Shin Megami Tensei: Liberation Dx2

"The strategy and customization in Dx2 distinguish the game from its peers, if simply for the number of demons and abilities available and, more importantly, the combat system that is more like a mainline title than the frequently watered-down battles seen in other popular mobile RPGs."

Mobile Shin Megami Tensei games are actually nothing new. In fact, I daresay the franchise was carving its way into mobile (with around two dozen titles) long before the medium really started booming. There have been a variety of Persona spinoff games, a pinball game, card battling titles, and a variety of other adaptations of the SMT brand. To my knowledge, however, almost none of these games were ever released outside of Japan (sadly). That all changed with the worldwide release of what's likely the most ambitious SMT mobile title, Shin Megami Tensei: Liberation Dx2, in 2018. Liberation Dx2 is SMT's take on the now staple paradigm of gacha-style mobile RPGs that often share some common design elements, including stamina that limits the number of battles per day, deep customization of teams of characters, a wide variety of interconnected in-game currencies, and a lottery-like mechanic to get new characters that often has low drop rates for rare and powerful heroes. Where Liberation Dx2 shines in a field of many of these similar RPGs, including those from other huge IPs like Pokémon and Final Fantasy, is that it maintains a high-quality experience throughout that comes close to the feeling of playing console SMT iterations. The graphics and music are impressive, even with the lousy Samsung Galaxy S7 I was playing on, and the game's story and characters are fleshed out quite nicely. Plus, almost every mechanic one would expect in an SMT title is preserved in some way, including fusion, demon negotiation, and other series mainstays.

Dx2's story is not quite on par with the huge scope seen in titles like SMT IV: Apocalypse, but it's serviceable and presented well enough to frame the game. It begins with the protagonist getting access to a demon-summoning app and quickly joining an organization called the Liberators, who use the app to fight off a group of more unscrupulous demon summoners called the Acolytes. As the story progresses, new characters join the Liberators, each with their own unique look and background. The overall feel of the characters is something of a cross between Persona and Devil Survivor. They definitely fall more on the anime trope side than some might like (e.g. a super smart idol girl with an off-putting personality in private, a computer whiz, etc.) but they embrace these tropes well. Unlike other SMT games that often have an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic backdrop, Dx2 is set in modern Tokyo, and the demon battles are kind of a secret struggle taking place amidst normal society. Each section of the plot tends to focus on a particular Acolyte scheme or area of the town. Eventually the story expands a bit, hinting at the involvement of higher beings as well as building to a climax in the first act where you confront one of the major villains. That said, the story is ongoing, and while the first act is reasonably lengthy, a second act is clearly planned and a set of Intermission missions have been released (mostly showing side stories or humorous subplots with the characters). I hope that the story continues to develop and reach higher levels of conflict and tension. If I had to cite one drawback with the plot, it's that the story is delivered in bite-sized pieces between many missions, and so the overall narrative pace is slow. For example, a few missions in a row might show your party fighting through a group of Acolytes in a room, with minimal dialogue introducing each part other than characters noting how many enemies there are and maybe throwing in a wisecrack.

Dx2's core gameplay consists of a series of turn-based battles between your party of demons and AI-controlled opponents. In a way, it proceeds similarly to other such RPGs on smartphones, where each battle takes a certain amount of stamina to initiate, combat can be automated, and you can borrow a demon from a friend to help out. Where it differs greatly, however, is in the amount of skills and abilities available and the presence of more strategy when compared to other titles. For example, where other mobile RPGs often have basic attacks and a charging special move that you want to use as soon as it's available (thereby removing any real strategy), Dx2 gives each demon multiple abilities, such as familiar damage, healing, and support spells from the series. Instead of recharge timers, Dx2 uses SP (which is basically MP for those unfamiliar with SMT games) for abilities and features a handy system where a little SP charges each turn. This allows for some clever resource management tactics as you decide when to use your spells. As with most SMT titles, there is also a system of elemental strengths and weaknesses, and Dx2 borrows the "press turn" system used in SMT IV. Under the "press turn" system, hitting an enemy weak point effectively gives your party an extra attack, so having a balanced party that can hit a variety of elements is key. Progressing through the story is essentially a long series of these battles with small cutscenes in between, but combat also takes place in other modes where items for upgrading demons can be farmed as well as a basic PvP mode where you battle the AI-controlled parties of other players. Lastly, there is the Aura Gate, a first-person dungeon crawl where random battles happen in the more traditional way. This mode has its own mechanics, features, and side stories, and the progress you make is a fun measure of your party's growing strength.

Much of the depth in Dx2 comes from upgrading and customizing your party, both through the series' traditional demon fusion and a host of other options, which include equipping your demons with items called "brands" (complete with set bonuses) as well as upgrading and adding new abilities. This gives you an extremely wide range of strategies for party construction and also allows you to adapt to almost any situation. Of course, all of this comes at a cost, and with Dx2 being a free mobile RPG, I cannot avoid discussing the payment-based parts of the game. I will say upfront that I did not buy any of the in-game currencies or items with real money, and I actually found such transactions unnecessary for things like battle stamina and fusing/upgrading the demons you might need to complete the main story. There are some difficulty spikes, usually caused by boss fights that may require an uneven amount of grinding and team restructuring. That said, optimizing your demons comes a little easier by using in-game currency to buy more chances at the game's gacha mechanic. For those who are unfamiliar, this is where you draw randomized characters (or in this case, demons), a system common in mobile RPGs. In most cases, even with purchased items, you will still need to strategize about how exactly to build each demon's kit of abilities; the currency just lets you do that faster. The only blatantly "pay to win" feature is that you can revive after losing a battle for a small fee of paid currency. This can make some battles where you are maybe 10-20% weaker than your enemy laughably easy, but I would recommend that those interested in a true SMT experience simply eschew this option.

Dx2 has even added some augmented reality features, likely in response to the success of Pokémon Go; these features are not central to the game but can be extremely fun to play around with. At first, the game just let you take pictures with one of your demons summoned (so I got pictures of Mastema hovering over my guinea pigs' cage). Then it was expanded further to add a feature where taking pictures of certain objects summons demons to negotiate with. These objects range from trees and shorelines to trumpets and cats. (I'm a bit scared of what I might summon from that last one.) The AR stuff is cute, but it's really just an occasional fun distraction from the main game. That said, having the feature at all is probably the closest the series has come to emulating how most SMT games are often set up in-universe with having an app on your phone or other device that lets you talk to and summon demons. So the "meta" parts of this experience are quite welcome, and I would love to see a standalone SMT game use something like this.

Graphically, Dx2 really shines on two fronts. The first is the smoothness of the menus and the general aesthetic of the game interface, which not only controls well but has a polished appearance to it. The second is the look of battles themselves, in which every demon is 3D rendered in a lot of detail and with flowing animations (which is awesome as SMT has many great designs with a lot of nuance to them). Dx2 is definitely an underrated challenger to other mobile RPGs touting premium graphics. I am actually not entirely sure these models have been used in any other SMT game in recent memory, and even great mainline titles like SMTIV rely on 2D renditions for the demons. There are also a variety of background graphics that help create additional ambience for the game, whether that's fighting in the streets of Akihabara or exploring the aforementioned Aura Gate dungeon. Human character designs are fairly standard for SMT, if not a little bit quirkier or over the top. What's more is that even with all the graphical awesomeness, the game runs with only occasional lag, even on my crummy Samsung Galaxy S7 (I know, I know, I may as well be playing games on my TI-34) and most of that lag is likely due more to connection speeds than graphical delays.

Dx2 has a pretty nice soundtrack, but it is perhaps not as big of a highlight as in other SMT titles. The music is a mix of rock and electronic styles, and while none of the tracks are bad (indeed, some of the music, like the Liberator's Hideout theme, have a cool and relaxing vibe), most can be best described as serviceable. The other main issue is that because Dx2 is a mobile game you might not actually hear the music all that much unless you're playing with headphones. I personally tended to play with the sound off just out of convenience. That said, Dx2 also has a lot more voiced dialogue (in Japanese) than one might expect, and the voice work is generally done with the same level of quality as console SMT games.

Overall, because of the strong IP as well as the level of polish in almost every aspect, Shin Megami Tensei: Liberation Dx2 is one of the first mobile games I've enjoyed playing in a while. The look and sound of the game bring it closer to the genuine article than mobile RPGs from other well-known IPs, with the graphics in particular setting it apart from a lot of its competition. The strategy and customization in Dx2 distinguish the game from its peers, if simply for the number of demons and abilities available and, more importantly, the combat system that is more like a mainline title than the frequently watered-down battles seen in other popular mobile RPGs. While the storyline is not as enthralling as other SMT games, the character designs stand out, and the developers are thus far committed to continuing the narrative (as well as adding in other special or seasonal events). I highly recommend any SMT or traditional JRPG fan give the game a chance, even if only to handle those times when you can't break out your Switch or 3DS.


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