Today I’m trying something a bit different. I’ve wanted to speak about the fantastic Devil Survivor series for quite some time, and since the second game in the saga came out a some months ago, I was planning a standard review.
However, since we never spoke of the first game, and because I think they are some of the best games for the DS and of the Shin Megami Tensei series, I decided that I’m going to talk about both in a more open manner, giving you something of a common score since both of them are very similar to each other.
Onto the article!
The Shin Megami Tensei series, affectionately called MegaTen in Japan, is an old series of Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs) that, while mostly unknown in the west, are possibly one of the biggest ever JRPG franchises, up there with Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. I am most certainly not kidding about this, the sheer number of different games in the series and their continued popularity is breathtaking, follow this handy wikipedia link if you want to check what other titles are part of the series.
Games of this series are sometimes very different from one another, but they all have some certain tropes in common, namely, they are a bit weird/spooky, there is either and imminent/happening already/already happened apocalypse in which the protagonist has the weight of the cosmos on his shoulders and all of them have the protagonists summoning a myriad of supernatural creatures to fight for him/her using some sort of technological device.
This creatures are called “demons” in the game, I imagine because they are translating from the Japanese word for demon that does not mean the same as in English, rather, it refers to almost any supernatural creature whatsoever. Indeed, characters in the game usually call angels “demons” too, for example, though in game most of the creatures are usually from one sub-type or another.
While you can summon proper demons, gods of death, pixies, mythical creatures like werewolves and other much weirder ones, the game never delves too much on the motives of the “demons” or how they interact with you, treating them, in most of the games at least, as glorified Pokemon.
The Pokemon similarity might seem odd or demeaning, but it’s not, in fact, the Shin Megami Tensei series was doing Pokemon before Pokemon was even an idea Nintendo was working on, only in a more creepy manner.
The storyline of these games is usually quite intriguing and with very high stakes, while retaining a somewhat lonely atmosphere.
Because of it’s weird thematic, difficult translation and lack of comparisons in the west, most games stayed in Japan for a long time. It didn’t help that some of them deal with some potentially tacky issues. For instance, in Shin Megami Tensei 2 you discover towards the end of the game (this is a massive spoiler by the way) that the bad guy is none other than God – yes, God, in the universe of that game he’s evil and you do have to defeat him in the final battle (!!!). In other, less spoilerrific and also more tame events, rumor has it that Persona 2: Innocent Sin was originally not released in the western world because during the game a demon resurrects Hitler, and you have to stop him.
By the way yes, I mentioned a Persona game, the Persona Saga is a spin-off the Shin Megami Tensei games too! See what I meant by huge?
Luckyly for gamers in later years, Atlus has been really good about releasing this series of games in our territories, though still most of them only came out for the US, but it’s nothing that can be fixed with a quick import-friendly website (unless you use a 3DS…).
Now that was a long background introduction! The sad part is that with all that text I still don’t do justice to the Saga, it’s simply too big. I invite you to research further into it, the games are fantastic and you shall not be disappointed.
- The “Devil Survivor” Saga:
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (DS, in case it’s not obvious enough) was the first MegaTen game released for the console that is shares its acronym with. It was quite innovative as MegaTen games go, but still attaching itself firmly to traditional tropes of the Saga. Both SMT DS 1 and 2, share similarities in the plot.
In DS1, Tokyo is quarantined because of a “poison gas leak” (in truth, the sudden appearance of demons), and the military blocks the whole town from the rest of the world. Our protagonists, some hapless teenagers (as usual) are trapped inside but thankfully they come into possession of DS-like portable computers that allow them to summon and control demons, as well as learning spells and powers from said demons. Adding a creepy element to the game, they can see how many days of life everybody has, as a counter floats over their heads marking them, and their counter starts at 0…
SMT DS2 follows a similar idea, though it is completely unconnected to the first game. After a sudden and massive earthquake levels Japan, the protagonists find their mobile phones equipped with a “demon summoning app” that allows them access to the same powers as in SMT DS1. Instead of the “floating numbers” of the first one, a weird and creepy website, Nicaea, sends them videos that show the death of their acquaintances, giving you the chance to stop it. As the world falls deeper into chaos and despair, they protagonists are recruited by “JPs”, a Japanese secret organization charged with protecting Japan from supernatural threats, though of course, their motives might not be as noble as they seem…
With the plot of both games out of the way, we can now delve into the game play, which is nearly identical in both games, hence, this combined review.
The games are something of a mix between a visual novel, a tactical RPG and a JRPG. While on the map screen, your party can move to different locations to talk with the different NPCs, visit important places, and in general, try to amass clues and allies. All trips cost you time, though, and certain events only happen at certain times or locations during the day, so planning is absolutely crucial. Also, DS2 has a variant of the “social link” mechanic from Persona 3 & 4, allowing you to raise your “Fate level” with different NPCs, which can change the outcome of several events and endings.
While in this “story mode” you need to set up your plans and contacts and, hopefully, keep them alive (Surviving is the theme in this games, as you probably gathered). Most of the time figuring out what to do and when is reasonable if you’re paying attention, but some things are true “guide dang it!” moments. In general, characters and events are really well written, and the story in both games is quite engaging, with well developed and charismatic characters, though they do fall in some of the typical Japanese clichés.
Regularly, you will get in the map a “battle” event. In these events, as the name implies, you will have to face opposition in a tactical “squared” battlefield, a la turn based tactical game. Think Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea, though not to the level of depth of either. You basically move around your team of up to four characters around the grid. Each character can summon two demon “bodyguards”, and enemy teams are composed the same way. To defeat a team, you need to take out the leader, though if you take out the “guards” first you will get more XP and makka (money).
Once you’re in range and open an attack, the game switches to a first person view, like in the classic SMT games, and you exchange attacks JRPG style. Each character or demon in the fight acts at a different turn, and everyone can only move/attack once, unless they get an extra turn by exploiting their enemies weakness. Here is where the strategy is involved, demons (and the characters with the right skills) have strengths and weaknesses to different magics, if you hit an enemy with the element their are weak against, you get an extra turn (apart from doing more damage). This makes party balancing imperative, as you need to be sure you are protected against the enemies strengths and also able to exploit their weaknesses, but the sheer variety of demons and spells can make this complicated. There are no items and abilities that recharge your “mana” points are rare, so making sure you will not lose in a battle of attrition is also important.
To prepare for this eventualities, you need skills and new demons. Skills are unlocked through the “skill crack” mechanic. Basically, at the beginning of a battle you choose one of your characters and a skill possessed by one of your enemies, if that character defeats that enemy, he “cracks” the skill and adds it to your pool of powers, allowing you to equip it on your characters.
Unlike other SMT games, the only way of getting new demons is through the auction house – yes you read right, auction house. Your characters have access to an online auction house (called d-bay jokingly by fans) in which demons sell their services for makka. In both games you bid some makka for demons and try to win them over some AI opponents (who all have names from characters from other SMT and Persona games, amusingly). In DS1, however, the buyout prices are low enough that you’ll probably never bid. This must have been spotted by developers, since in DS2 the buyout prices are so outrageously high you will never use them.
Some demons, though, are rare or unique and you’ll never be able to buy them. In this case you need to use the Cathedral of Shadows (another SMT usual suspect) to fuse 2 demons into a more (hopefully) powerful form. Fusing is simple to do but difficult to master, thankfully, the game allows you to check fusions in advance and also can list different demons combination’s that will result in the same creature, making this much simpler than in other games in the saga. Fusing is also the only way you’ll have demons capable of surviving and helping in the final battles, as you might need an specific set of skills and resistances that you can only get by making demons “inherit” traits from their predecessors, traits that they’ll never have if you just buy them off.
Graphics and sound wise, both games are a delight for your DS. Most story scenes are handled in the usual JRPG manner, with talking portraits of those in the scene. The portraits and backgrounds are all beautifully rendered and drawn, and reek personality. The maps in the battle scenes are crisp and clear and will never give you problems figuring out where is what.
Sounds are a nice mix of classic SMT blasts, hits and other mystical stuff. They still work and have a nice “hit” that accompanies action quite well, and adds some extra feeling to the story scenes. Music is absolutely awesome, if you excuse my enthusiasm, specially in SMT DS1. In SMT DS1 music is weirdly techno-ish but with a creepy and weird twist, and in SMT DS2 is more rock-ish. In both games it’s soaked in personality and get’s you completely into the mood, though even if the music in SMT DS2 is quite good it doesn’t hold a candle to the one in DS1, which is simply glorious, with some of the most epic battle themes ever in an RPG.
Wrapping up, both games are very long, with multiple routes and endings (though you have to go through mostly the same paces for the different endings), giving both lot’s of replayability. As an added bonus, both games also have a New Game+ mechanic. In the first one, when you re-start a game after finishing it, you carry over all your money, demons, skills and codex, but not your characters XP or levels, making the second play through really easy, and more focused on unlocking story routes you might have missed. In DS2 however, once you finish the game you’re given a “menu” to unlock benefits such as the ones mentioned above, and “points” based on your performance to buy those benefits. While interesting, I think the method in DS1 was better, since the porpoise of replaying the game will mostly be for the story, but I guess the second method is interesting for those that want some challenge in their second playthrough.
Graphics: 5/5 – Can’t go better than this on a DS!
Sound: 5/5 – SMT DS1 has one of the best soundtracks ever for the DS, possibly for a videogame. DS2 is fantastic too, but in my opinion not as good as the original.
Gameplay: 4/5 – It’s weird mix of visual novel, tactical RPG and classic JRPG is engrossing, fun and challenging, but not for everyone, and sometimes you need to grind…
Longevity: 5/5 – Lengthy story modes, multiple endings, and New Game + mode. I did say both games have loads of replay value.
Overall: 5 Armageddons out of 5
You can find SMT DS1 & 2 for the DS, and there’s also an “Extended Cut” (Shin Megami Tensei DS Overclocked, which has an extra day of storyline) of the original on the 3DS.
Both games are brilliant additions to the SMT series and also to any gamer’s library, don’t miss them!
- Jose Luis Perez Zapata