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No GravatarThe Nintendo DS was an underrated system. Cue backlash, but hear me out for a moment: in an era with flashy onscreen graphics and multiplayer gameplay, the DS stood alone with its often “basic” displays and “restricted” single-player campaigns. And, predictably, there were a great many games that flew under the radar of gamers. This is the tale of one of those games, which appeared and vanished quickly, while still gathering praise and helping add to the prestige of the series with which it was aligned.

This is the tale of Devil Survivor.

Devil_Survivor_by_MachoMachiDevil Survivor arrived on scene at the perfect time: early Summer 2009, right after the release of Pokemon Platinum (and at the time when the casual Poke-players would be seeking something new), near the beginning of a season perfectly suited for portable gaming. Part of the prolific Shin Megami Tensei series, this game was a solid representation of the visual novel/tactical battle system pioneered by Atlus throughout the previous decade or so. Mixing elements of strategy, foresight and “common sense,” it brought players into a world on the brink and asked “what would you do to survive?”

Devil Survivor was an apocalypse story in the truest sense of the word. Rather than portraying the downfall of society at the hands of zombies/aliens/communists/etc, the game chose to “pull back the veil,” and reveal to a select few the “reality” behind out world: angels are calling the shots and maintaining a semblance of order, while demons seek to rebel and overtake the masses using mankind as a nexus point for their plots. Humanity, caught in between their eternal war, is given seven days to comply with the angel’s commands, or the city of Tokyo will be completely destroyed.

While borrowing heavily from Christian symbolism and storytelling, the game manages to frame the topic in a context that leaves religion out of the debate. Rather than bear witness to the coming doom, a select few of those humans choose to do something. Cults devoted to the idea of human liberation preach the transcendental power of humanity as a whole and warn against both domination and depravity. Certain demons, despite their “unholy” origins, choose to work alongside humans to spare the destruction, while angels appear petty at times, reveling in their “power” while the world around them slowly decays. Long before Supernatural decided to “humanize” the warring factions of good and evil and throw shades of gray into the cosmic struggle, Devil Survivor was portraying both sides strengths and weaknesses as part of an expansive “morality play” and forcing the player to call the shots on how the story ended.

shin-megami-tensei-devil-survivor-overclock-3ds-screenshots-10The concept of survival was a central point to the entire experience, as players were forced to deal with mobs of panicking humans, discovering shelter for the night, acquiring food and even looking for a power source at one point, all while society crumbles around them. The daily “countdown” towards impending doom added to the tension of the story, facilitating the need for “smart” decisions, rather than just reacting to the situation at hand, a tactic which would more than likely lead to death or derailment of plans/plots/initiatives. While not as urgent as a survival horror game, there was a distinct emphasis on consequences and foresight built into the plot, which rewarded astute gamers, and added stress to impulsive choices.

This emphasis on storytelling is one of the hallmarks of the Shin Megami Tensei series as a whole, and Devil Survivor expanded upon narrative and character interaction throughout the “seven days” of gameplay. There were numerous story lines in play, rooted around the game’s central characters, and even more around some of the “supporting cast.” Deciding which path the game took often required quick thinking, time management, and attention to detail, for some of the alternate stories hinged on how certain interactions proceeded, how often specific characters were used, what time of day it was, and how well the Protagonist sympathized and related to the individual stories of his friends. One slip up could close off an entire story line from that play through (especially those which were time-sensitive), and often that deciding moment would not be noticed until hours later. Finally, unlike its sequel, which forced the player to choose which side he was on, Devil Survivor elected instead to keep the main plot of the game static: the alterations to the plot rarely changed the outcome, just the path the story took to get to the outcome.

auctionMechanically, Devil Survivor was fantastically executed. I often called this game series “Pokemon with demons,” and for good reason. Unlike Persona games, which rely on luck and savvy fusing skills, or previous SMT games which needed negotiations to win demons over to your side, Devil Survivor tackled the issue by instituting an auction system. Money accrued during gameplay was used to enter into a “demon auction” against computer controlled AI “characters,” who would bid for the rights to contract with demons offering their services online. Quick bidding and successful manipulation of the system would net powerful demons at a low cost. Failure would mean loss of a potentially powerful ally forever.

mqdefaultWhile there was a buyout system which circumvented the bidding wars, it was often more cost-effective to analyze strategies and find ways to outbid the computer, thereby winning powerful new demons to your collection, which could then be fielded or fused within the Cathedral of Shadows to create more powerful fare. Players were encouraged to keep checking the auctions after each battle, since new demons would appear frequently, as older ones would eventually “experience out” of viability. This mix of fusion and “negotiation” proved to be as addictive to players as wandering the tall grass, because battles were often challenging and required a steady stream of “the best” demons to ensure victory.

Battles were both simple and complicated affairs. Borrowing from the tactical RPGs which Atlus is known for, combat removed the player from the interactive world and placed him on a massive grid system, facing off against wild demons or opposing summoners. Strategy took the form of choosing not only the appropriate demon, but also having a working knowledge of the demons skills and “specialties.” Certain demons had the ability to move quickly, or multiple times. Others could attach twice. Others could attack from long range. Some could heal, or fly, or teleport. It was very easy to lose sight of these special skills in the heat of combat, and thereby discover your party has been maneuvered into a tight spot from which escape was unlikely. There were many-a-battle where enemies with huge hit boxes could wipe out an unprepared party before they could move within range to strike.

beelzebulDevil Survivor was a frustrating experience for the unprepared. While the learning curve was hardly an issue, the difficulty would abruptly ratchet up several levels in between encounters. Time-sensitive events would vanish swiftly, and frequently never pop up again in the “daily log,” thereby restricting (or even breaking) carefully planned course of action. Certain bosses were quirky and had merciless AI and “random number generators,” which could spell doom for even the best-prepared party. Even grinding was unpredictable and relentless in its encounters. And yet, it is a testament to the game’s appeal that one would not wish to stop playing. Even after losing a hard-fought, twenty-plus minute boss fight in the final moments due to an unanticipated sequence of strikes, the player would simply reload a save and go right back, taking what they learned and hopefully avoiding it the second (or third, or fourth) time around. Maybe a tweak to character abilities, or a swapping of demons/party members, and it was back into battle. It made the eventual victory both sweeter and more satisfying, knowing it was attained through strategy and effort, and not just overpowered steamrolling.

devil survivor 2It might be a testament to the success of the game that you rarely see copies for sale. It sold fairly well, maybe not a hit in most people’s opinions, but certainly enough to warrant both a “fancy” 3DS upgrade, and “cult classic” status. It vanished from store shelves a few months after release, and even the used game sections rarely-if ever- see copies in them. Like many of the other SMT titles, this one served to satisfy the fan-base, but also made fans of many newcomers, myself included. While it’s a radical departure from the wildly popular Persona series that many casual gamers recognize, it was also familiar enough to have solid appeal. The replay value was extremely high: New Game + mode carried over demons and money, which made the followup game sessions ridiculously easy; the existence of multiple endings, “exclusive” fusions, and optional bosses prompted repeat plays just to see how strong one could become.

There was a sequel released in February of last year, also for the DS, which carried over many of the aspects that made this game such a success. And on it’s own, Devil Survivor 2 is as much a “Game You Slept On” as it’s precursor. But for this gamer, the first title will always be the special one. It opened the wide world of Shin Megami Tensei on a platform that seemed perfectly suited for casual play, while not losing any of the addictive nature that other SMT games hold. It was because of this game that I sampled Persona, which has become its own monster in my gaming life. And while I haven’t played it since those three hundred or so hours back in 2009, I can still recall vividly how much enjoyment the game carried with it. That’s a rarity these days.

By Charles On 23 Apr, 2013 At 07:58 PM | Categorized As Animation, Featured, Reviews, Reviews | With 0 Comments

No GravatarAccording to Twitter, it’s always a good problem when an anime season has too many good shows. This logic is sound: I would rather spend my time choosing between awesome series than trying to find just ONE to hold my interest. In addition to keeping my occupied, it also adds just enough spice to long road trips, because now I’ve got a backlog to work on instead of just staring out the window.

Spring 2013 is one of those good seasons. Seriously, between apocalyptic battles between man and monster, giant robots, elder gods and something new from Gen Urobuchi, it was a challenge to find that one show to follow until summer. So I decided to follow four, with the potential for a fifth to come later. Hence, this will be part one of my Spring 2013 impressions, the second to come after I’ve fully caught up.

First Pick: Valvrave the Liberator

valvrave

I’ve had a really low opinion of giant robot shows for the past few years. While my “formative time” as an anime fan was spent watching a lot of Gundam, recently (since around the time Code Geass was airing) I discovered how little I cared about mecha as a genre. Gundam AGE didn’t strike a chord with me (or anyone, really…), and I would be hard-pressed to identify a single robot series that I found compelling or interesting. And then came Valvrave.

Off the bat, this show plays like Gundam Seed did a decade ago. Space colonies at war, hidden weapons of destruction, betrayal, espionage, schoolchildren, a stab at the Russians…the pilot was scene for scene a rehash of Seed (with a single nod to Destiny midway through), and yet did not come off as being “fake” in any way. It moved quickly, hooking me as a viewer and making me feel invested in a narrative that’s been done to death by every other mecha franchise since ever.

Valvrave-the-liberator-illustrationThen came the “obligatory” curve: the machine itself was either sentient, or some kind of channel for powers beyond the comprehension of man. Cue awesome neon lights, an ass-kicking, and an enemy army on the run. Okay, been there, but this is pretty flashy. What else you got? Pilot gets shot- repeatedly- but gets up and bites a his assailant. Okay, vampires? Unexpected, especially for a science fiction series? No, wait…not vampires…he BODY-SWAPPED with him? And now he can use all those “1337 ninja skillz” against his foes? What IS this show? I DO NOT CARE!

Valvrave, no matter how derivative it comes off at times, is fun, and even a bit refreshing. It drops hints slowly as to what the bigger picture is, so while fans can appreciate the nods to past mecha series, they can also look forward to twists and turns as the story progresses. As of the second episode, none of the characters are all that different from the “cookie cutter” mold established thirty years ago, but the influx of animation technologies and grandiose fight scenes help you forget its “roots.” I’m eager to see where this series goes in the end, but as long as it keeps up the bells, whistles and head-shots, I think I can live with the results. After all, Valvrave is also wicked fun, not bogged down in political jargon or complicated diplomatics. There’s a war, there’s a giant robot, let’s see where this goes. It adds up to being fun, which in the end is one of the major reasons for watching anime in the first place.

Valvrave-the-Liberator-01-20Valvrave gets an A, for awesome. And there’s a post-credit scene in episode 1.

Second Pick: Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan)

titan 2Last summer I watched a series where humanity was in a state of decline and “otherworldly” beings were now the masters of Earth. This season that theme comes back, but it’s no longer cute little faeries creating bread from rubber, megalomaniacal skinless chickens, and yaoi criticism. Attack on Titan is a dark, moody show that depicts mankind not just in decline, but on the defensive against a powerful, predatory foe eager to devour us all. How does it feel being knocked down a peg on the food chain?

The plot establishes itself quickly: in the face of monstrous, androgynous beings called “Eotena” (who are deliciously creepy thanks to wide grins, sharp teeth and an utter lack of both clothing and genitalia), mankind has withdrawn behind massive walls built to keep our dwindling population safe from being eaten off the face of the planet. These walls, and the people living behind them, have stood for a century without breech, a fact which leaves some of the residents more complacent about our standing in the world. A young boy dreams of a future where he (and the rest of humanity) can rise up and strike down their tormentors, and establish a new world outside the walls, where men are no longer “livestock,” but the true masters of nature.

Then the destruction comes. Confronted with an Eotena far larger and stronger than any encountered before, the walls are breached, and mankind once again becomes cattle to be devoured by their gigantic foes. Attack on Titan weaves together a powerful message of survival, politics, ambition, and annihilation, as the resources and resourcefulness of humanity as a species must contend with forces beyond our control, and capability to fight. The Eotena are mindless killing machines with no thought other than acquiring prey. The soldiers lack courage needed to fight against them, or find themselves hopelessly outmatched. Bravery and food are both in short supply, enough to spur on suicide missions against an unbeatable foe, mostly in the name of “population control.”

titan 3

Lunch time…

This is a very dismal series. Recalling imagery from “War of the Worlds,” “Berserk,” and “Gojira,” it depicts civilization on the brink on collapse. Heroes are born, but are powerless to institute change. Like its kaiju-cousins, its better to run, hide, and survive than fight back, but where is the honor in that? Is it even possible to be honorable when life as you know it is coming to an end? (Or, as one character puts it: you lack the strength to save the world. I lack the courage.) What must you do to survive? These are themes explored in just the first two episodes, with promises of secret powers and weapons to come later.

Attack on Titan also receives an A, for allegory and adult themes.