You have no idea how long I’ve been wanting to write this review, but finally, here I am. Ironically coming straight after a post about one of the worst samples the medium has to offer, this review will now take an in-depth look at the other end of the spectrum. That is, the ‘not-shit’ end. There are so many things I want to say it’s probably gonna be a nightmare to organize it all without spoiling too much, so, as you may imagine, I’m already feeling sorry for my future self who will have to write all that. Anyway, you can probably already guess the outcome of the review — no sane man would attempt to translate this many excerpts of a VN he doesn’t adore –, nonetheless, do hear me out.
Opening (Amantes amentes):
Opening (Acta est Fabula):
If you need a bit of an introduction, Dies Irae is a visual novel penned by Takashi Masada, the same guy that later went on to write Kajiri Kamui Kagura (which, I’m told, is somewhat of a sequel to Dies Irae) and the freshly-released Soushuu Senshinkan Gakuen Hachimyoujin. He’s pretty much known for his fairly complex, over-the-top writing style that makes his work very difficult and yet very satisfying to read at the same time. Dies Irae really is a prime example of this: it has all the mind-blowing fight scenes you could ask for, coupled with memorable, fleshed-out characters that are a joy to quote (and I’ll give you plenty of quotes between paragraphs, trust me), and poignant lines that stay with you long after you’ve already finished the game.
The tale starts in 1945, Berlin, in the final days of the Third Reich — a small group of supernatural, inhumanly powerful soldiers known as the Longinus Dreizehn Orden, spearheaded by former Gestapo commander Reinhard Heydrich and his right hand man, the enigmatic Mercurius, carry out a mysterious ritual amid the flames of the fallen capital and soon disappear, never to be seen again. You know how it is, though — never say never. We jump to 2006 and Japan, Suwahara City to be exact, and as you no doubt already know, “they” make a return and turn Fujii Ren’s — the protagonist’s — peaceful, everyday life upside down. And the rest is for you to discover.
The version I read, subtitled “Amantes amentes” could be considered the definitive edition of the game — well, unless you *really* want H scenes. It’s basically an all-ages version of the game’s 18+ original Acta est Fabula, except it actually adds a number of extra stories and epilogues that were not present in Acta, at the cost of censoring some of the gore and removing the H scenes. It’s a good trade, if you ask me, because I personally loved the extra content, they really do make the experience feel more complete. (the initial release of the VN is subtitled “Also sprach Zarathustra” and based on what I’ve read online it’s shit and you shouldn’t bother with it.)
In many aspects, Dies Irae, I feel, must have been influenced by Fate/Stay Night at least to a certain extent, in the sense that it basically revolves around a vicious battle royale being carried out in a quiet Japanese town, and a seemingly random high schooler who gets caught up in all of it and ends up fighting for his life. There are more similarities actually, to the point where I even felt like certain characters in Dies had their FSN counterparts — Sakurai Kei being Rin, the tsundere rival that teaches Ren the basics; Tubal Cain as Berserker (also fully controlled by their masters); Trifa would be Kotomine and Reinhard is probably the closest to Gilgamesh, while Ren wielding Marie reminded me a little bit of Shirou and Saber in a way, just to mention a few. If I had to put it somewhat crudely, I’d say the VN is sorta like the love child of FSN and Hellsing with a bit of extra oomph tacked on for good measure, and lots and lots of solid characterization.
But this post isn’t about FSN, so let’s not dwell upon it too much. As I’ve just implied, characterization is indeed the name of the game in Dies, and Masada managed to completely blow me away by the sheer amount of personality he breathed into his characters. If you did some research about Dies you’ve probably heard that it has a greatly diverse cast of characters, each with their own way of talking and their own little differentiating characteristics, ideals and such. And that’s pretty much true. It gets to the point where the storyline becomes secondary (in fact it’s fairly cliché if you think about it), with the reader pretty much just waiting for the next big “oh shit” moment to hit so that the most memorable characters can finally take to the stage and do their thing. And even by the end, what will stay with you isn’t necessarily *what* happened, but rather how each character played their part int he grand opera, each with their own motivations, aspirations and ideals that define them. Not entirely unlike in Muramasa, these goals and motivations may seem ridiculous at times, but you sort of have to roll with it and adopt a certain mindset to fully appreciate the game.
The VN itself has a line that goes like this: では一つ、皆様私の歌劇を御観覧あれ。その筋書きはありきたりだが, 役者が良い。至高と信ずる。And that couldn’t be truer in the case of Dies, a story that doesn’t necessarily build upon its crazy, unpredictable twists, but rather creates a fascinating universe and populates it with well-developed, iconic characters you simply cannot take your eyes off of — the stage is set, the players play their parts, and the reader is spellbound. Where the story might or might not go is not *too* difficult to predict, anyway. No, the more important part is how much it can all grab you, and Masada’s enchanting writing is very much responsible for that. The entire game starts out with a lengthy but nonetheless powerful monologue by Mercurius, and every word of it is basically magic. It makes you think, it makes you want to find out more, it pulls you right in. The prologue plays out in a similar fashion: when Reinhard finally makes his first appearance and explains his objectives, it really does feel like there’s sorcery in every word he utters — what I’m trying to say is that *this* is how you set the mood and establish your charismatic antagonists. Antagonists that will ironically be the real stars of the show, but we’ll talk about that later.
The VN has four routes corresponding to the four main heroines, so let’s talk about them for a bit.
The first one belongs to Ayase Kasumi, Ren’s childhood friend — the heroine no one seems to like and the route everyone tells you to skip. Well, I’m going to tell you not to skip it. Oh, and I actually like Kasumi — as a side character, not necessarily as a route heroine, but putting that aside, I thought she was fine. When she first popped up on-screen she reminded me of MuvLuv’s Sumika in a way: she’s quite the tomboy, has an obvious crush on Ren but despite all the abuse she gives him, she does have a loving heart. In a cast full of freaks, she remains pure and simple, the representation of Ren’s normal life — and like Ren in her route, I also did appreciate her as that special, sunny corner of the mundane. Nonetheless, she still ends up feeling more like a side character than a main heroine and overall doesn’t have too much a role in the VN as a whole.
Her route is easily the weakest out of the four, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s horrible — it’s just fairly average. In fact, neither Reinhard, nor Mercurius actually make an appearance in this route. The final boss ends up being someone less important, and the ending of the route is also somewhat of a major downer. Still, it gives you access to the backstories of Trifa and Lisa early on, which — to me personally — made digesting future routes and events a touch easier. So keep that in mind. It also includes a very cool scene at the end involving Kei (who, at that point, is by far the most interesting heroine), a scene that, I might add, will come back in Kei’s own route later on, although somewhat altered.
The second route is Sakurai Kei’s, the girl who actually starts out on Reinhard’s side but ends up inevitably falling for Ren. The scene where she finally, uh, “confesses” to him (in her own way) is quite possibly the most memorable scene in the route and in general my favorite romantic scene in the VN, even if romance itself is hardly ever the main focus of any of the routes. Kei is… an interesting heroine, most definitely. She appears very strong — and *is* very strong, actually –, but she’s also extremely emotional and vulnerable. If you enjoy tsundere heroines that are all tough and strong most of the time but can still be embarrassed and get all blushy blushy by the silliest of things, you’ll *love* her character. (and I do, personally.)
It helps that her actress has the sexiest voice ever. Trust me, it does. They’re sort of exact opposites with Ren, which makes them all the more entertaining as a couple, as their interactions often boil down to “I hate you! I hate you too! ……SHUT UP AND KISS ME” sort of antics. This is the route where shit starts to get real, but just before it could really explode, it backs down and quickly decides to roll the credits. It’s understandable, as the VN intentionally holds itself back until the final two routes (and especially the final route) where all hell breaks loose. Kei’s ending is decent if you like her as a heroine, but it’s still pretty much a non-ending.
The third route belongs to none other than Marie, the mysterious blonde girl Ren meets early on in the game. As she’s the girl in the opening movie, I believe it comes as no surprise when I say that Marie is quite possibly one of the most important characters in the game, considering the role she has to play in all this. At first she starts out as somewhat of a child-like airhead who knows nothing of the ways of the world, but in her own route, she changes and develops feelings of her own. I won’t go into specifics, but she basically becomes a proper character at that point. Her sudden change in personality both in her route and Rea’s is really quite interesting to witness, and she pretty much personifies a lot of the things I enjoy in a VN heroine: she’s kind and loving, stands up for Ren in the face of danger, and never really becomes a damsel in distress (I mean, she *is* the guillotine princess after all, which probably makes her the most dangerous heroine).
Also she’s kinda-sorta ridiculously cute. Her route is the first “proper” ending of the VN, and one that — especially if you read the Amantes-exclusive after story as well — will leave you quite satisfied and possibly cursing your onion-cutting neighbors in the vicinity. I talk from experience. In the end, if I had to pick the best characters out of *only* the four main heroines, Marie and Kei would probably be my favorites, by the way.
The fourth and final route, by process of elimination, is Himuro Rea’s, an older girl that Ren befriends at school. I’ll be honest, I don’t really like her very much as a heroine. Not because she’s a bad person, but rather because she’s sort of… bland? She does have a very odd sense of humor and likes teasing others, which felt refreshing as comedic relief, but as a love interest, she kinda falls flat. There’s just… no chemistry between her and Ren, to the point where I genuinely had trouble believing these two were really in love. If anything, I found the relationship between Rea and Trifa far more interesting.
The route itself, on the other hand, is quite possibly the best one in the game, as the major themes of the VN, as well as the ideals of its major characters are fully crystallized here, plus it has the craziest fight scenes of all — the only downside I can mention is that for me, Rea’s extra epilogue wasn’t quite *as* good as Marie’s. Again, this could be up to personal preference, though.
In Amantes amentes, there are also a total of five extra stories to consider, and each of them are quite interesting in their own right, giving you extra background information, fleshing out certain characters further or simply showing you important events that happened in the past, years before the main VN even starts. The first two can be read after Kasumi’s route; the third one after Kei’s route; the fourth after Marie’s and the fifth after Rea’s. Some are better than others, but all are worth reading if you enjoy certain characters (flashback story with Beatrice) or want to see some more closure to the story (epilogues).
Time to talk about the characters a bit, and I suppose it’s customary to begin with the protagonist. Interestingly enough, Fujii Ren is at the same time among my most favorite and least favorite characters, in a way. I know that sounds weird; he himself isn’t a character I feel especially strongly about, but the ideals he comes to represent (see quote above; the beauty of the fading moment) in the VN lead to some of the best moments in all four routes, and in general it’s something that resonates with me very strongly. It’s really such a simple thing, one that we all must have felt or thought about, and yet the script expresses it with such elegance and power that you can’t help but want to applaud it. Ren’s best friend, Yusa Shirou, is actually a far more interesting character and is even responsible for one of the best fight scenes in Rea’s route during which his bromance with Ren is taken to its absolute, testosterone-filled limits.
I’ve already mentioned the four main heroines, so let’s skip them. Time for the show-stealers. Indeed, Dies is one of those games where the antagonists end up being far more memorable than most people on the good guys’ side.
Karl Kraft, Mercurius, Hermes Trismegistos, Alessandro di Cagliostro and a million other names he goes by — if you think of Dies Irae, you think of this guy. He is by far the most enigmatic and most fascinating character to appear in the VN, and is the entire reason I initially took interest in the game in the first place. It’s hard to talk about him without spoilers so I won’t go into details, but needles to say, Mercurius will be the constant shadow in the back of your mind, the puzzle you’ll desperately want to solve and the man who will command all your attention during every single second he’ll be on-screen.
His monologues are probably the hardest to interpret in the entire VN, but every time he opens his mouth, you genuinely won’t be able to stop reading — the way he talks, the way he pronounces things is almost as if it was some form of nonsensical verse of poetry. It really is like nothing I’ve ever read in VNs before; he’s an entity of his own and you have to just experience him for yourself. Words won’t do him justice.
His one friend, the commander of the Longinus Thirteen, is Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called beast of gold and monarch of destruction. I *loved* the way his character was built up over the course of the four routes, and can even understand why he did not make an appearance in Kasumi’s route. At first, you only hear the stories of his prowess. Even members of the LDO that could otherwise destroy an entire city without really breaking a sweat tremble in fear when even a faint shadow of Reinhard appears. He’s basically a guy that shits supernovas and eats civilizations for breakfast.
In many stories you’ll get the “late villain appearance” syndrome where the final boss sort of just shows up without warning in the end and the heroes sort of just beat him and call it a day. And there’s really no sense of accomplishment. Not in Dies, where the tales of how utterly powerful and terrible Reinhard is permeate the entire script. The reader ends up fearing and anticipating him as much as the characters, so when he *does* finally show up, you know shit has really hit the fan. What’s more, he never, ever shows any signs of weakness or faltering — and I mean that in the way some villains go from being full of confidence to “h-how could this be?!” when the hero gets the upper hand. Not Reinhard. He’s always in control, always knows what to say. His monologues and way of thinking are truly among the highlights of the VN, much like Mercurius, making him one of the most quotable people in the entire story. Whenever he’s part of a dialogue, you can’t help but anticipate how he’ll respond — claiming that Reinhard is charismatic is a colossal understatement, as the reader falls for his otherworldly charm as much as his own followers in-game. And you know you have something special when a VN can achieve that. He’s basically a male femme fatale, if that makes sense.
I probably won’t go over every single character one by one, but here are some of the ones I really enjoyed. From the female cast, my all-time personal favorites ended up being Beatrice and Eleonore (Samiel), whose relationship I greatly enjoyed in the flashbacks. First off, Eleonore is the very avatar of a strong, no-nonsense female character, her lines can be harsh but there’s a certain something about her that you can greatly respect and admire. A cruel opponent but someone who values her pride as a warrior — an Einherjar — above all. There’s a bit more to her than what the harsh exterior reveals, and the more you find out about her and her innermost desires, the more evident –and interesting — it becomes. As far as badass quotes are concerned, she is second only to Reinhard.
And now we come to Beatrice, who’s actually just a side character and doesn’t have as much screen time in the main scenario as I would have liked. Still, she does make an appearance in the side stories/epilogues which develop her a bit further, so there’s that.
Alright, so I’ll be blunt, she’s pretty much my favorite character in the game. Like, the entire game, out of all routes and all side stories, despite her reduced involvement compared to others. I suppose you can chalk that up to my sheer enjoyment of characters that can be both serious and laid-back or outright ridiculous at the same time, never becoming pure comic relief and still maintaining an air of gravity when the scene calls for it. And that’s kinda what she is. I found her scenes and lines to be the funniest in the game, while her relationship with Eleonore and a certain man (elaborated on in one of the side stories) as well as Kei makes for some really solid drama. I happen to also have a ponytail fetish but th-that’s not i-important right now.
And before the fans lynch me, yes, Rusalka deserves a mention as well. Strangely enough, I vastly preferred her normal, everyday persona as opposed to her LDO self — some of her best moments are in flashbacks.
In any case, there’s several other characters to talk about, but I’d be here all day. I’m sure there are other things to say, but this post has already gotten long and surely I’m not the only guy to have reviewed this VN, haha. The point I’m trying to make by listing all my favorite bits and listing half a dozen quotes, is how much of an effect Masada’s script had on me, and how brilliant of a job he does creating a truly iconic cast that no doubt will be remembered as one of the very best this medium has to offer. I doubt this needs to be said, but on the audiovisual front, there’s really very little to complain about — some less important fight themes may get repetitive, but the soundtrack very much makes up for it via its variety of other tracks that fit the mood perfectly (Walhall, Uber den Himmel and Einsatz being my personal favorites, once again prepare yourself for onion cutting). And naturally, G Yuusuke’s artwork is solid all around, but the screenshots are here to help you decide.
The VN itself is tremendously long and as such, has some pacing issues, but I felt it was more than worth soldiering through the more uneventful bits to get to the parts that move you, the ones that truly leave you in awe. There’s an epicly long buildup, much like in Muramasa, but when the time comes to write something truly fantastic and memorable, Masada nails it. I mean, the fact I inserted so many quotes in the review should be evidence of that — and I had to seriously consider which ones to include and which ones to leave out. No doubt you’ve all heard how the Japanese in the game is pretty hard, ranging from “this is not too bad” to “what the fuck”, but the reward is absolutely worth it. However, it is once again my duty to say that the game is still not for everyone. If you’d rather read a complex, twist-filled story and aren’t really interested in falling in love with a great cast of characters, this might not be your cup of tea. And like I said above, you do have to be in a given mindset to be able to just roll with some of the stuff that happens in this. Still, despite *all* that, I do believe Dies irae is a VN classic that every reader of Japanese visual novels ought to at least give a chance, once they’re ready for the fairly meaty reading experience it provides.
「Amantes,amentes――Omnia vincit Amor」