Reading Dies irae has been quite the odd experience for me. Not because it does anything particularly groundbreaking and unique with the visual novel medium. Though there are some odd decisions about how it’s structured and how you buy it. But rather because it is a VN that despite having spent 70 hours with, I am still very mixed up over. I feel I would be doing it, and myself, a disservice by calling it a bad VN. Yet so much of my experience of Dies irae has been frustrating, annoying, or disgusting.
It is a story in which one of the most despicable men in modern history is depicted as a cursed ubermensch. Someone who’s evil captivates, destroys and devours everything. Though only due to him being forsaken by a twisted cynical ____. He is an absolute evil, intentionally so. But that evil is also separated from his historical counterpart, whilst being drenched in his mythology; there is no mention of his non-small role in The Holocaust which is something you would expect from a character based on Heydrich.
This is but one example of how Dies irae makes it difficult for me to talk about it in positive terms. I wouldn’t say Dies irae is Nazi apologia for instance, or at least it doesn’t intend to be such. But the very nature of Dies irae‘s fetishization and indulgences with Nazi mythos leaves a bad taste in my mouth. For all of Dies irae’s charm and thrill it is almost always includes at least one line, or theme, that cements my Dies irae experience as being mixed.
Recent trailers for the anime adaptation of Dies irae describe it as a ‘battle opera’. Which is about as apt a summary of what Dies irae does as one can get. Upon opening the VN for the first time, you are presented with the thrashing of obnoxious metal. A burnt down wartime Berlin. The last actions of a shattered troupe of German soldiers as they are mercilessly gunned down. Inhuman monsters given form killing all. Friend or foe alike, in the name of a Hellish ritual involving That Golden Beast floating above all.
A gaudy account of the end of WW2, twisted into a gaudy piece of hyperviolent entertainment. A prime example of what the experience of reading Dies irae is going to revolve around. Battle after battle between the protagonist, Ren Fuji, and The 13 Evil-Nazis-Who-Were-So-Evil-They-Even-Killed-Hitler (How Fucked Up Is That?). An escalation of super-powers and world ending stakes. Visceral gore-filled hyper-violence as both ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ wield suffering and disaster incarnate, powered by their own twisted desires and the souls of those they personally damned.
“Ha, you cannot win. My power is the power of “The Fastest Thing Possible.”
“Jokes on you, mine is “Go Faster”.”
*Intense metal music lovingly named “Holocaust” as both characters are tear, flesh, bone, and soul from each other*
All coated in a blend of Christian and Buddhist philosophies.
Dies irae, once it has passed an initial mystery-ish plot, is built entirely around these fights. Whether its aiming to be intense, disturbing or philosophical, most of it’s narrative will be conveyed in and around gaudy, ridiculous battles. The novelty of which does eventually wear thin. Hearing a character’s lyrical power-up ritual for the first time does manage some degree of charm and curiosity, but there is only so many times one can read such a thing before it begins to grate. Lavish descriptions of blood and violence are always going to be very hit-and-miss, but the sheer repetitive nature of Dies irae is bound to allow even fans of such genre staples to grow tired of it. Thematic and cohesive these conflicts may be, but the long drawn out length of Dies irae actively works against it.
Life is a fight, a war, a struggle. Nothing comes cheap. Yet reading almost identical fights for route after route.. The extent to which Dies irae refuses to do anything by halves is a vital part of making it charming. Yet also contributes to the many things I take issue with. Like a certain case in the first Danganronpa game, the purposeful tone and aesthetic of Dies irae refuses to allow any misstep to be overlooked, and instead pushes it to the forefront. Exasperating such missteps with crude descriptions and dedication. A misogynistic serial killer’s tragic backstory? Not good enough, throw in their mother/sister/murder and rape victim to spice it up. Make her nude and childish. Slap it into the middle of a fight scene. Now we are Dies irae-ing.
It took me about forty-fifty hours or so to get to a point in Dies irae where I felt its glorified blend of Nazi iconography, mythology and hyper-violence ever extended beyond “Hey cool Nazis”. It took till the epilogue of the third route of this four(ish) route game for me to feel like it understood the horrors it previously spoke about were genuinely horrific. Mentions of the Holocaust, of eugenics and even of war scenes in and of themselves are oddly sanitised. Yes, they’re bad. But if they can’t be described gaudily to titillate then they serve little purpose. Passages are dedicated to the inevitable nature of WW2 and how Germany ‘needed’ it, yet the only real condemnation the war as a thing that actively harmed German people who weren’t actively fighting in it are left to the very end of the VN.
Most everything Dies irae wants to say is left till the very end. Letting it revel in and deny its distasteful elements.
The first and second routes of the VN, Kasumi and Kei’s, may have their own individual narrative arcs, but they are ultimately simply set up for the Marie and Rei routes. They’re character introductions for the large cast of Nazi villains. To the kinds of language and ‘mechanics’ of the setting that they want to explain to you. As well as providing a wealth of questions the reader will want answered by almost stating something, and then not. Hooks towards later reveals, often setting things up for incredibly minor scenes tens of hours later. These routes are neither entirely self contained arcs nor simply parts of a greater narrative, but a weird blend of both that ultimately makes any route bar Rea’s, lacking.
You ought not to skip routes, even if this Steam release does let you, and yet it is incredibly unlikely that any route but Rea’s stands a chance of being your favourite. The repetition, set up, and characterisation is necessary to make sense of the motivations involved in the latter routes. Even build up of how each route ends is a necessary part of reading Dies irae. Yet that still leaves so much of Dies irae to be so weak. I am sure many people love the earlier routes too, but so much weight behind Dies irae, that which distinguishes it, requires ____ to take central stage. A stage that the character behind ___ does not want to do. A diegetic reason, for the necessary ‘boredom’ to fill the VN. Which unfortunately taints an already mixed bag even further.
The routes themselves are named after the main ‘heroine’ or romantic love interest of the protagonist during those route. Kasumi’s route is about Kasumi. Marie’s route is about Marie. Though this in itself is, to a certain extent, a misnomer. Ren Fuji may fall in love with these characters during the route, and the route may be named after them, but often the actual focus of said route remains unchanged, merely whoever is going to play the ‘damsel in distress’ role for Fuji’s development. This in itself has some kind of novelty to it. Most visual novels with such a structure would make, for instance, the Kasumi route 100% about Kasumi. All about her relationship with Fuji, and all about her Character Arc which would only be hinted at in other routes.
On the flipside, the passivity that Dies irae grants its ‘heroines’ is very offputting. Some of them may be fighters, but their fight will now be Fuji’s. Some of them may influence the plot by fighting against their fate, and whilst that will be glorified it will also be demeaned. The branching narrative branches less so due to the actions of any of the protagonist’s group, and more so due to whether a Certain Character Turns up at a certain time, for no real reason. The events that happen, happen because they were always going to happen. Cohesive to the themes of Dies irae? Yes. Purposefully frustrating? Yes. A good idea? Maybe not.
You could criticise my frustrations with how Dies irae depicts womanhood and femininity from a multitude of positions. It isn’t like the VN only depicts women in shitty situations, it depicts everyone in shitty situations. To have it’s gendered violence and archetypes be where I stop giving it the benefit of the doubt over the aforementioned Nazism is a bit odd. The misogynistic language, both in-character and in narration are all justified within the world of the VN. Either from ____’s ‘chivalry’ and other such expectations of women, or by the cast just being a bunch of shitty people.
To that I do not really have a good answer. Perhaps it won’t bother you that almost all of the women in the cast end up playing some kind of maternal or motherly role at some point, bar the one woman who’s entirely trapped by her own ‘feminine feelings she’s denied’. Perhaps you can read it as simply being a depiction of the trappings of the world. Sexism exists after all. But for me. I can’t really rationalise it away. The only vulnerable no-names we see in CGs are all women, either gorily slaughtered, or sexually tied up. Despite the fact the actual text of the game either remains gender neutral on the slaughter of innocents. Or is playing up the countless rapists that are in it, since Being A Nazi isn’t evil enough.
So. To refrain from spiralling. Do I like Dies irae? Do I loathe Dies irae? Truthfully, I do not know. It’s hard to look past the overcoat of grossness that pervades Dies irae even during the bits I truthfully enjoy. I like the rapport that exists between a bunch of the cast, constantly teasing and bullying each other in a rather natural way. Helped by a translation that grants these overly dramatic teens with a strong character voices. There is a fair amount I find fun in Dies irae, and a fair amount of missteps I expected it to take it does not.
Despite it being weirdly sanitary with certain parts of Nazi Germany at times, whilst at others revelling in its Hell, it does not go so far as to forgive the horrendous actions of some of it’s cast. In a perfect world, for instance, a certain character might have been able to live a happy life. Their gender circumstances not being forced on them, they would still be noncomformative. Yet, when they are born into Nazi Germany, they cannot be forgiven. Their circumstances, even when cursed by ___ will still leave them as a bestial serial killer. Whereas some of the Nazis get some form of redemption, others do not. Which, whilst not being done exactly as I’d like, is still leaps ahead of “Maybe everyone can be good uwu”.
At the very least I like that there is alot I can talk about when it comes to Dies irae. Some of it intentional: the pluralistic ways we can connect with and enjoy fiction. Some of it maybe less so: the countless ways I can enjoy conversation dunking of it. At the very least Dies irae is excellent at being Dies irae. If that is what you want from a visual novel, a consistently inconsistent mess of Nazism, Battles and dunking then maybe you’ll enjoy parts of it.