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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 21 Mar, 2012 At 11:37 PM | Categorized As Featured, Nintendo DS, Portable/Mobile Gaming, Reviews | With 0 Comments

No GravatarWhen it comes to long standing JRPG franchises, Shin Megami Tensei might seem like the “red-haired stepchild” of the bunch. Not as globally beloved as Pokemon, nor as ever-present as Final Fantasy, but still a powerful force in the JRPG community. It has its well-received titles- the acclaimed Persona series, side stories like Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga being a few of them- and is often lauded for its blend of traditional battle elements with compelling stories. But it generally flies under the radar of mainstream US audiences due to a lack of flashy cutscenes, over-the-top graphics, and “cookie cutter” characters.

I was one of those mainstream US gamers before I played SMT: Devil Survivor in 2009. I had heard of Persona, but hadn’t played it due to lack of time for console gaming (and a raging addiction to World of Warcraft). The fact that the title was available for the Nintendo DS, and an alternative to the Pokemon games I had been playing on the go, grabbed my attention enough to warrant purchase. I was expecting an entertaining story involving demons and suspense- what I got was an experience in gaming far beyond anything I had ever anticipated. I logged more hours in Devil Survivor than in any other game that year, my completist nature calling on me to see every story and fuse every demon. I still refer to it as one of my favorite games of all time.

So imagine my delight when a sequel was announced. Easily the most-anticipated game of my year, I managed to acquire a copy a full week ahead of release date, eager to once more jump into the wide world of demon-fusing and dystopian survival. Plus this time I had a gigantic DSi XL to play it on. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t fully able to live up to my own hype.

What a day for a field trip to Tokyo Tower…

As with most MegaTen games, you are the Protagonist- a high school student in modern day Japan. You have your friends, your classes, and a style all your own. One day you sign up for a service called Nicaea, which promises to upload “death clips” directly to your phone- these clips can be of anyone, even yourself, which has made the ‘service’ extremely popular. Of course, your own death clip is the first you see (a bloody train accident in central Tokyo), but rather than bite the proverbial dust, your impending doom is halted by the arrival of demons from some great Otherworld. Following a battle in which you forge contracts with the demons so they fight for you, you discover the world has changed.

Earthquakes have ravaged the country, toppling cities and plunging Japan (if not the entire world) into a decline. Your demons are your only chance at fighting against the anarchy at first, as you make your way through ruined Tokyo. Similar to the first game, these early hours are the only similarity, as the story diverges from a war between heaven and hell into something…else. Shadowy government organizations, alien entities, more death clips and rioting civilians all appear in the hours and days that follow, testing your mettle, honor and sense of duty.

At its core, Devil Survivor 2 is the same game as its predecessor: you acquire demons through the auction house, fight battles with them to acquire new skills, and fuse them when they reach their “limits” into other powerful demons, and repeat the process. Gameplay proceeds along a timeline, with each event taking a half hour of the clock. Based on your decisions, the story alters and sets you off on different endings based upon who you interacted with, and how you approached each interaction. Like it’s predecessor (and a few of the recent MegaTen titles) the game is a mix of visual novel interaction and JRPG battling, blending the elements seamlessly into a complete experience.

God, why did I go into the tall grass…

But this time around there are some new features missing from the previous game: borrowing from the popular Persona series, interacting frequently with other party members triggers a “Fate” system, whereby they gain advantages when partnered with the Protagonist in combat, and obtain the right to fuse certain demons upon attaining max level. Also borrowed from Persona is the Compendium, where demons are stored and can later be withdrawn for placement on the team. While the former mechanic is more quirk (I only really used it to make cracking skills easier), the latter makes the process of fusion much simpler.

In Devil Survivor, one had to memorize a lot of combinations and use a good deal of trial and error when fusing new demons, since a fuse required losing a valued ally. Now it’s a simpler matter to just withdraw the component demon and replace him. It also allows for customization of the party, as the player can pull out multiples of a non-unique, powerful demon to pair with other party members. The downside is how much money it takes to do so, thereby requiring a lot of grinding Free Battles. Also regarding fusion, the addition of Add-Ons also allows a greater deal of customization during the fusion process, provided the player has done enough battles to obtain the Add-Ons themselves.

My biggest gripe with the game lies with its story. Devil Survivor was a philosophical and theological “nightmare:” demons were breaking into this world, battling angels and spreading corruption. Angels, in turn, were judging mankind for past sins and preparing to wipe out Tokyo after 7 days. Your job was to prove the “greatness” of humanity and stop the ascension of the demon king Babel, while not giving in to the whispers of your summoned allies. The game contained a strong element of suspense and survival, as you tried to eek out resources (especially electricity) in a dwindling world of refugees locked away from the rest of Japan.

The Knights who say "Ni" of the Round Table

By contrast, the story of descending alien consciousness and the “merit-based world” espoused in DS2 seems somewhat flat. While the world is clearly suffering, the characters all find refuge in aiding “JPs,” a government organization dedicated to fighting the “invasion.” No more scrounging for food, or desperately seeking a phone charger. While the story plays out over more cities this time, the level of suspense is reduced. Things feel “cleaner.” There were points where I would rather have aided the rioters and civilians than JPs, simple because I felt their story was a bit more urgent and desperate. While the designers went all out to create a mechanical system of gameplay, they skimped on the story enough to where it rarely felt tense or compelling. Especially when compared to such MegaTen gems as Nocturne, Persona 3, and its predecessor. And don’t get me started on the “main trio:” I found the supporting cast to be a lot more interesting than the annoying Daichi and “neutral” Io.

All in all, Devil Survivor 2 is a very entertaining game. Shortcomings in the story are more than compensated by the intricacies of the auction/fusion system, and the complexity of battle, which makes the game appear even more of a “Pokemon with demons” experience than its predecessor. And even with a weaker story, I was still willing to play through the two “main” story lines, just to get a different perspective of what was going on (it helped that the second play through was ridiculously easy, owing to all my demons carrying over into New Game +). While I would definitely recommend playing the first game over this one, Devil Survivor 2 is still a solid title, and likely one of the better games released for a portable system so far this year. It will easily capture 60+ hours of your time, and will not be regretted in the slightest.