Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs King Abbadon – Staff Review

When Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army was released in the winter of 2006, it seemed to be a bit of a black sheep for the Shin Megami Tensei series. The game was much more about the alternate history detective story at the core of its plot than it was about the more traditional mythological influences of the series, and although the combat system still focused rather strongly on exploiting elemental weaknesses, the fact that it was action-based rather than turn-based made the game feel quite different from the normal SMT title. Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs King Abbadon brings the Devil Summoner sub-series a bit more into line with the overarching feel of the SMT series, but still retains most of what made the first game interesting. In short, Devil Summoner 2 is a solid improvement on the series.

As with its predecessor, Devil Summoner 2 presents an alternate history version of Japan, where the Taisho Period has continued into the early 1930s. The game’s setting reflects this period of change in Japan with a combination of traditional and modern elements; for example, people walking down the street are garbed in traditional kimono and geta sandals, but also sport fedoras and the occasional three-piece suit. Cars share the roadway with oxcarts, and modern granite buildings stand quietly next to millennia-old temples. The story itself doesn’t deal a whole lot with the time period or the history of Japan as a nation, but the setting at least is compelling and intriguing.

Summoning two demons expands your options in battle tremendously.
Summoning two demons expands your options in battle tremendously.

The story itself re-joins the young Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha approximately a year after the events of Soulless Army. As with all good detective stories, it begins with a beautiful young lady walking through the door of the Narumi Detective Agency, and begging Raidou to take her case. In short order, the player is gallivanting all over the capital city hunting for the young woman’s older brother, who has apparently vanished from their rural village. What isn’t made immediately clear, however, is that her brother is a renegade member of one of the most dangerous ninja clans in Japan, and has a nasty plan in store for the capital city.

The plot tends to be rather circuitous, and contains a good deal of filler and fluff that doesn’t really seem to have anything to do with the rest of the storyline. On the whole, it’s a better, more mysterious detective story than Soulless Army was, thanks in large part to a real sense of slowly-unravelling mystery the game creates. It also makes much better use of the individual Investigational Skills Raidou’s demons are imbued with, although the vast majority of brain-taxing investigation is to be found in the game’s multitude of Case File sidequests. The story isn’t bad, and it’s definitely an improvement over the previous game, but a traditional hand-holding railroad plot seems to defeat the purpose of encouraging players to think like a detective. Instead, it focuses more on the theme of luck and hope, the idea that people place such store in fortune that a continued streak of bad luck will cause them to fall into despair and lash out at those around them. It’s an interesting take on the rather overused theme of hope, and although the game tends to beat the player over the head with it, it isn’t terribly executed, and again, represents a significant jump over the plot of the previous Devil Summoner.

One thing the designers have put a lot of effort into this time around is introducing an alignment system. In other Shin Megami Tensei games, a player’s alignment counts for a lot; it can alter summoning costs, determine which side of the plot the player sees, even alter how certain characters will react to you. However, in Devil Summoner 2, alignment only seems to count for which ending you see, which is a bit of a letdown given how often the game puts alignment questions in front of the player. Even more of a letdown is the fact that despite the game’s three alignment choices — Order, Neutral, and Chaos — there are only two endings, and neither of them really have a great impact on Raidou himself. The fact that there is an alignment system at all is a step up from Devil Summoner 1, but for all the emphasis and drama the plot puts on alignment questions, the system doesn’t actually matter that much.

The biggest shift away from Devil Summoner 1 comes in the combat system. Rather than having control over just one demon, Raidou can now summon two at once. Although it seems like a minor change, having two active demons at once makes for much more complex combat, as players will effectively be managing three characters in active, action-based combat. The game also changes the way skills are used, completely abandoning the Morale system in favor of a much simpler skill management system, which has the player set which skills the demon will be using in combat and whether or not to repeat their use. The AI of Raidou’s demon allies, whose incompetence was one of the major complaints about the last game, has been vastly improved in this iteration, thanks in no small part to this skill system. The changes that have been made to the Magnetite system make a big difference in combat, too. In Soulless Army, Magnetite was used almost exclusively as a way of paying summoning costs; however, in Devil Summoner 2, it functions as MP. To keep Raidou from running out of Magnetite in a close battle, players will need to hit enemy weaknesses and follow up with physical attacks; for each blow that lands, players will be rewarded not only with increased damage, but also a small amount of Magnetite.

In the previous Devil Summoner game, contracting demons was accomplished simply by smacking a demon with an attack it was weak to, and forcing it into one of Raidou’s tubes via a short tug-of-war game. In Devil Summoner 2, Raidou will have to speak to the demons he wants to join his party, rather than just pressganging them. The introduction of a Negotiation system brings the game a lot closer to other SMT games, and although it does slow combat down a bit, it’s also a great deal more satisfying than the previous method.

Raidou's heavy attack can be an axe, a spear, or a flurry of sword strikes, depending on what he has equipped.
Raidou’s heavy attack can be an axe, a spear, or a flurry of sword strikes, depending on what he has equipped.

On the whole, the alterations Devil Summoner 2 makes to the systems of the previous game are almost entirely positive. The increase in commands that have to be made from the combat menu, as well as the new Negotiation system, does make combat a bit less fast-paced, but they also increase the overall complexity of the system and the number of options players have. Though the combat system does sometimes devolve into basic “what is it weak to” flailing, it is still a marked improvement over the previous game both in depth of strategy and in pure mechanical design.

The soundtrack tries to stick fairly strongly to Shoji Meguro’s normal SMT-styled faire, while adding in a touch of Big Band-era instrumentation. It isn’t entirely successful, and although a number of tracks do manage to feel strongly reminiscient of the time period, for the most part, the soundtrack is pretty typical of Mr. Meguro’s work in general. The heavy re-use of tracks from Soulless Army doesn’t do the game many favors, either. Also a bit mystifying is the continued absence of voice acting from the series, which would have helped a great deal in bringing the game’s characters to life, especially given the translation’s heavy use of early 20th century slang.

Visually, the game is more or less identical to Devil Summoner 1, to the point where a number of areas have actually been re-used with little or no alteration. This isn’t a terrible thing; Soulless Army wasn’t a beautiful game, but it had a visual style that served its purpose. It does contribute to a certain lack of amazement to be had throughout the game, though. So many areas, especially in the Capital City, come off as “we’ve seen this before.”

Devil Summoner 2 is one of the easier titles in the SMT line, perhaps even easier than its predecessor thanks to much improved AI and the ability to control two demons at once. The game’s length has been increased as well, but a large amount of that is due to sidequests and some of the more inane plot points. All tolled, the game should last about 40 to 50 hours.

Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs King Abbadon is a major step forward for the Devil Summoner series in terms of game mechanics; the new systems introduced in this game have the effect of fixing almost everything that was complained about in the first title. However, although the storyline is a bit of an improvement, the other aspects of the game could have used more of the same treatment. The heavy re-use of sound and visual elements from Soulless Army isn’t a death knell for the game’s artistic impact, but it takes a lot of the edge off of the game’s plot twists when the player ends up responding to the plot with “Oh, we’re going there again?” On the whole, the game is a good choice for players who enjoyed the setting and characters of the first game, as well as those who are looking for a solid action RPG, but in the end, it’s still not all that it could be.

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