Imagine that one day, you suddenly became God. No warning, no limitless power, but all the responsibility. The Guided Fate Paradox, a “mystery dungeon” role playing game by the Disgaea team, explores this concept with unfettered glee.
You play as Renya Kagurazaka, a self-proclaimed unlucky high school student. However, his luck seemingly turns around when he wins the “Lottery of Fate” at a shopping mall and becomes God. In order to train for his new role, he must practice granting wishes using a machine known as the Fate Revolution Circuit. This machine creates a copy of the real world wherein Renya must fight monsters in order to influence his believers’ fates and grant their wishes.
What quickly becomes apparent is that Renya isn’t the kind of god one might expect. Both the narrative and gameplay make a point to say that god in the world of The Guided Fate Paradox is fragile and disposable. Despite his god-like powers, Renya is still a high school student and carries himself in the goofiest way possible. His powers are rarely impressive, too, as he can be defeated easily when exploring dungeons. The contrast between the archetype of what God is supposed to be and how Renya actually is characterizes the way in which the game tells its tale.
The story of The Guided Fate Paradox embraces conventions in order to play with your expectations. This is most apparent when looking at the vast majority of characters in the game. Both the angels and demons have fairly cliché looks and personalities, only to reveal early on that almost none of them are what they seem. It’s a structure that is ripe with plot twists and thrives on absurdity, making sure you never completely trust what’s going on. Don’t let looks fool you; the plot takes you on a surprisingly interesting ride.
It helps that the narrative is strong enough to move the game along, as the gameplay itself can be polarizing. As a mystery dungeon game, The Guided Fate Paradox is fairly standard for the genre. There are some clear Disgaea-like elements such as absurdly high leveling and the ability to pick up and throw items and enemies, but these features just don’t make the game stand out in the way it has for Disgaea. Familiarity isn’t really a bad thing, but if you’re a veteran of the genre you will know what to expect. If you aren’t though, brace yourself for a game that is as addicting as it can be frustrating.
On a basic level, you move across a grid trying to find to an exit to the next floor of a dungeon. The dungeon layouts are random, but all have the general idea of multiple paths with one exit hidden among them. Enemies will attack you as progress, and will grow more powerful the farther you go into the dungeon. Exploring the whole area is also encouraged, as there can be equipment and money. To discourage exploration though, there will also be traps that are randomly put on the ground. These traps will usually blow you up or give you status effects like poison or paralysis, and while they can be avoided by attacking in front of a square before you move, it’s not super practical to do so.
Combat is a simple button pressing affair, and you and the enemy will take turns attacking. However, you also have access to skills and items that can make a world of difference in your efforts to survive. Items can be used for healing or attack enemies, and are generally used when in a pinch. Skills are special attacks or supportive stat buffs, but their most ingenious use is for their role in positioning.
How skills and your position interact ended up being one of the most satisfying aspects of the game. Through the combination of being turn based and on a grid, movement can be restricted easily. This makes escaping from enemies difficult, as well catching up to them. Skills can allow you to attack long range, sometimes even moving your position to theirs. This lets you pick beneficial positions and get out of bad situations. It can also be abused to allow you to go through and gaps that you shouldn’t be able to, giving room to be creative and make your own shortcuts.
Another one of the more interesting aspects of the game is its leveling system. Whenever you begin a dungeon, you are always at level one. Killing enemies will increase your level, and when you either complete a dungeon or die, these levels will be added to a separate “total level” counter. The higher your total level, the higher your base stats are when you begin a dungeon attempt. What this means is you are technically always making progress, so you don’t have to worry as much about your in-dungeon level on repeat attempts.
There’s a second layer to leveling called the Divinigram, which allows you to place panels on a grid to influence how your stats grow. You are given full reign on where to place panels and how to expand your grid, making Renya’s development a little more personal than just numbers. More options for improvement are added as the game goes on, and choosing how Renya develops can be tough but rewarding.
In fact, most of the game’s difficulty comes down to making good judgment calls. You can theoretically go through dungeons in one attempt, but you’re also given an option to leave early (and not in a body bag). By using an escape item you can teleport back to safety and keep all of your experience and loot. The most efficient way to make progress is to develop a hit and run strategy, getting as far as you can in a dungeon and leaving when things go awry. These decisions are when the game is at its most captivating as well as aggravating.
It’s like a mild form of gambling. “Maybe just one more enemy, a little more money, and then it’s okay to leave,” you might think. Then you find that the last enemy hit a lot harder than you thought, or lead you into a horde of monsters that vanquished you before you properly assessed the situation. Suddenly you’re dead, and those enemies took a lot more than just your health.
Normally when you die you are kicked out of the dungeon and lose all your equipment, items, as well as half of your money on-hand. Options open up later to store money and preserve equipment, but parting with everything you’ve collected while exploring can be disheartening. It can be especially bad when you’ve lost some armor and weapons that you’ve grown attached to.
Attachment to equipment isn’t a sign of insanity either, it’s actually heavily emphasized. Once you use something long enough, it will “burst,” allowing you to upgrade it. You are allowed to upgrade your equipment extensively, as long as you have enough money and continue to burst it beforehand. All of the equipment in the game also shows up on your characters, making them look as bizarre or coordinated as you like. Perhaps the biggest advantage equipment offers though is access to unique skills. If you want a particular skill that powers up certain attacks, you need to have the right stuff with you.
While this shouldn’t always be the case, especially early in the game, you can start to develop some equipment mainstays. Additionally, you also have the option of naming and changing the color of equipment to complete your bond. The idea of losing an elite team of Seinfeld-themed equipment over one dumb mistake is almost too much to bear.
Fittingly, the pause menu includes a “give up” option for expeditions you know are going to end poorly. This prompt exits the game and allows you to reload your save. It’s not clear if this is the game’s intention, but choosing it almost always seems like the better option. Building up sets of equipment can be expensive and time consuming, and despite the experience you gained during the attempt adding to your total level, it takes more effort to level up equipment than it does your base stats. The small incentive for dying is nice, but ultimately not enough to justify continuing.
Thankfully you are also given several “get out of jail free” cards to make sure you’re safe. Renya has an assigned guardian angel named Lilliel, who can accompany him in dungeons, conveniently taking hits and offering health restoration. There’s also a “God mode,” which can occasionally turn Renya into a legitimate powerhouse. There are so many options for preservation that, despite death being an ever looming threat, the game never feels truly unfair.
However, since the game is built around restarting dungeons until you’re strong enough to clear it entirely, things can start to feel repetitive. You will become intimately familiar with the death cries of monsters as you clear entire rooms trying to maximize your level before warping out. The grind can be alleviated by going back through previous dungeons, which the leveling system makes conveniently viable, but at the end of the day it’s still a grind.
There are some measures taken to curb the monotony, but they can be hit or miss. All of the copy world dungeons have unique gimmicks for traversal; for one you will be hopping across medieval rooftops while in another you’re bending gravity in a giant cube maze. When they work they’re great ways to add variety, but some of the dungeons can become grating fast.
The medieval rooftops, for example, are an interesting idea that falls apart the longer you experience it. Whenever you hop off a roof it’s a one way trip, and you need to find yourself a cannon to shoot back to the starting point. If you’re unlucky you will have to try all of the different hopping paths in order to find the correct way, resulting in having to retread a lot of old ground. And that’s only if you’re interested in finding the exit. If you want to scour the map for goodies and experience points before moving on, this process gets old fast.
Perhaps the best highlights of diversity are the boss fights. Every dungeon, usually at the tenth floor, will pit you against unique monster or situation that tests your strategic mettle. These battles will usually overwhelm you if you tackle them head on, but making use of the terrain, items, and skills you have access to makes the bosses feel fun and challenging. Depending on what you’ve brought with though, these encounters can be way harder or easier than they need to be.
One fight requires you to hit a book before it casts a spell that drowns you in lava. The problem is the book can teleport anywhere, and depending on the skills you have with you, reaching it in time can be impossible. If you are aware of a boss’s tactics though, then you can easily stock up on what you need and completely overwhelm it. It’s most fun to fight a boss on your own terms and make do with what you have, but that’s not always realistic.
Disappointingly, the fact that the dungeon layouts are different every time does not add much to the game. A lot of the gimmicks greatly overpower the differences in level design, to the point where the same layout would be preferred for convenience sake. If you’ve hopped on one medieval rooftop, you’ve hopped on them all.
Story intermissions were ultimately the best motivation for making progress. Whenever you move up a floor in a mandatory dungeon, you are treated with story scenes depicting Renya and Lilliel trying to grant their believer’s wish. The wishes as well as their wisher are almost always bizarre, and you’ll find yourself going from making Cinderella happy to helping a zombie eat people. In a sense it’s like a fun Saturday morning cartoon with a “wish of the week” format, although there is an overarching plot mixed in to keep most of these situations relevant.
The Guided Fate Paradox has no shortage of charm, but warming up to it can take some perseverance. The random nature of the game makes it difficult to know what exactly to expect, as you’re always in danger of walking on an explosive panel or getting caught by an enemy who is out of your league. That’s part of the excitement and challenge, but it’s not for everyone. Be prepared to lose progress and feel bad about your decisions.
Food for Thought:
1. In addition to being able to talk to your angels outside of the dungeons, you can also converse with the one you bring inside. These are completely optional, but can flesh out the characters as well as offer some back-story for the world. Hearing Lilliel’s various in-universe explanations for game mechanics can be pretty amusing.
2. The grid system made moving around initially disorienting for me. If you’re having trouble, hold square to turn without moving to be sure you’re going to go in the right direction.
3. Just in case anyone was wondering: my equipment names were Festivus Hat, Man Hand, Jr. Mint, Jimmy Leg, and Airline Peanut.