Those of you out there who love the dark, macabre, yet still somewhat playful Shin Megami series of games have a new offering with a long title. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner — Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army (abbreviated Devil Summoner - RK from here on) is the third, and way overdue, installment of the Devil Summoner line of games, the first two having appeared on Sega Saturn (and the second, Soul Hackers, being ported to PlayStation). However, those fans of the series are in for a bit of a different experience this time around, as this title differs wildly in gameplay style, chronology, and atmosphere. Of course, the question is, is this Devil Summoner any good? Read on.
Devil Summoner — RK takes place in "the Capital" of Japan in the year Taisho 20. Now, brief history lesson for those of you who haven't studied Japanese Imperial history. Japan counted (and still counts, though a little less officially) time in eras, based on which Emperor was ruling at the time. Emperor Taisho was in power from 1912 — 1926, and thus 1912 was Taisho 1. His reign was characterized by an increase in Democracy, Westernization, Militarism, and Nationalism.
Those of you who can do math, however, should notice that something doesn't seem to make sense, that being that the Taisho calendar only went up to Taisho 15, when the emperor died. Devil Summoner — RK takes place in an alternate-history time line where Emperor Taisho did not die (or at least the era marking kept going), and we find out towards the end that "fixing" this problem with history is a driving force behind certain characters.
Back to the plot, you take control of a young Japanese high-school student (who you could name Muffins McGee) who is next in line to become a Devil Summoner of the Raidou Kuzunoha lineage. This line of summoners was tasked over a thousand years ago by the deity Yatagarasu with the job of protecting the Capital from the dark forces that would destroy it. After a brief tutorial, you assume the mantle - literally and figuratively - of Devil Summoner, becoming Raidou Kuzunoha the 14th. In order to help you with your job, the Herald of Yatagarasu gives you a talking cat companion and a job at the Narumi Detective Agency. And with that, you begin your quest the be a silent protagonist/protector of the Capital.
Without giving away anything more about the plot, I will say that it has three main things going for it. The first is an excellent sense of period. Taisho 20 resembles in almost every way early 30's era Japan, from the clothes to the architecture. Thrown in there for the American audience (as if many would even recognize it) is period English slang, such as referring to a woman as a "bird" or "dame." I really liked the effort Atlus put into making the setting feel authentic, although the game does break stride with the more modern slang speech of the demons.
The second plus for the story is the humor. Unlike Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga, Devil Summoner — RK doesn't feature post-apocalyptic worlds and hard moral choices. Instead, you're really just a supernatural detective solving a mystery (one of many) and saving the Capital — a routine job for a Devil Summoner. Because of this, Atlus didn't have any qualms making this game more lighthearted than its comrades, as you'll see through dialogue and rather silly situations. Don't fret, though, SMT fans; you'll still get your macabre and evil, just a bit toned down this time around.
This brings me to the final, and probably biggest, bonus to the story: the characters! Narumi is your typical hard-boiled dandy detective at first, but later turns out to be more than he appears. Tae is an ace female investigative journalist who is tough but feminine. Gotou is a knowledgeable but somewhat sarcastic companion who never lets you down. Add in the NPCs who have distinct personalities that come out through changing dialogue during the various chapters, and you've got a superb cast who you will actually seek out to talk to repeatedly, even when it's not necessary. Story-wise, there's very little to complain about, and Devil Summoner — RK gets two big thumbs-up from me for it.
Gameplay, on the other hand, gets one up and one down. The game is broken up into 12 chapters, each one flowing as follows; start at the detective agency, investigate around the Capital, fighting some battles as you go, investigate a dungeon or the Dark Realm, fighting more battles as you go, fight a boss, chapter over. Now, although this process seems cookie-cutter, it's not really boring, as the characters and plot are rather engaging. The problem comes into play with the battles. In most areas, including towns, you will randomly encounter demon battles, which consist of Raidou being sucked into the demon world (which is a convenient square playing field) and having to fight the demons using your sword, gun, and demon companions.
Now, this is an action game, so this is all done in real time; you use square to swing your sword once for a single slash, up to three times for a combo, in conjunction with the analog stick for a rushing stab, or held and released for a spin attack; X is used to block attacks using your sword; triangle lets you shoot your gun, which can be equipped with elemental bullets to hit demons' weaknesses; and circle lets you capture demons Pokémon style. If this seems complicated, it's not...and that's where the problems begin. Battles happen fairly frequently, and the limited number of moves you have with your sword, and the inability of Raidou himself to use magic, make most battles either hack'n'slash or slash, guard, slash, guard. The battle system gets very repetitive, and this is a severe detriment, especially when you're trying to raise levels, as they don't come cheap.
Fortunately, battles are not all there is to gameplay, and the rest is pretty cool. Fans of the SMT series and its offshoots will be glad to know that demon recruiting and fusing is back, courtesy of the mad scientist Victor. While it's not nearly as complicated as in some of the other SMT games, Devil Summoner — RK allows you to do binary fusions (fuse two demons together to get one of a higher level/different alignment ala Nocturne), sacrifice fusions (fusing one demon to another to make one stronger), and forging fusions (fuse a demon to your sword to give greater strength and sometimes elemental resistances.
For those of you not in the know, demon fusion works as follows. As you fight battles, you'll encounter demons. If you hit the demon's weak point, it freezes them for a moment and you can capture them by pressing circle rapidly to overcome their "will." Captured demons can be used in battle as a partner and can be fused together with another of your demons to create an even more powerful one. Thing is, you can't capture or fuse demons which result in the creation of demons of a higher level than you. You also have to raise a demon's loyalty before fusing it, which you can do by having it participate in battles.
Demons of different elemental affinities usually have magic abilities linked to those affinities (ice magic for frost demons, for example) as well as investigative skills. Investigative skills are used by demons to get information out of people, such as the Pagan class' Read Mind skill, or find items, such as the Volt class' Investigate skill. In some instances, you won't be able to progress without a certain demon's Investigate skill, so it's always a good idea to keep a variety of demons on hand, even if you don't use them in combat.
The bottom line with gameplay, however, is that since the majority of it is the battles, you'll need a high tolerance for repetitive motions, and that definitely hurts the overall gameplay score.
Musically, however, series composer Shoji Meguro has done another excellent job, redeeming himself for the somewhat lackluster Persona 3 score. From the opening movie's fast-paced jazz score to the occult ceremonial drumming, all the tracks fit quite nicely. The battle music is pretty good, but there are only two battle tracks — one for random battles and one for boss battles. My big regret is that the tracks did wear after hearing them for the thousandth time, since battles are plentiful. Still, the techno-jazzy motif was a welcome addition to the game, and the soundtrack would be worth picking up.
The one other thing that I should mention about sound is that is seems as if there was supposed to be voice acting, as the character models mouth their words realistically. However, there is no voice acting in the game, aside from demon grunts, which makes me think that Atlus wanted to go cheap on this one, and so didn't pay for US voice talent. Of course, they could have left in the Japanese voices, but overall it doesn't really hurt the game any.
The visuals in Devil Summoner — RK are all very good, though. The CG may not be super realistic, but it is very stylistic and fluid. Character and demon designs are fantastic as usual, and you'll see some very familiar creatures, such as Atlus mascot Jack Frost and Pyro Jack. Series designer Kazuma Kaneko (who I got to meet last E3 and who is a really nice fella') always does a wonderful job with the designs, and Devil Summoner — RK is no exception. Add in the really well-done areas such as Ginza-cho and Tsukudo-cho and you've got a game which not only does graphics well, but does it right. Good job, Atlus.
Lastly, we get to controls, and since this is an action game, this is a big part of the equation. Menu navigation was no problem, so I'll focus on the battle system. With the number of battles you fight, I would have liked more diversity with the controls, but there really isn't much. Also, pulling off a thrust is sometimes easy, sometimes not, and there were some instances where I just couldn't determine the timing. Still, I can't really bash the controls, as they did manage to stand up to the repeated battles for the most part.
So what can be said about Devil Summoner — RK overall? Well, the game is definitely original when it comes to storyline and setting — very few games, aside from the Sakura Taisen series — take place in Taisho-era Japan. And there are great characters and humor (yea! Addled Hobo!) Battles are too repetitive, though, and control somewhat awkwardly at times, but the music and graphics are solid and stylistic. Add to that a new game + mode which allows you to play at an insanely higher level of difficulty, as well as secrets that allow you to get powerful demons, and you've got a game that, while maybe not a must-have, is definitely fun and worth a playthrough. If you're a SMT fan, are jonesing for a game that combines Pokémon with an action-RPG, or just are looking for some great characters and setting, then by all means, pick this game up ASAP. Otherwise, wait for it to come down in price or rent it, as it is relatively short.