Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor – Staff Review

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is a game whose ambitious concept tends to be dragged down by a bit of leaden reality. The game presents a highly unique storytelling method, full of branching sub-plots highly responsive to the choices players make, but it can become rather fractured by the time limit imposed on players. The combat system provides a wealth of options, letting players tweak each member’s moveset with a surprising level of control, but the focus on raw levels and the speed by which new demons become old makes it exceptionally difficult to have a consistent strategy. Overall, Devil Survivor is a solid game and a very engaging story, and although it has more than its share of issues, the sense of pressure and the degree to which a player can manipulate the story make Devil Survivor a surprisingly satisfying experience.

Devil Survivor‘s storyline deals with the sudden appearance of demons in downtown Tokyo, an event which triggers a government lockdown of the entire Yamanote Circle area. Our three young protagonists, Atsuro, Yuzu, and the silent main character, are locked in along with a sizeable section of the populace, given hand-held demon summoning computers called COMPs, and told they have seven days before all hell breaks loose. In true Shin Megami Tensei fashion, there are a wide selection of ways to deal with this problem, from simply running the government’s blockade, to tracking down and eliminating the source of the demonic infestation, to using this newfound demonic power to challenge God himself. SMT‘s moral ambiguity reigns supreme here, with a slew of factions and characters going quite beyond the traditional Law, Chaos, and Neutral alignments.

Taking out the center demon will destroy the whole team, but it'll be much harder to do without defeating the side critters first.
Taking out the center demon will destroy the whole team, but it’ll be much harder to do without defeating the side critters first.

All these characters and sides to keep track of means Devil Survivor‘s plot branches off and twists around to a surprising degree. When the player is not in a battle, they have more or less free reign to go anywhere they want within the confines of the Yamanote Circle. Players can freely converse with members of their party, scout out locations, and even do a bit of levelbuilding in Free Battles. Anything more major — such as playing through a plot-mandated battle, or advancing one of the game’s many sub-plots — will eat up thirty minutes of your time. Given that certain critical events take place at certain times and the overall time limit of seven days, proper time management is essential. This is especially true given that failing to complete certain events could result in missing some party members or even being locked out of some endings. Who the player talks to and when has a great deal of influence on how the story unfolds, causing the story to twist and turn unexpectedly.

For the most part, this unpredictability is one of the best parts of the game, but it does have a few unintended consequences. Since the game doesn’t often give the player the option of seeing all the events available in a specific time frame, some story elements become lost simply through a lack of time. The player has to carefully pick and choose which events to see, which helps build the sense of urgency that Devil Survivor really trades on, but it has the nasty side effect of fracturing the storyline quite badly in some cases.

The game’s combat system is a unique combination of a traditional tactical grid movement system and the particular brand of elementally-focused turn-based combat that Shin Megami Tensei has become known for. To explain; characters take turns based on an ATB-style turn queue, with each character or enemy taking their turn as a time-based meter fills. The meter is then expended as the character executes commands, allowing players some control over the turn order. When one character attacks another, the game switches over to a turn-based system where each side of the conflict is allowed one turn to beat the snot out of the other. An extra turn is awarded for hitting a foe’s weakness or scoring a critical hit, while hitting a resistance may cause you to lose any extra turns already acquired.

Each character is allowed a pair of summoned demons to assist in combat, the selection and fusion of which makes up a great deal of the game’s character customization. Demons can have up to three active commands, which include things like magic and special techniques, three passive abilities, which encompass stat increases and resistance boosters, and a racial ability. Racial abilities, as you may have guessed, are unique to each race of demon, cannot be inherited through Fusion, and are frequently powerful enough to build a unit’s entire strategy around. Unfortunately, in order to keep ahead of the difficulty curve, the player is required to constantly acquire new demons, making it exceptionally difficult to keep specific powerful racial abilities.

Humans, on the other hand, gain new abilities through the Skill Crack system. This system works by prompting players to select which ability each character will learn from which foe before combat. That ability is then acquired only if each specific character defeats the foe assigned to them. The end result is that both humans and demons have a great many options available to them in combat, and skill in constructing characters goes a heckuva long way here. Although the overall combat setup isn’t anything mind-blowingly original, Devil Survivor presents an enjoyable and engaging combat system in large part due to the huge number of character customization options.

Overall, Devil Survivor presents a solidly cohesive package, with features that tie into each other fairly well. The game does make a few unwelcome changes, especially where the Fusion system is concerned. Rather than the traditional grid, which was a simple and reliable way of seeing what demons were currently on hand and what could be produced from them, Devil Survivor complicates matters by showing the player a basic list of their current demons. The game won’t show players what demons over their current level can be produced without using an overcomplicated search feature, which quickly becomes more useful than the basic Fusion screen.

The Demon Auction system by which players acquire new demons is a bit more manageable than the Fusion system, and it’s an interesting alternative to the negotiation systems of other SMT games, but it’s also a good deal less engaging. The Demon Auction behaves mostly like eBay, with multiple people — or rather, multiple AIs — bidding on the same demons. There’s even a Buy It Now feature. But frankly, this is one area of the game where the lack of online features stands out. Devil Survivor spends a large hunk of time talking about the myth of the Tower of Babel and comparing it to the Internet, mostly in the sense of both objects being a towering achievement of mankind whose construction required mastery of communication. The lack of online features or even local multiplayer is something of a glaring omission, and an area where taking a rather easily manipulated offline auction system and expanding it for online play would have made a lot of sense.

In the end, Devil Survivor‘s interface and system design seems rather basic. The game fails to take any real advantage of the touch screen, in fact barely using it at all, which, combined with the inadequate Fusion interface and often poorly organized menus, can make using some of the game’s basic features clunky and confusing.

The game’s relatively tiny soundtrack is its biggest issue where sound is concerned. Most of the sound effects are quite acceptable, and the lack of voice acting is nothing surprising given the system this game appears on, but the fact that there are only about two dozen tracks in the entire game causes problems with repetition. Composed by series newcomer Takami Asano, a relatively unknown composer presenting his first major soundtrack in an RPG, and his first video game related work in more than ten years, the soundtrack works a bit too hard to replicate the feel of a Shoji Meguro OST. Mr. Asano tends to go far overboard with overdriven electric guitars, to the point where individual tracks tend to be poorly defined and lack a distinctive style.

The Fusion system could use a fair bit of streamlining.
The Fusion system could use a fair bit of streamlining.

Though the majority of Devil Survivor‘s visual style is well-executed, it has some serious issues in the area of consistency. Nowhere is this more evident than in the portrait art used for the game’s many demons. Many of the returning demons sport the same artwork they used in previous incarnations of the Shin Megami Tensei series, which wouldn’t be such a problem if individual games in the series didn’t vary so vastly, visually speaking. Demon artwork from the very first Shin Megami Tensei game is plopped down next to art produced for Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, games separated by more than a decade and several shifts in style. Add to this brand new artwork for the game’s many demonic newcomers as well as completely original designs for the main cast produced by an artist new to the series, and you’re left with a visual style so jumbled as to be quite distracting at times.

Devil Survivor is fairly lenient in difficulty, largely due to the nearly omnipresent Free Battles, which allow players to levelbuild as much as they’d like at more or less any point in the game. The weight placed on level in damage calculation makes it possible to grind past the game’s difficulty curve without too much time or effort, which isn’t necissarily a bad thing given that most of the tactical challenge the game has to offer lies in the large number of “protect the AI” missions rather than in pummelling through waves of enemies. It’s difficult to tell how long Devil Survivor will take the average player given that it has no built-in timer, but the game feels slightly shorter than your average RPG, making twenty to thirty hours a fair estimate.

In the end, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is a very solid game plagued by a few obnoxious faults. The game’s plot creates a wonderful sense of urgency and isolation, full of little things that genuinely make players feel as though they’re in a disaster situation. The combat system, though not particularly mind-blowing, is a unique and interesting take on the traditional TRPG setup, and provides enough character customization options to keep enthusiasts busy for hours. The major downside of all this is that players will have to come to terms with a blatantly fractured and distracting visual style, a repetitive soundtrack, and an often combative interface. The game’s unique concept and solid story, however, definitely make it worth the effort.

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