Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Review «

Japan’s latest DS RPG import concerns a group of obnoxiously hip Tokyo teens who find themselves trapped in the area around the city’s iconic Shibuya station, caught between life and death in a battle against demonic forces that pits them against a seven-day countdown for survival. “Latest?” you say. “But The World Ends With You came out over a year ago!” True enough, but the game in question this time is Atlus’s Devil Survivor.
Anyone who played Square Enix’s surprisingly excellent TWEWY will find Devil Survivor to be a curiously familiar experience, it’s true — the two games have unusually similar premises, settings, aesthetics, and music. You’d be mistaken to suggest Devil Survivor is a ripoff, though. After all, it’s the latest chapter of the Shin Megami Tensei series, the same franchise that brought us the Persona games, Digital Devil Saga, SMT: Nocturne, and countless other games that feature fashion disaster teens caught up in the demon realm’s latest incursion into human reality…most of which take place in modern-day Tokyo. This was MegaTen’s turf first; Square was just going for squatters’ rights.

Click the image above to check out all Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor screens.
Besides, the parallels to TWEWY are only really blatant for the game’s first half-hour or so. The action soon moves well beyond Shibuya to all of the Tokyo landmarks encompassed by the Yamanote Line. Don’t worry if that’s gibberish to you — Atlus will include a mini-guide to the city with the game — the point is you won’t be spending all your time meeting up in front of Hachiko. The seven-day timeline plays out differently, as each individual day is dense with events. And then, of course, there’s the combat.

Devil Survivor is interesting to play, because it takes a form that, to my knowledge, is completely new for the MegaTen series: tactical RPG. Yet despite branching out, it feels innately true to its heritage and at the same time quite unlike any other strategy game I’ve ever played. The tactical aspect seems conventional enough at first glance; you’re given several characters to control on an isometric grid, and you take turns moving across the battlefield to intersect and attack enemies. What makes Devil Survivor unusual is that this isn’t how the actual battles play out; the tactical field view is simply a means to an end.

The real fights don’t begin until two units face off directly, at which point the visual perspective shifts to an old-school, Dragon Quest style, first-person battle mode. This isn’t like Shining Force or Advance Wars, where the change in perspective is simply used to dress up your commands; when you initiate an encounter in Devil Survivor, you play out a single round (or two) of a traditional, turn-based RPG with two parties of three characters jockeying for supremacy.

See, in the tactical mode, you control your main party members; this being MegaTen, your heroes are accompanied by summoned demons who fight for your cause (in this case, they’re bound by contract via an online auction site rather than by arbitrary conversation trees). Up to two demons can accompany each human, and are, to some degree, the weak link in each mini-party. When the central combatant is taken out, the entire party is defeated.

MegaTen is nothing if not fair in its brutality, so this also works in your favor: take out the leader of an enemy party and you’ll defeat its allies as well. This adds another layer of strategy to each battle. Go for the easy victory, or earn extra money and experience by knocking out the support crew? Pound that vicious boss hard before he can one-hit-kill your heroes, or take the time to incapacitate his allies and prevent them from healing him? The different elemental affinities of each demon type factor in as well: exploit a foe’s weakness or earn a critical hit and the attacker will gain an extra turn for that round of combat. Sometimes it’s worth attacking a secondary target just to gain the extra attack. And certain demons have the ability to sacrifice a certain amount of health for a guaranteed critical attack; is it worth the tradeoff? And again, this works in reverse, too: An enemy who hits you effectively is rewarded with the opportunity to hit you again.

That’s the other important difference between Devil Survivor and TWEWY: It’s hard as hell. This is a MegaTen game, after all, so just about every battle challenges you to your limit — and while the game rewards aggressive play, there’s no sense in using brute force, because leveling up in free battles outside the story mode takes forever. As in all MegaTen games, you simply need to play smarter, contracting with demons whose powers are strongest against the specific foes you face. This amounts to more than just figuring out who’s weak to various elements (although, again, exploiting those does give you a huge advantage in battle); you’ll also need summons that can counteract the enemy’s tactical view advantages, too. With several heroes and dozens of demons to recruit (including the ones you build yourself through fusions), Devil Survivor has a ridiculous number of possible party combinations.

Click the image above to check out all Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor screens.
This strength is also the source of the game’s biggest frustration, though: As in so many strategy games, victory often comes down to knowing which partners the game wants you to use. Expect to reconfigure your party multiple times, especially when you go into battles whose victory conditions change midway through. You’ll need to accept that, no matter how adept your tactical RPG skills, you’ll be employing plenty of trial-and-error in Devil Survivor.

Such is the peril of the genre, though; while Devil Survivor never quite transcends those quirks, it features enough substance to appeal to hardcore tactics nuts — and enough creativity to sway skeptical MegaTen fans who may have been turned off by the (let’s be frank) completely terrible character designs. Devil Survivor is a tough but rewarding game, a welcome addition to DS despite the system’s RPG glut — and it’s a great opportunity to spend another week in Tokyo, too.


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