Better Late Than Never: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2

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So, I’ve been in this mood lately where I’ve been more likely to want to actually /play/ games than to /write/ about games. Which is why I haven’t really written a whole lot lately. The upside to that is that I’ve actually been able to finish a game or two in the past couple weeks. In keeping with the theme of me being a pretty busy person, I probably won’t be reviewing all that many games that have just come out (though really, have there /been/ that many games released in the past couple weeks?). Therefore, most of my actual reviews on games I’ve played to completion will get the title of ‘Better Late Than Never’, because I’ll be reviewing them anywhere from weeks to years after they first hit the market.

Thankfully, in the case of Devil Survivor 2, it’s only been two or three months, and it’s taken that long because there’s a lot of content. And I’m a perfectionist.

After already having written a long, confusing ‘family tree’ of Megami Tensei games, Devil Survivor 2 really doesn’t need all that much introduction. Of course, that never stopped me from giving one anyway. It is, at its heart, a story about the end of the world, but that’s just another way of saying it’s a Megami Tensei game, because I can’t think of a single game in that series in which the world is /not/ ending in some shape or form. It is also a game about how people react to extreme situations, in much the same manner as TV shows that have the word ‘Survivor’ in the title, or any reference to hell (or its culinary facilities). It is a Nintendo DS game, that has come out a year after the current-gen 3DS hit the market, and it should also be noted that the first Devil Survivor game received an enhanced 3DS port, making the decision to release DS2 on the original DS somewhat questionable. It also has the very, very hard job of following up the original Devil Survivor, which remains one of the best games I have ever played. So does it do it well? Most definitely. Does it improve upon the original? Well… after having played it to completion, I can give it a very resounding and well-justified ‘maybe’.

The game starts out much like the first game: on a day just like any other day, a catastrophe happens that results in a complete disruption of the infrastructure of society. Some of the survivors suddenly find themselves with the ability to summon demons through their previously normal technology (the first game used portable game systems, this time around it’s smartphones). Similarly, this technology also begins receiving predictions of the deaths of certain individuals, and the party takes it upon themselves to try to prevent those deaths. The actual details of the plot are a bit different this time around: this time the subject matter at hand has been drawn from Roman politics instead of Biblical stories, and the enemies are more astronomical than they are diabolical. Despite any differences, though, similarities still present themselves. There is still a barrier that keeps people confined in a certain area (this time the barrier is more ‘natural’ than man-made), and there are still plenty of references to humanity’s role in the universe, as well as how individual humans react when human society and modern conveniences are completely removed. It should also be noted that there is no relation between the plots of the first game and the second. They are completely disconnected from each other, so there’s really no requirement to have played either Devil Survivor or Devil Survivor Overclocked in order to follow this game.

Devil Survivor 2 is an odd duck when it comes to genres. Sure, it’s clearly an RPG of some sort, because it’s a Megami Tensei game. But within that classification, it’s more or less a mashup of every sub-genre of RPG you can think of. The most obvious is ‘tactical’, because battles take place on a grid much like Final Fantasy Tactics and the like. For actual combat interactions, it implements a modified version of the ‘Press Turn’ system that is a staple of Megami Tensei: each ally and enemy gets one turn, and if you hit a weakness or cause a status ailment, you get a chance at getting an extra turn, a rule that applies equally to both sides (with a few exceptions, that also apply to both sides). It is also part pokemon-esque collection game, as there are probably over a hundred demons to collect and fuse together this time around. However, in both Devil Survivor games, the collection process is somewhat simplified, since you no longer negotiate with demons in the wild (like you would in other SMT games), but instead purchase them in an auction house. And finally, there is a bit of time management simulator involved, as you are allotted a certain number of 30-minute time blocks per day of narrative, and must pick and choose which events to view and battles to take place in. Some are mandatory, some are optional, and some are mutually exclusive, and sometimes hard choices must be made by the player in choosing which events take precedence.

Changes from the first game:
While much of the game operates in the same manner as the first Devil Survivor (for instance, combat has not changed at all, in the slightest), there are definitely /some/ changes to the overall game as a whole. First of all, the sheer amount of content in the game has increased. There are more demons, and more characters to keep track of. One of the best improvements in my opinion is the addition of a simplified version of Persona 3/4’s Social Link system, here referred to as Fate Stage. In the original game, the storyline could diverge based on the main character’s relationships with his teammates, but there was no real way of determining what that relationship level was. Now, there is, and there are bonuses that can be attained based on how strong the Fate Stage is. Also, the demons racial skills evolve, and there are new races with new skills (one of which gives a party the possibility of a THIRD TURN per round, which is brain-breakingly awesome).

Not all the changes are positive, though, and one of the places that suffers the most is one of the most important places to me: the plot. Now, I’m not saying the story is bad, because it’s not. Far from it. However, the flow of the story isn’t as good. There is less urgency than in the first game, and fewer places where those hard decisions (such as who lives and who dies) have to be made. It’s easier, this time around, to make it through with no one dying, and as such, your party ranks fill up faster. This is a good thing as far as combat options go, but makes the plot somehow weaker. Also, the demons themselves are reduced from the status of full-fledged characters and plot motivators to the role of ‘convenient plot device’. Upon completing the game and looking back, I realized that the demons could be completely removed from the plot and nothing would have changed. And that is a bad thing, because the first game used the demons as plot points so wonderfully. Similarly, everything that involves the appearance and control of the demons is rehashed and then forgotten fairly quickly. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because to have this game go in depth into things the first game went in-depth into would be far too repetitive, but I think some things need more than just a passing nod. And finally, there’s the music. While it should be noted that Shoji Meguro didn’t do the music for either game, the first game /was/ pretty close to his style. This time, the music hits a little further on the synth-pop spectrum than I would expect, especially when I was expecting metal.

And there are changes that aren’t really negative or positive, that are just changes. The new game+ menu from Devil Survivor Overclocked (the 3DS update of the original game) is back, forcing you to choose what gets carried over based on your performance across your previous playthroughs. This makes your second and third playthroughs still present something of a challenge, as opposed to just letting you carry over everything and allowing you to steamroll though every playthrough after the first. I can’t say that this is a better way of doing it (after one playthrough, I generally just /want/ to steamroll because I’m playing more for the plot anyway), but it does extend the challenge of the game out just a /little/ bit. On the flipside, the Overclocked version of the demon compendium is back, allowing you to purchase demons that you’ve previously fused instead of forcing you to build them up each time. 

Devil Survivor 2 is at least as good as the first game. I don’t want to leave any doubt in your mind about that. Those expecting it to be better will realize that ‘better’ is more of a mixed bag than a blanket term that can be applied across the board. Certainly there are some ways in which it /is/ better, but then, those are offset by the ways in which it is not. I would confidently say that if you are a fan of the first game, this game offers ‘more of the same, only different’, and is still very worth playing. If you haven’t played the first game, play it. If you have a 3DS, play Overclocked. Then, wait a few months, let your system recover from all that playtime, and then tackle this one.

[This review is reposted with my permission at Attack Initiative.]

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