Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner – Staff Review

Author’s Note: Due to some unpleasant wildfires in Derek’s part of the world, we’ve had to postpone some of the reviews that were going up this week. In the meantime, we have some Halloween treats for our readers, so stay tuned!

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner marks a bit of a new direction for the series, using a far more lighthearted tone and lighter level of difficulty to move it ever-so-slightly closer to mainstream RPGs. The game uses a story set in a recognizable period of history to present a unique and intriguing take on the series universe, but its new combat system, which exchanges the complexity of the Press Turn system for a simplistic real-time system, means that the game is somewhat less engaging than previous entries have been. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner works best when the disparate elements of detective story, alternate history, and mysticism come together, but the somewhat clumsily-applied combat system hampers the overall effect. In the end, those with an understanding of the history involved and an appreciation for the mythology intertwined with it will get the most out of Devil Summoner.

The game follows Raidou Kuzunoha, a Devil Summoner charged by the god Yatagarasu to protect Japan’s capital city of Edo, as he attempts to unravel a series of incidents involving demonic possession and a plot by powerful men to construct a monstrous army. Set in a world where Japan’s prosperous Taisho era lasted 20 years rather than 15, the story of Devil Summoner intertwines aspects of alternate history with ancient Japanese mythology, resulting in an intriguing, highly imaginative tale. The game’s take on history is reminiscent of the Shadow Hearts series, but much more literate and aware of the actual history involved. The story takes certain liberties with the state of technology, though it does take the time to explain most of the discrepancies by the end. Far lighter and more joking than most other games in the series, Kuzunoha’s tale foregoes the usual branching plotlines and moral choices for a far simpler, more linear tale. Devil Summoner’s small cast of highly animated personalities provides most of the plot’s drive, showing some interesting, if at times cliche, character development. The plot also has certain issues with threads left dangling at the end, but overall it presents an interesting vision of the world as it might have been.


Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner changes out the Press Turn system used by Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and the Digital Devil Saga games for a far less complex, ultimately far less engaging real-time system. The game initiates combat by dropping the player and a preselected demon into a reasonably small playing field with a set of enemies. The game retains the focus on elemental tactics which is the series’ bread and butter, but in a far more simplistic form. Hitting a demon’s elemental weakness will immobilize it for a couple of seconds, during which time any physical attacks will be automatically critical. While Kuzunoha and his demon do need to work together to target their enemies’ elemental weaknesses effectively, in many cases simply switching the current demon out for one with the proper spell is all that is required for a crushing victory. Mastering Kuzunoha’s various swordplay and gun techniques is useful for defeating some of the more difficult opponents, but the system isn’t really challenging enough to cause too much trouble. The Demon Fusion system in Devil Summoner is similar to that seen in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, but extensively simplified, with fewer demon classes and more straightforward fusions for the most powerful demons. Given that the only limit on the demons Kuzunoha can fuse is his current level, a little bit of level building goes a long way towards making the game that much easier.

The most noticeable thing lost in the transition to the new combat system is a sense of complexity and challenge; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner is far easier and more forgiving than previous games have been. Most, if not all, of the attacks in the game can be easily predicted and dodged, and every enemy weakness except Immune: Gun has a corresponding elemental bullet. In fact, the most dangerous part of the combat system has more to do with Kuzunoha’s allies than with his enemies. Kuzunoha’s demons have a tendency to walk into attacks, to defend when they should be attacking, and generally make poor decisions that tend to end in suicide. Although the game does provide a number of methods of working around dunderheaded allies, there are too many points where it is better to have no ally in play at all rather than allow them to blunder into enemy attacks. While this new system is far from bad, it is something of a disappointment when compared to the Press Turn system.

That being said, the game’s method of control is actually reasonably good. Kuzunoha responds comfortably and consistently on screen, with the only real problems being a lack of proper depth perception in certain areas and a moment or two of awkwardness when switching to a new area with a vastly different camera angle. The game’s translation is extremely solid, with some good use of slang and noir-ish detective jargon. One thing which would have made a nice inclusion, however, is the ability to pick and choose which abilities demons inherit from Fusion. As it stands, all the skills are selected randomly, but can be seen before the Fusion is confirmed. This means that if a player doesn’t like the skills a new demon would have, all they have to do is back out and reselect the Fusion, a process which becomes very tedious, very quickly.

The music of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner feels very similar to most of Shoji Meguro’s work on earlier SMT games, although the infusion of Big Band influence lends it a certain tone. Overall, the soundtrack is quite good, but a small number of tracks and a lack of variety when compared to Mr. Meguro’s earlier works makes Devil Summoner feel not entirely unique. One surprising aspect of the audio is the almost complete lack of voice acting. With such animated and lively characters, voice acting could’ve gone a long way towards making them feel that much more alive. There are a small number of voice clips for demons in battle, but the lack of voice clips for any of the main characters is surprising and a bit disappointing.


Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner takes another step away from series tradition by using pre-rendered backgrounds in all situations, rather than fully-polygonal environments. This does eliminate the camera issues suffered by other games and allows for a greater level of detail, but the backgrounds don’t always mesh perfectly with the character models. The game’s visual design presents an interesting glimpse into an unusual time in Japanese history, showing characters in traditional Japanese dress, but with modern Western touches like fedoras and eyeglasses. Demon design has undergone a bit of a shift as well, with a reasonable number of redesigned old demons showing up alongside the game’s newer creatures. Overall, the game has certain problems meshing the various aspects of its design, but it brings enough new ideas to the table to still be interesting.

Due to the ease in predicting and countering enemy moves, and the simplicity in fusing a variety of powerful demons, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner is a fairly easy game. It isn’t particularly long, either, with some of the later of the game’s 12 chapters taking only an hour or two to complete, the overall game topping out at a slightly above-average thirty to forty-five hours. There are only a small number of sidequests, most of which deal with unlocking some of the most powerful demons, but the level required to fuse these creatures is so high that it will take many hours of grinding to get them into Kuzunoha’s party. In addition, the game features a New Game + option which opens up an increased difficulty level and one or two extra high-level demons to locate, defeat, and Fuse.

In the past, what made the Shin Megami Tensei games remarkable has been their imaginative plots and world design, their use of real world mythology, and an emphasis on demon-based elemental tactics. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner lives up to the series name in storytelling, but falters somewhat when it comes to the combat system. Marred by an overly simplistic, easily broken combat system with dense AI, the game makes up for it somewhat in an imaginative setting and memorable cast, ultimately producing one of the more interesting character-driven stories the series has seen. Overall, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner isn’t quite the game that Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne or the Digital Devil Saga games were, but the new ideas it brings to the table makes it a worthwhile play for history buffs and series fans alike.

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