One of the great risks with any anime tie-in game is whether it’s going to make sense to people who aren’t existing fans of the property. In many cases, licensed games track along with the early stages of the anime and therefore works well as an introduction to the property. And then there’s Re:Zero, which assumes that you know an awful lot going in.
For a visual novel, this is immediately a problem. When you’re going to spend hours watching characters chatter at one another, starting the story at a mid-way point is like skipping the first two seasons of a TV show and still trying to make sense of it. I was lucky to play the opening chapter of Re:Zero on a stream with a couple of people who were familiar with the anime, and they filled me in as we went along (thank you for that and a big shout-out to all my buddies on stream!). I’m lucky that they were there because otherwise there are moments that I think I would have got myself very lost.
Re:Zero is an isekai, which is (as someone in the stream so eloquently put) the junk food of anime. In isekai, someone from the “real world” is pulled into an alternative dimension or world, and needs to make their way in a very unfamiliar space. This concept has been used for some pretty significant works of art over the years. Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels are right up there with the “fantasy-as-literature” genre, and it’s effectively an isekai with some pretty pressing, dense themes. Clive Barker’s magnificent Imajica is mind-bending in its intelligence with this concept… and there’s C.S. Lewis’ whole wardrobe thing too. That one needs no introduction. In anime, however, this concept is generally an excuse to lean heavily into fanservice and as the narrative generally involves giving socially awkward twits a second chance to be awesome and score all the girls, which is certainly a kind of wish fulfilment that resonates with a lot of anime fans.
Re:Zero is one of the more popular isekai going around, and it’s not because it features a leper that is suddenly unburdened of his ailment (seriously, read Donaldson if you get the chance). The game has really, really pretty girls, and a protagonist that is just hopeless enough to poke fun at without quite sliding into someone that the audience would see as pathetic. Re:Zero is a game that likes its long interactions between characters that aren’t talking about much of anything (this is true to the anime, as I was told on the stream), so it’s just as well the cast is so likable. If you’re going to have a half-hour conversation over tea you want that conversation to elicit a giggle to two. It’s written well for its purpose, and seems to have been localised effectively by Spike Chunsoft, a company that very much understands visual novel localisation. The point to all this is that while I did find the game befuddling at times because I didn’t have the assumed knowledge, I still found it entertaining, even if it wasn’t driving at any particular themes worthy of in-depth consideration.
Re:Zero’s appeal is boosted by its aesthetics in a big way, thanks to strong character design and well-designed around them. The artist on the title Shinichirou Otsuka, has previously worked on Conception, and while they don’t produce the most intricate and detailed designs, they’re clean and pleasant on the eye. You’ve probably seen the main female character, Emilia, a few times by now, even if you’re only mildly into Japanese anime art, and even if you haven’t see Re:Zero yourself. Emilia is… well, Emilia is popular, and pretty, and a common target for rule 34. There’s nothing too over-the-top with the fanservice of her in this game, but she certainly sets the tone for a certain glamour among the cast that fits the isekai genre to a “T”.
It’s the gameplay that’s most interesting in Re:Zero, though. It takes a long time to get there, so go in being aware of that, but it’s worth the wait. Having known nothing about the game leading into it, I was fully expecting it to be a pure-play visual novel with a couple of minor “point-and-click” adventure bits thrown in to give players a break, but then out of nowhere, it breaks into a combat mission. At first that combat mission looks like it’ll be something like what another visual novel cross-genre title, Utawarerumono, offered – a tactics JRPG system with cute little SD head characters running around a field, but then things get really different.
Oh, and if he should die in these battles, he’s returned to life at a point in the near past with all his memories of what just happened retained. It’s very Edge of Tomorrow stuff, and feeds into the way that our hero can take advantage of his memories to further manipulate the battlefield on his next attempt.
I’m told that all of this is also in keeping with the spirit of the anime, and I was genuinely impressed that the developer went to such lengths to come up with a fairly unique combat system just to do justice to the base property. It would have been so easy to spin this into a standard tactics JRPG or dungeon crawler. What we get instead is a gameplay system that behaves a little like a situational puzzle game, and while it could have been a little more of a brain-teaser, it’s enjoyable, entertaining, engaging and an ideal break from the visual novel side of the action.