Saturday, September 2, 2017

Moonlight Madness

「お お か み が く る ぞ  !!」

"The wolves are coming!"

It's been a good year in terms of gaming for me, I noticed. I seldom play the newest releases right away, so I do have the luxury to carefully pick the games I want to play in any given year, which could be a new game but also one from twenty years earlier, but this year has been surprisingly good, with basically no real duds.

Fusaishi Haruaki finds himself riding around aimlessly on his motorcycle after a break-up with his girlfriend, until he realizes he has absolutely no idea where he is even though it's very late at night, in the middle of rural, mountainous Japan. He tries to make his way to the nearest town, but crashes on one of those small mountain paths. He is found by the girl Chiemi near a river, and she decides to bring the new visitor to her home: Yasumizu Village, hidden deep within the forests of the mountain. Yasumizu is a tiny and incredibly poor farming/hunting community with barely ten inhabitants, ruled by the belief in the mountain deity Shinnai. Yasumizu is controlled by the more prosperous Fujiyoshi Town on the other side of the mountain, which occasionally uses Yasumizu as a 'trash can', as sometimes 'unneccesary' people from Fujiyoshi find themselves banned to Yasumizu. The people of Yasumizu therefore stick with each other and dislike outsiders, so Fusaishi's plans are to fix his motorcycle and leave again, but it seems the mountain has other plans for him, as a sudden thick mist consumes the whole of Yasumizu, and it is only then that he learns about an ancient legend passed down here in Yasumizu, and the horrifying ceremony related to that. Here in the mountains, the people believe that whenever Yasumizu is enveloped by mist, a number of werewolves from the underworld are revived who will disguise themselves as one of the villagers of Yasumizu. Each night they will kill one villager, until they have wiped out the whole of Yasumizu in revenge for what the villagers did to them many centuries ago. In order to fight these werewolves, the mountain deity allows the villagers to execute one villager (a person whom they suspect is a werewolf) every day. The werewolves will win when they have killed all the humans, while the humans win if they manage to execute all the werewolves.

At first, Fusaishi thinks it's all just religious nonsense, and can't believe people will just starting killing each other because of the mist, but already after the first night he finds that someone has been eliminated in a seemingly supernatural manner for violating the mountain rules, and he is witness to how the whole village slowly starts to take the deadly werewolf game seriously, with both the humans and werewolves killing persons every day and night. But Fusaishi has one big advantage over the others: he mysteriously gained the powers to 'rewind' to the beginning of all this with all of his memories intact whenever he dies. This allows him to learn from each experience and make new choices to change his own future. Making use of these time-loops Fusaishi needs to survive the lunatic werewolf game and find out why this supernatural ceremony exists in the first place in the videogame Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P (2015).

Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P is a horror-mystery videogame developed by Kemco and Dwango, and originally released on iOS and Android in 2015, and later ported to other devices like PS4, Vita and Switch. I hadn't heard about this game until a few months ago, when it ranked into Japanese game magazine's Famitsu's fan-voted popularity poll for adventure games. Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P was standing very bravely next to giants in the mystery adventure genre like the Kamaitachi no Yoru series, Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney series and the Danganronpa series, so you can guess why my interests were piqued. The theme was also quite alluring: While I myself have never played the Werewolves game myself, I am quite aware of the popularity of the role-playing party game (which is also known as Mafia) and its ties with the mystery genre, so a mystery game which would use the Werewolves game as a motif was basically an instant-buy for me. From what I know, Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P has most of common ideas from the party game: a number of werewolves have infiltrated among the participants of the game, with the werewolves killing one of the human participants each night, while the humans (among them also the undercover werewolves) voting on persons whom they suspect are werewolves in order to execute them during the day. In most Werewolves games, there are also special human characters with powers to help the humans (like being able to check the true identity of one person each night), and this is also replicated in Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P..

Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P is a novel adventure game, which is basically a digital Choose-Your-Own-Adventure: most of the game is a lineair experience like a old-fashioned novel, but once every while the player themselves need to make a choice about what to do, and these choices influence the further outcome of the story. You might for example be given the choice to ask a certain question to someone, which could give you new information, or perhaps agitate someone enough for them to kill you. In ye olde days of actual paper Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, making choices also meant flipping through the pages a lot, as each choice would bring you to another page, but all of this hassle is of course streamlined in videogames, allowing for complex branching storylines but with a simple interface (usually, like in this case, in the form of a flowchart that shows exactly the result of each single choice). Rei-Jin-Gu-Lu-P however adds something interesting to the formula. Fusaishi gains the ability to be 'rewound' to the start of his ordeal every time he dies, with the preservation of all of his memories, which allows him to make choices at times he couldn't at first. For example, according to the rules of the mountain deity Shinnai, each and every night all villagers must cleanse their bodies, remain in their own dwellings locked from the inside, and go to bed early while the mist lasts. The first time Fusaishi dies is when he goes wandering outside during the night, where he is killed by a werewolf-like being. Thanks to his powers of rewinding though, he 'learns' the lesson of obeying the rules he thought nonsense, this time giving him the choice to go outside at night again, and the new option of remaining inside. In Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P it's thus often necessary to die on purpose, in order to learn new information that you can take back with you in time to avoid the same death a second time. Exploring all the choices and their outcomes, even if you know you might die, is a cornerstone of this game, as even death can be helpful for later rewinds.

Most of the story however is presented in a lineair fashion, and what you get is a very suspenseful mystery tale. Early on in the story, Fusaishi remarks that the werewolves ceremony is basically a strategic communication game, and that's precisely what it is. The villagers are randomly assigned their roles as humans/humans with special abilities/werewolves, and during the day, all the villagers must discuss together who they think is the most likely to be a werewolf. Some people might be suspected of being a werewolf because they appear to be acting differently from usual for example, while the way one person is trying to cast suspicion on someone else might be suspect on its own, as the werewolves among them are obviously trying to steer the discussion in a way as to kill of a human and not one of their own. And of course, there's the majority who at first doesnt' believe in werewolves, but are slowly but surely pushed in a position where they finally have accept they'll have to kill themselves or be killed. Add in the creepy background of the mountain forests and misty Yasumizu Village and you have an excellent closed circle mystery tale, with a good dash of supernatural elements for flavor. The supernatural elements are mostly about providing a background to keep the game fair for both the werewolves and the humans. They are what we'd call "rules" in the party game version of Werewolves and the supernatural only interferes with the pure logical/realistic side of the game if someone violates the rules.(i.e. the werewolves are only allowed to kill one person in the night, and are punished for that if they don't obey the rules). So at the core, the werewolves game is a purely fair whodunnit game, of humans trying to figure out who the werewolves are based on both psychological and physical clues. What is interesting is that Fusaishi, due to his rewinding powers, actually manages to change the game drastically several times. The roles of humans/werewolves are distributed randomly once the mist hits Yasumizu Village, but thanks to Fusaishi's rewinding shenanigans, the identity of the werewolves and humans are changed a couple of times. A person who is revealed to be a werewolf in Fusaishi's first loop might turn out to be a human in the second loop, and vice-versa. It's through these various 'versions' of the story that the player learns more about the various characters, as they all show different sides to the player through subsequent loops. But no matter who's who in the current loop, Fusaishi's goal remains the same: surviving the game and figuring out why this game exists in the first place.

While the background story of the revived werewolves and the mountain deity Shinnai are obviously fiction, I have to commend how fleshed out the religious side to the tale is. It borrows a lot from actual indigeneous Japanese nature religions and mythology, but also includes the anthropological side to religion. For example, a lot of attention is paid to the system of "adapting" older gods and deities into newer religions, which is a practice that has happened often in the history of Japanese religion. In a faraway past, I took several semesters on Japanese religion, and especially on how for example religions like Buddhism or state-led Shinto 'absorbed' other religions to gain legitimacy, and that's exactly one of the bigger topics mentioned in Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P. I think readers of writers like Kyougoku Natsuhiko and Mori Hiroshi will have a blast with the background story of this game, as it is fleshed out really well, with many ties to how religions actually developed in Japan.

It is therefore such a shame the last loop/scenario, which explains everything about the werewolf ceremony and the reason why Fusaishi is able to rewind in time is rather disappointing. Up until the last loop, the game did an excellent job at both using the above mentioned supernatural/religious elements in conjunction with the more realistic, anthropological explanation to underlying religious elements, but in the last loop, they are used in basically the least interesting manner possible.The ending basically tries to be both supernatural and realistic/logical, which can certainly be done, but the way it's done in Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P feels rather like an easy way out, resulting in something that never feels as satisfying an experience like earlier loops. What I do have to admit is how smart the clewing was in regards to the identity of the true mastermind behind everything. The hinting was really clever and subtle, but oh-so-obvious in hindsight.

Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P does add a very innovative feature after you beat the game, and it's something I have never ever seen done in mystery fiction before. In the Exposed Mode, you can replay the game from the start, but new lines of dialogues and inner monologue are added for all characters, not only protagonist Fusaishi. This means you can see what happened at a certain location while Fusashi wasn't around, but also what other characters (including the werewolves!) were thinking at certain points in the story. It gives a lot of insight in all the characters, showing things from their POV. In mystery fiction, you sometimes see something similar when the culprit has revealed their true colors, explaining what they were doing and/or thinking in earlier scenes, but in Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P's Exposed Mode, you get to see additions to practially every single scene, as well as for almost all characters. It's also a great way to explain some of the smaller questions about character motivation and events that happened throughout Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P, without slowing down the main story. I wish more story-based games had a mode like this! The whole game has voice acting for all the dialogue and inner monologue lines by the way, and that includes the Exposed Mode. I didn't like the voice actor of protagonist Fusaishi at all though, and his character (personality) was also far from my favorite, but the story itself, as well as the other characters were enough to get me hooked.

So all in all I did really enjoy Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P despite a somewhat disappointing ending. While it does not allow much room for the player to deduce much themselves (unlike for example Kamaitachi no Yoru, which was also a novel game), the story presented is a fantastic gripping tale that smartly utilized the rules of the Werewolves party game with a very richly thought-out background story revolving around the mountain deity Shinnai and other supernatural elements. It is a story where one can get really immersed in thanks to the gripping atmosphere and dramatic developments and it's certainly become one of the more interesting adventure games I've played this year. Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P apparently also has some links to another adventure by the same developers titled DMLC: Death Match Love Comedy, which I might try out in the future (as far as I know it's not a mystery game though, so it won't be discussed here probably).

Original Japanese title(s): 『レイジングループ』

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