First off, let me get this out of the way: I've never played a Shin Megami Tensei game in my life. Well, that's not completely true. I did play a used copy of Persona for a solid fifteen minutes before being really, really confused and shelving it. I vaguely remember there being a large cherry blossom tree inside a hospital and maybe dancing with some demons . . . it was crazy. The point I'm trying to make is that if you're looking for a review from the point of view of a SMT fan to help justify your soon-to-be purchase, I'm sure there'll be plenty to choose from on the Internet. If instead you'd be interested in my own personal journey through one of the most unapologetically Japanese titles to hit our shores this season, then read on.
I Want To Be the Very Best
Right from the start they have me talking to a tree. Again. From the look of my clothes, I think I'm some type of law enforcement agent. The main characters are actually pretty interesting; the art design as a whole is one of the better aspects of the game, mixing traditional Japanese culture and style with a 1920's American/Goth influence. The in-game character models are unfortunately a little too simple to really show it off well, but the concept art is nice. All the settings you explore consist of pre-rendered backgrounds ŕ la Resident Evil connected by a large, main map screen where people are represented by curious geometric avatars (something else it shares with other SMT games).
Right, so I was talking to a tree. I'm here to prove my worth as a devil summoner - to the tree. I'm sure he's full of my ancestors or something. If I can make through this opening tutorial segment, I'll earn the right to lose all the time I spent entering my first and last names into the game at the start and be known henceforth as the 14th Raidou Kuzunoha (RK from now on), a title given to those men brave enough to be the only line of defense between mortals and the dark realm of demons. It's here during this rite of passage that I'm taught all the skills I'll need to get through the game: reading comprehension, basic attack skills, how to capture demons, and the titular summoning of said demons to help in combat.
Speaking of combat, it's noteworthy in that it takes place in real time, unlike in any other SMT game. You'll get pulled into random battles as you walk around the different locales of the game, instantly transporting you into a square battle arena along with whatever demons are in the area. Think Phantasy Star Online and you have a pretty good idea of how RK gets things done. There's a three-hit sword slash, a hold-and-release spin attack, a forward stab attack, and a three-hit gun attack using all manner of elemental ammunition. You're free to run around within the confines of this space, circle-strafing enemies and easily dodging everything thrown your way.
To Catch Them Is My Real Test
The real meat of the game isn't in RK's sword skills, it's in how to weaken, capture, and use demons. I'm going to go ahead and get it out of the way now: there is honestly no way to play this game and not compare it to Pokémon. Demons have different elemental strengths and weaknesses. Shoot a fire demon with a frost bullet or sic a frost demon on it and the attack will stun the creature momentarily. During this stunned period you can either attack it dealing critical damage or attempt to capture it. RK can only hold five demons to start, but his capacity will increase as his skills grow throughout the game.
Only one demon can be summoned to fight alongside RK at a time, but you can quickly swap between all your captives at will. They can each be leveled up to increase their loyalty to RK as well as learn new moves and Combination Attacks, devastating special moves that are done in tandem with RK. Very early on, the ability to fuse demons together becomes available. There're myriad factors to keep track of (such as the moon's current phase, which demon is bred with which other and will inherit what move, etc.) but on the whole the process is easy to understand. Later you'll get access to additional fusion techniques such as sacrificing a demon to strengthen another or fusing a demon with RK's sword to power it up.
The fusion elements mix up the standard way that these types of monster collection games are played. Leveling your demons feels like a very slow and tedious process until you realize it's not necessary. Two levels are really all that are needed for them to learn their second ability and Combination Attack, and then as soon as their loyalty is maxed out it's on to fusion. As a crude example, fusing level-11 and -14 demons can result in the creation of a level-24 demon with better stats than the riffraff you'd catch outside, along with some bonus inherited moves if you've been paying attention. Another thing that pushes you to fuse your demons together is the lack of a large containment space for them; there are no Pokéboxes here. It is, however, possible to register your demons and later retrieve them exactly as they were, but at a very hefty cost. Of course, you can always go back to old areas to collect demons to fuse so long as you battle them long enough to fill their loyalty bar. Later in the game you'll have access to two multitiered Training Towers where monsters you've previously battled can be fought and captured again.
Demons can also be summoned during the standard exploration scenes. Each type of monster (Pyro, Wind, Death, Pagan, etc.) has a handy special ability, some of which become absolutely necessary during your quest. Pagan creatures can read people's minds, Pyro creatures can ignite objects and souls, and so on. This adds a small element of puzzle solving to the story that helps keep things interesting but does force you to keep one of each type of demon handy. There's nothing fun about getting to a room that needs to be inspected and not having the right demon for the job.
Would You Like To Enter Dark Tsukudo-Cho?
If you're still thinking about Phantasy Star Online from when I last mentioned it, then you've probably remembered why you stopped playing: the combat is boring and repetitive. Unfortunately, the same flaw carries over to Devil Summoner. No matter where you are in the game, that aged JRPG staple (which is quickly becoming the kiss of death on games for yours truly) known as random battles will drag you back into the square combat arena to fight the slow and predictable AI time and time again.
As an RPG, Devil Summoner is very, very linear, offering little in the way of exploration or side quests. Every clue leads directly to the next. You'll find yourself racing from plot point to plot point, shaking your fist in anger at every random battle as you slowly glacier towards your destination. Since leveling your monsters isn't very important at all, the fights feel less like the necessary dues paid in Dragon Quest VIII and more like busy work. The flow of the game is very predictable throughout: visit a new city, notice that someone/-thing has been pulled to the dark world, return to your shrine of origin and teleport over to the dark version of said city, fight a boss. Rinse, repeat. The storyline is interesting, but I don't feel that it's enough to overlook the battle system and hold a player's interest throughout. The demon fusion system doesn't have the depth or the interminable possibilities to reach the digital masturbation level like those never-ending play-the-game-for-the-sake-of-playing-the-game titles that made Nippon Ichi relatively famous.
I really don't want to paint an overly-negative view of this game; the characters and premise really made me want to make an effort to like it. For what it's worth, Devil Summoner doesn't really come out and do anything wrong, but neither does it do anything special or particularly right. Even the most stalwart JRPG fan can find a better use for his time and money. If you're a SMT fan or a fan of the Saturn original (lol), then by all means give it a rent. Maybe you'll latch on to something in here that I missed. I love Atlus and I love niche titles (more Trauma Center, please!), but some games should really just stay in Japan.