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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker (Nintendo 3DS)

Atlus’ various Shin Megami Tensei spinoff series’ have always been good at using various JRPG traditions to frame social or political commentary. The two Digital Devil Saga games offered some deep insights into the role of religion in society, while Persona 4 was, in part, a deconstruction of the nostalgia that many Japanese feel for a small-town Japan and their national traditions.

Related reading: Our review of the Devil Survivor 2 anime.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 is no different, this time focusing in on the role of the Internet, digital media and associated technologies have on our lives. Set within the context of apocalyptic disasters, it’s also traditional Shin Megami Tensei in that it’s dark, unwavering, and at times uncomfortable to witness. But it’s a quality game, and well worth your time and attention.

Devil Survivor 2 kicks off with a couple of kids discovering an app that allows them to forsee their deaths. After watching, they discover that a train accident is meant to kill them, but as it turns out they were able to escape that, and subsequently form a pact with some demons. That’s when the app reveals its true purpose; it acts as a multi-faceted management app for people who have this ability, allowing them to summon demons to do battle for them, make pacts with new demons, buy them up at auctions, and fuse them together to make even more powerful monsters.

Armed with these new “allies”, the small group emerges from the train subway to see the world gone crazy. At first their goal is to simply get home and check if their family are okay, but soon enough they start to encounter new allies, shady organisations, and mysterious enemies to fight.

Without the app the humans would be helpless to fight back against the hellspawn blanketing the earth, which forms a natural commentary on the reliance we have on technology when you consider that dominating and then compelling the same monsters running wild and eating people to fight for you is a moral conflict at best. While Devil Survivor 2 is never too heavy handed in exploring this theme through the narrative, it’s always subtly present, from the creepy virtual butler that acts as your assistant within the app to the clinical way with which it presents its auctions – the literal trading of souls into bondage – and it’s difficult to walk away from the game and not wonder about the role of technology in life.

As with games like Persona 4, there is also some teenage drama and anime-style character types woven through the narrative. It’s not done as well as that game, but it was nevertheless strong enough that the game has spawned an anime tie-in of its own. I never quite cared about these characters as much as I did in Persona 4, but that’s potentially because in that game, the normal setting, school life routine and so on allowed me a point of real-world reference, whereas in Devil Survivor 2 the completely fanciful apocalypse setting, secret agents, and aliens from space is the stuff of pure fantasy, and therefore less personally relateable. I still cared enough for the characters that I enjoyed getting to know them, but you’re not going to see Atlus create a dancing game purely for fanservice value, as it did Persona 4.

Also letting the game down is the minimal effort in the presentation.Character and monster sprites have fuzzy, blurry outlines and lack character as a consequence, and the engine doesn't make good use of the 3D of the 3DS, making this feel quite lazy in practice. Atlus’ RPGs are never about the presentation, per se, but this also means they age quickly. As much as I love Final Fantasy VII, I would have donated both my kidneys were the big announcement at E3 earlier this year have been a new-gen remake of Persona 4 rather than Square Enix's game, and here too I would have appreciated a greater effort go into this one. Even if it was just to create higher resolution sprites so I could be a little more invested in collecting up an army of demons.

The gameplay, however, is quite timeless. In tactics RPG style, for each battle you can bring a handful of different characters. Each of these characters can learn new abilities and become quite capable in their own right, but in addition, they can bring two demons that you have bound to service. These small parties of three then take turns with enemy groups of monsters to move around and attack one another. Once combat has been joined, your character’s group gets a single turn to inflict as much damage as possible. If he/she fails to wipe the monster out in that turn, it’s back to the main map, and the monster group will remain for another bout. Successfully defeating the middlemost demon will defeat the group and they will be removed from the map.

There are a couple of tactical considerations to make here. Firstly, defeating the middlemost demon is certainly the most efficient way to “win,” but the other two demons that flank the main guy are worth valuable experience. So, do you grind out a win, potentially taking a whole load of damage in the process, or go for the jugular? Some enemies (including those on the flanks) can also bring new skills to the battle. You can assign one of your characters one of the monsters with a skill, and should that character beat that monster, they will earn the skill and can use it in future combat. It’s the more efficient way to learn skills, but it also requires careful maneuvering to ensure that the right character is squaring off against the right enemies.

Then, outside of the battles, are the monster fusing mechanics, which, as any Shin Megami Tensei fan will tell you, is quite complex and difficult to master if you’re looking to end up with the best monsters possible. Fusing a couple of lower-level creatures will generate one higher level beastie, who can then also acquire a select few of its parents abilities. Those parents are consumed in the process. So the trick is to develop monsters that have characteristics that synergise well with the creatures that you’re ultimately going to use them to create.

Related reading: Shin Megami Tensei IV is another 3DS JRPG from Atlus well worth considering. Nick's full review.

Naturally, Devil Survivor 2 cannot be called a game that is friendly for beginners. The difficulty level is right up there, and until you really know what you’re doing, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes with monster fusing paths and the like. On the other hand, for people that relish the puzzle that is creating a perfect, balanced party, the Shin Megami Tensei series is difficult to look past, and this game is no different.

Devil Survivor 2 is not even close to Atlus’ finest moment, but it is a very fine game nonetheless. It does a good job of offering a narrative with thematic depth, and mixes in well with some deep character development and monster fusing mechanics. If it wasn’t for the generally uninspired effort to pull the game into shape from a visual perspective, it would be in the running to be one of the better examples of the genre on a console loaded with them.

- Matt S. 


Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker (Nintendo 3DS)
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