Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor DS Review

Publisher – Atlus – Developer – Atlus – Genre –  RPG – Players – 1 – Age Rating – Teen – Other console/handheld formats – N/A

Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) titles have quite the reputation: demons, angels, science, religion, deep character and story development and oh yes, being unapologetically difficult. Devil Survivor not only manages to squeeze the SMT experience onto the DS but successfully with a unique tactical RPG hybrid system. Fusing with this departure in gameplay style is an interesting story which is gripping to the end. The fates of teenage Japanese youngsters are par the course in JRPGs but this addictive tactical RPG stands out from the crowd. While not for the faint of heart, easily frustrated or those of religiously sensitive stature, Devil Survivor is an involving and rewarding game experience.

Devil Survivor is set in the present day where demons are running amok on the streets of Tokyo forcing the government to lock the city down and seal everyone in with the malevolent beings. There is little of Devil Survivor that is light-hearted with the exception of the series demon staples such as Jack Frost ho ho ho-ing away and others cracking jokes. Better get those number crunching, strategy hats on then, this is not going to be an easy ride.  Fortunately your protagonist and his buddies become the owners of COMPS (basically Nintendo DS systems, a neat 3rd wall element) which have a mysterious demon summoning program installed on them. As a result, the protagonist also notices numbers hovering over their heads indicating how many days they have left to live, unfortunately the number tends to be 0. Thus a race against death begins, and ultimately the fate of others.

So between battles and cut-scenes most of the game time is spent in the COMP menu; from here a stylish map of Tokyo is presented with locations to visit, battles to engage in and people to talk to. It’s a laconic system and makes options crystal clear and easy to grasp. Everything is just a few button presses away (no touch screen though disappointingly) from auctioning for new demons, fusing demons to make more powerful allies and tailoring teams for combat. It’s well presented enough as well with both the 2D character art used in cutscenes and the detailed isometric graphics during battles being colourful and coherent. Anyone familiar with the SMT series will feel like they never left with many old demon faces reappearing as well as new designs. Some of the demons are particularly imaginative, it’s a shame the DS screen is so small as the artwork screams for Hi-Res. Characters and enemies are animated with a cute flare in battle too which, while maybe slightly at odds with the content, does make the more violent scenes that little bit more disturbing.

The game is progressed by choosing from a selection of events that occur each day. These must be picked wisely as key advancing events eat 30mins of the finite time in-game. This becomes critical as the story progresses and presents beard-stroking dilemmas to pour over, which satisfyingly make a real difference to the outcome of the story not just in terms of the ending, but in terms of the fate of other characters. In addition to this the effects of choices are often serendipitously uncovered days later which combined with a single save slot means these choices become completely irrevocable, giving them satisfying weight.

Combat wise, Devil Survivor possesses a blend of two tried and tested turn-based systems which are integrated to create something quite surprisingly, well, good. The battles are managed with an isometric view of the battle field, typically streets ravaged by riots and demon activity which progressively degenerate as the lockdown progresses. Placing up to four team members on the field flanked by 2 demons each, the battle then plays out in a turn based fashion; movement is grid based. However, once units are in striking distance the game switches to a 1st-person, 3-on-3 turn based slug out. The key here is to overcome the enemy efficiently and brutally without taking losses to boost experience collected. As this is a SMT game identifying and exploiting the demons’ weaknesses is essential to success and serves as the backbone to team strategy. There is enough complexity in collecting new skills and distributing them to your characters to keep it stimulating. While battles can be challenging, bosses in particular offer substantial air-punching moments when winning tactics triumph. Hell yeah!

Easily for me the most enthralling and gripping aspect of the game was tinkering in the pre-battle setup and fusion system before watching my carefully crafted team make tasty demon jam. As the game doesn’t offer the usual carrot and stick mechanic with items, this is the main reward and channel for progression. Even though the system effectively hands out the recipes taking out the discovery element, it’s still an exciting experience to see your new allies rack up and take your side to give previously impossible enemies a stern butt-kicking. Tailoring them to my overall strategy was like moulding Tetris pieces to fix the weaknesses in my otherwise solid team. Getting that perfect blend of skills to compliment the main characters had all of the satisfaction of a great puzzle and remained the strongest element to continue playing.

However, the battles can grate a bit and never pushed me to the absolute limit like the Etrian Odyssey series does for example, other than the brutal gargantuan bosses. I also felt the board section of battles didn’t offer much room for strategy, particularly in terms of unit placement. Often the only decision was, “should I give the faster units a head start by placing them further out or give the space to the slow coaches?” Instead it relies heavily on mixing enemy types to throw demon- shaped spanners in the gears, but overall strategy is limited and instead focuses more on the pre-battle detail for creativity. Granted the mission objectives are varied up a bit with escort, defence, collect and assassinate scenarios but it all boils down to the same thing. The balance is also questionable in the late game with boss shaped brick walls vehemently slapping me around far too often resulting in forced grinding to develop my team. Insultingly so in the final action-packed day where I had to hang around beating on low level demons to buff up my tamed beasts in order to even stand a chance. Sorry chaps, I just need to get to Lv.65 before I can take you on, would you mind waiting for a few hours? Cup of tea and a scone? It just didn’t sit with the otherwise oppressive atmosphere and urgency felt by the characters.

Speaking of characters and story for that matter, for a game that is almost completely driven by narrative and character interaction it ultimately falls a bit short of Altus’ normal high standards. The story is intense and exciting for the most part and offers a promising foundation exploring the themes of myth, death, religion and the potentially destructive effect of technology on society. I think the main problem was that the characters were not developed enough to marry the adult nature of the tale and left me rather nonchalant.  I felt that at times that they were merely there as padding and vessels for selecting different paths through the game. The lightly animated manga artwork that represents the main characters is great however and convey more emotion then they have any right to, but the dialogue is generally superfluous hindering my empathy for them. Granted the intrigue and suspense was gripping but the ending my decisions chose was as subtle as a slap in the face with a Bible. And nobody likes that.

Bible-bashing aside, Devil Survivor is an excellent tactical RPG and possesses an interesting story, an addictive fusion system for crafting new demons which is exciting and keeps the battles engaging right up until the end. However, the boss difficultly is erratic and never feels balanced to the extent that it will have many walking out. The story kept drawing me back with its well constructed branching paths for the characters and delivered some interesting themes, but I was disappointed with my ending; there are 6 to choose from so maybe I was just unlucky. I suspect most SMT players will know before even reading this review if they want to play Devil Survivor and to them I say go for it. For everyone else out there, if this style of surviving a demon apocalypse doesn’t resonate then you might want to look elsewhere. I personally enjoyed Devil Survivor but I don’t think I have the energy for a second bout at the apocalypse.