as absurd as the translation slip-ups in World End Economica. So, we’ll leave it at that.
Technically it has some issues, but are ones familiar to Sekai Project. There are grammatical and spelling errors the closer you get to the end. I didn’t spot any major bugs or glitches though, so it is an improvement. However, some investment will have to be made moving forward by Sekai if they want to keep this sort of thing under control.
I clocked a single playthrough of the game at a minimum of twenty hours. The Bad Endings are all incredibly easy to get and the three good endings only require mild variations with the final choices. Ergo, that minimum time will only be extended a bit to get you to 100% of the total game. Once done though, you unlock a new POV character that I won’t spoil for you, but you’ll have to replay the game from the beginning to see. It’s a nice addition to the overall experience and one that only enriched the depth of character we already got.
At $19.99, this package is very fair and I think it is well worth the price. There is also a DLC bundle including the game’s OST and a digital artbook. Considering that what I said about the OST, you can decide amongst yourself if the bundle is worth the investment. However, $20 is more than reasonable for this experience.
I came into 2018 very excited and hopefully that Fatal Twelve would be a success. Now, after my third full playthrough of the entire game, I can say without a shadow of a doubt it has exceeded all my expectations. AIUEO Kompany and Sekai Project has given us a story about life and death for the ages that focuses on not just life, but the small things in life we wouldn’t exactly hinge the Will to Live on. I was fully invested the entire ride, laughing and dropping a manly tear from time to time when the moment hit and my only regret is that I cannot go back and replay this for the first time. It’s rare enough to get this in games overall these days and I am very grateful to be able to say I experienced this title.
It is not perfect by any means and I mean it when I say it’ll test your ability to allow the fantastical. By I can easily say you’ll walk away from this one far more happy to have played it than not. Hopefully, if you have not done so, this review will encourage you to play Fatal Twelve. You’ll be glad you did.