This is more a recommendation than anything else.
If I were to describe Dies Irae as succinctly as possible I would say: Dies Irae is about the creation of the Magnum Opus.
In alchemy, the greatest achievement possible is the transmutation of the philosopher’s stone. The result of following the three stages named nigredo(blackening), albedo(bleaching) and finally rubedo(reddening). It is that which turns lead into gold and makes men immortal, called the Magnum Opus, the Great Work. So the prologue of Dies Irae goes, at the fall of Berlin during WWII several Nazi super-soldiers among them three aptly named Einherjar Albedo, Einherjar Nigredo and Einherjar Rubedo turn on their people and use them as sacrifices for some unknown occult ritual.
Of course in modern times magnum opus has come to mean something else, particularly a great work of art, yet modern use is not too disconnected from the use in alchemy.
Enter the Hermetic tradition, a tradition in occultism that is defined by the beliefs and core tenets espoused by the eponymous, and totally not real, Hermes Trismegistus. It could be summed up as so: “As above so below”, that is to say, once one is to find the truth behind it all, the components that shape the universe(such is above) one will find the truth in all that rules our daily lives and our very selves(such is below); it’s individuation, it’s the Magnum Opus, the Holy Grail, it is Brahman, or even impetus behind the elusive Theory of Everything (that might be streching it a bit). Hermeticism has flourished since the Renaissance and with the spread of syncretism putting on the mask of the occult, then grown even stronger after the Enlightenment.
This is where Dies Irae, alchemy and the magnum opus come again. A great work of art for those who follow such beliefs could be said to be transcendental beyond mere entertainment and then properly seen as a magnum opus, art that elucidates on our very nature. I would not make any such claims that Dies Irae achieves something like that(or that it is even possible at least by the values of Hermetisism, because that’s really not my scene) but it is certainly about that.
Of course it is also very “anime“(rather, much in line with what tends to come from out of the otaku subculture), very much so and—as you can probably figure out, when the traditional term of the magnum opus in alchemy and the one used to refer to art come together— it goes for a self-aware meta-narrative like what you’d expect out Nisio, and wraps it all under the blanket of the occult. It is maybe inevitable that it would do so given the subject matter.
This all said, it is probably already evident this is not for everyone. It’s a Battle Royale, not unlike Fate/Stay Night, a comparison that is made way too often and I’m probably not helping, but it does come with a ton of historical references and is seeped in occultism.
The narrative itself a generic predictable archetype, the characters the same, no development or growth is to be found here. Characters all stubborn machines, zealotry not for a god but their god itself. It’s more like a cacophony of clashing ideals; as a visual novel with several routes: death is only a minor setback so the characters all keep coming back and thirsty for battle fight each other, their ideologies and sense of aesthetics in a myriad combinations, each more fitting than the last.
Not only that but the bad guys cartoonishly evil(I mean, they’re Nazis or worse) they all ditched their countrymen, not for honor, but because their destruction lacked scope, it doesn’t get much worse than that. Oftentimes it is trite and cliche, for instance the Big Bad called often not more than a devil, he’s bad, very bad and wants to kill everyone and destroy the universe, everyone and everything here is always on extreme ends of the spectrum. Yet time and time again it works, or I should say that Dies Irae could not work any other way.
In its pursuit of the ultimate presentation, holisitc overview, of an action/adventure meta-narrative it takes the Greek epic, the Norse saga, the classical literature and even philosophical texts and attempts to turn them into little parables—Extracting the kernel at the best of times, or cherry picking only what is convenient at the expense of the source material it takes from at the worst of them—to further itself. At times it all comes together, it’s as if all of history conspired just to make Dies Irae the ur-battle royale come late, at others it is not much more than pop-culture farrago, thankfully this later ones are few and far between.
It keeps on then, adding without discrimination liturgical languages to the melting pot; to find Latin and Hebrew in one same paragraph is not a rare sight in Dies Irae.
I leave to the end what makes Dies Irae stand out most. Because it’s both the greatest reason one reads this but I also find the hardest to convey, that is the richness of the text itself. At times may feel obtuse or veer to close to the ravings of a lunatic but it would be mistaken for me to imply here a lack of lucidity on part of the writer. No, Dies Irae’s greatest strength is indeed an unorthodox beauty in which the most extreme of characters in the most fantastic of circumstances feel as true to life as many Slice of Life dare dream of.
Dies Irae is a fantastic visual novel, many strengths as yet unmentioned, namely the art, voice acting and soundtrack, but it also a flawed one. There are many contrived developments. It frequently throws a good sense for tone and narrative out the window, it’s sometimes predictable, characters will come back after presumed dead at the most impertinent times undermining previous developments, but it invariably comes together in a satisfying way. Despite all this it is thoroughly exciting, precisely because it’s designed to work as such, I mention these flaws because they are how Dies Irae finds how to make itself unique and endearing. It is ambitious and unlike anything of its kind, the ultimate epic fantasy battle royale, a weird title but one that mustn’t be missed.