Like the first title, The Awakened Fate Ultimatum casts our lead character (Shin Kamikaze) thrust into the middle of a war between angels and demons as he is forced to take on the mantle of God. What he discovers is a heavenly city called Celestia that the angels inhabit as they seem to be completely over matched by the devils. They need this new God - but view him as more of a weapon than a deity worth their devotion and respect.
Shin soon discovers that angels and demons are in may ways similar to humans. Not all demons are necessarily bad, and angels themselves are quite capable of making poor and biased decisions. Shin continually finds himself questioning whether he is doing the right or not not in supporting the angels and often finds himself having to make decisions that prove difficult and unpredictable.
This part of the gameplay is a nice improvement over the first game. There is a feeling of ownership over the storyline as Shin is often forced to decide between the lesser of two evils. Does he stop to save wounded angels before him and risk letting the devils cause more damage, or does he press on and stop the devils while sacrificing the fallen angels in order to prevent more casualties? There is no right or wrong answer, though each moral dilemma does tend to lean towards a good and bad side on a scale used during these key moments.
This balance between good and evil is represented in two other ways as well. The first and most obvious is in your two female companions Jupiel and Ariael. The former is a blonde angel with bright blue eyes and clearly falls on the 'light' or 'good' side of the fence in most things, while Ariael tends to harbor a more rational approach to things. Given the aforementioned scenario, Jupiel would be the one urging to save the angels while Ariael would point out that the pragmatic thing to do is deal with the threat itself. It was interesting for me to see these decisions play out as such, because in most games I take the 'good' route almost exclusively on my first play through (hey, I'm a nice guy, right?). Thing is - I generally took Ariael's stance in things - but not always.
This balancing act also shows up in your character himself. Enemies in the dungeons are either light or dark, and your character has the ability to become light or dark balanced himself. This allows Shin to use the opposite power on creatures, making his attacks more effective. When progressing the character, you can choose to put points into spheres that add skills and raise stats like attack and hit points. The system is very similar to the sphere system found in Final Fantasy X, but far more linear. However, this sphere grid is divided into light and dark halves, with improvements only impacting Shin if he is in the appropriate state, which means you will probably want two keep the two halves balanced.
Unfortunately this narrative idea did not get taken quite as far as I would have liked. The choices you make impact some of the dialogue boxes (and there is a lot of dialogue - almost visual novel-esque), but very little actually changes in the story. In one of the earlier chapters, I made a decision that gave me significant pause, and my decision got an innocent bystander slain. I wanted to see how differently things could have been, so I reloaded an earlier save and tried it with the opposite choice. While the discussion around my choice changed, that character still met their ill fate, which is a little disappointing since a theme that comes up fairly frequently is that Shin and his new found Godhood has the ability to change fate. It certainly would have taken more work to branch out the narrative further for these choices, but it would have added greater replay value to the game.
The Guided Fate Paradox was very stats-heavy, and its systems were not newcomer friendly at all. The systems for leveling up gear weapons was often very tedious. However, the different types of weapons did at least often play out differently in combat. Here the different weapon types do not feel any different really, but at least the system for improving the weapons is far more straightforward. I am also pleased to see that the actual character experience and leveling is handled far better now. In the prior game there was a strange sort of leveling system within a leveling system to try and cut back how effective a single dungeon grind would be. In The Awakened Fate Ultimatum, grinding is a bit more time-consuming in general, and lingering on any particular floor too long generally gets you matched up with an overly powerful beastie sure to beat on you.
Roguelikes tend to have a handful of common traits, and The Awakened Fate Ultimatum embraces most of these. Dungeons are procedurally generated each time. Dying costs you whatever gear you were carrying at the time. However, in most roguelikes death means you are starting over completely, but The Awakened Fate Ultimatum is kinder, letting your experience carry over. There are three ways to get out of a dungeon - beat all of the floors, die or use an exit/escape item. The latter is handy when you have them available.
Early on, progression happens at a fairly natural rate. The first dungeon is no cakewalk. Once those training wheels come off, The Awakened Fate Ultimatum is trying to kill you. Combat takes place in a somewhat strategic turn-based fashion. The biggest complaint I have is that being struck by an enemy forces your character to turn and face it. This is annoying if you were attempting to focus on another monster, because if you are too quick to hit the attack button, you might waste your turn hitting the wrong guy. However, the level of strategic depth here is quite high, just as it was in the original game, and I enjoyed it a great deal.
One thing I know that some people took issue with in the first game was the format of unskippable story every level, whether you had seen it or not previously. The Awakened Fate Ultimatum makes the smart design choice of remembering you had already seen a scene as well as giving you skipping options. This speeds along the gameplay, since you spend a good deal of time trying to beat the same dungeons over and over again. This is especially true when bosses get introduced. I will admit that the first 'real' boss I encountered about five missions in completely walloped me early on, forcing me to go back and grind plenty more before I could best him.
That is probably one of the biggest issues facing a game like this. The Awakened Fate Ultimatum does suffer from some pacing problems at times. Because you cannot keep your gear when you die, you need to make sure you escape (that exit item is key for this) before you perish. Carrying over levels is all well and good, but losing your best pieces of equipped gear can be more than a little frustrating. There were times I just wore chump gear, knowing full well I was making the dungeon harder on myself, because death was pretty much inevitable. This is one of the reasons roguelikes and myself do not always get along - I much prefer a feeling of perpetual progress as a general rule of thumb.
Still, like its predecessor, The Awakened Fate Ultimatum has an interesting story with a fun if challenging combat systems that rewards patience and carefully planned strategy. It has a better sense of balance than the original game, with systems that are more approachable for newcomers while still providing a lot of challenge even for veterans of the series. I said after The Guided Fate Paradox that I hoped to see it become a series, and now that it has - I am looking forward to seeing more of it in the future as well.
Review by Nick