If you’re at all familiar with Utawarerumono, you might read the above headline and want to chide me. “Of course Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen‘s the best start point! It is literally the start point!”
You’d be absolutely correct. Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen is a remake of the original 2002 PC game. And now, it’s been officially localized into English for the first time by NIS America, joining its two-part sequel, Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception and Mask of Truth. (Those were localized and published under Atlus USA). Unfortunately for original fans, Prelude to the Fallen arrives in 2020, three years after the 2017 release of the other two titles, putting it in “prequel” territory, as far as many players are concerned.
Regardless, its presence is welcome, as it makes for an excellent opening act to the now-multipart Utawarerumono saga. The character of its writing and the richness of its world hasn’t diminished in the intervening years, and the experience of playing it retroactively elevates the sequel duology. Putting things plainly: If you want to start with Utawarerumono, you have every reason–for good and for ill–to start here.
For the uninitiated, the Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen remake works in roughly the same way Yakuza Kiwami did for the original Yakuza game. Just as Kiwami rebuilt the story of the first game in the engine and with mechanics drawn largely from Yakuza 0 (itself a true prequel), Prelude to the Fallen adapts the original narrative and visuals of Utawarerumono and plugs them into the battle system used for the Mask duology. Players who’ve tried those games will find Prelude‘s blending of linear visual novel with occasional turn-based tactical battles instantly familiar. If anything, the battles are a little too familiar, and after nearly 120 hours of playing through it in the sequels, I found them equally perfunctory, despite the impressive effort that went into animating flashy attacks and combo movies. They do at least break up the otherwise unending tide of narrative, though.
Then again, the narrative isn’t all that tiring. Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen is a straightforward, but engaging and heroic story. A nameless man wakes up in a bucolic village, remembering nothing of the world or even his own identity. Permanently grafted to his face is a fearsome metal mask, its origins even more mysterious than his own. Caring for him are the inhabitants of Utawarerumono‘s world: A diverse array of what are best described as “anime people with animal ears.” Before long, the nameless man is given a name, “Hakuowlo.” and making his way in the new world brings him into an escalating series of conflicts, as he tackles threats to himself, his family, his nation, and more beyond.
That all sounds a bit generic, admittedly, but Utawarerumono sells its unique setting well. Taking light inspiration from the visuals and language of Japan’s indigenous Ainu people, the game sports an aesthetic that seems exotic, even to its original Japanese audience. Terminology and naming in particular don’t sound particularly “Japanese,” as is popularly understood. That said, though these influences are largely kept superficial; they do the job of making the game’s setting and world stand out from the crowd of less distinctive fantasy motifs.
But if the visuals are the hook, the line and sinker are the game’s strength when it comes to characterization. All the main cast members, from the caring Eruru, the quiet tiger-whisperer Aruru, the hot-blooded swordsman Oboro and the stoic Benawi, grow from their basic archetypal personalities into deep, varied individuals over the dozens of hours it’ll take to run through the game. Almost everyone gets an opportunity to shine, and players will come to see the cast as a misfit family of sorts. There’s squabbling, idle chatter, hilarious squabbling and hi-jinks, and sometimes bloody combat (thanks, Karulau!) to power the group through situations ranging from a hunt for delicious honeycombs to reckoning with what happens when you find out God is real and pissed off. That all this is fully voiced by a number of highly capable Japanese voice actors is just icing on the cake.
If there’s one unfortunate wrinkle to the writing’s strength at drawing endearing relationships, it’s that some of those relationships carry unfortunate baggage. After all, Utawarerumono was originally developed as an adult game, and though this version is an all-ages one, there are clearly scenes in place that were originally meant to culminate in sexy times with Hakuowlo. This adds a more eyebrow-raising edge, considering some characters are framed and written as considerably more childlike. I found myself wanting to ask Hakuowlo “Hey, are these your daughters or your wives?! Please pick one and behave accordingly!” While I’m hardly a prude, it’s telling that the sequels, which were developed first for consoles as all-ages titles, do not suffer the same issues with the character relationships. I can only conclude that the urge to include adults-only content has, on some level, compromised some of the character dynamics in Utawarerumono.
Another wrinkle may be more relevant depending on your prior relationship with the Utawarerumono franchise itself. Players who played through Mask of Deception and Mask of Truth first will likely have a number of major reveals already spoiled. The localization is rough in spots, with awkward word choices and some unusual turns of phrase that really could’ve used a couple more passes with QA or an editor before being approved. Mechanically, I found some of the changes put into place for Prelude to the Fallen‘s battle system to be a step backward from the way things were done in the Mask titles. It felt like it took longer to charge up to the fancy ultimate attacks, and it also felt like it took too long to level characters to a point where they unlocked their longer attack strings. Given that the game is maybe 10% battles at best (with the rest of the time being taken up by engrossing visual novel stuff), it was enough to make me bump the difficulty down and largely ignore the optional training and free battle modes.
Nevertheless, Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen helped reaffirm my affection for the series, something that had grown fuzzy in my mind since playing the wonky fan translation many years ago. The changes made update the game for a new audience, and it’ll be a lengthy, rewarding experience for anyone who wants to try it out, though absolutely new readers will get the most out of starting with it.
Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen is available on PS4 and PS Vita. It releases on May 26, 2020.