Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Almost every series under the (Shin) Megami Tensei franchise has been shortchanged in the West due to fears of profitability and censorship. We lost half of Persona 2, the first two Shin Megami Tensei games, and a variety of other SNES, NES, and computer games. The Devil Summoner series is no exception, with the first two games both only coming out in Japan.
This is a crying shame, since the first Devil Summoner was a solid game and the second (Soul Hackers) is a damn near masterpiece. With no concept of how the series had evolved, reviewers were pretty harsh on the third game, Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army. Thankfully that game (and the entire SMT franchise for that matter) has been successful enough to make Atlus localize King Abaddon under the misleading title “Devil Summoner 2.” If anything, the game is really Devil Summoner 4 (though Atlus Japan doesn’t have them officially numbered).
And yet a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. In fact ‘sweet’ is just the word for Devil Summoner 4. Just as Soul Hackers greatly improved on the original Devil Summoner concept, the second Raidou adventure soars far above its predecessor. While lacking the complexity of Persona 4’s super-involved simulation, Raidou wins out in the fun factor department. It is a must-have for SMT fans, and another reminder that the PS2 is still the RPGer’s system of choice.
King Abaddon is a textbook example of how to do a sequel right. It seems as though the developers read and took seriously every criticism of the previous game and addressed them directly. The look and flow of the game remains the same. You explore various districts looking for information, solving puzzles, and battling demons. To those who complained of the constant random battles in the previous game, take heart! This time around, battles only occur in specific dungeons or the demon world.
Combat has also been jazzed up something fierce. Whereas the last game took a lot of flack for the repetitive and ceaseless battles, King Abaddon has added all sorts of new features to make every fight feel like a chance to exercise your creative faculties. Not the least among these features, demon conversations have made their glorious return. Like previous Devil Summoner games, at the start of battle you can choose to talk with demons and try to get them to join you, run away, or give you items. If you do not possess the gift of gab, you can have one of your demons try to negotiate or win their favor in some way.
The conversations are often funny or random. Sometimes monsters will try to talk to you at the beginning of battle and simply run away mid-sentence. Other times, they will strike you first. Some demons will even interrupt a battle to stall for time, beg for mercy, or get in a quick cheap shot before you finish them off. You can instigate conversations yourself mid-battle. Some monsters may even be friends or acquaintances of demons in your roster, which may be for better or worse. All in all, the demon conversations really put the ‘random’ in random encounters and significantly add to the difficulty of capturing new comrades.
Yet that is just where the improvements start. Raidou has a whole bag of new tricks to tackle the significantly jacked up difficulty. You have an evade command that allows you to roll and back flip all over the newly enlarged battlefield. Your gun now has infinite ammo and you can fire one shot at a time, but you can only fire six shots before reloading. This adds a slice of strategy to how you conserve ammo and use your sidearm to stun opponents. Raidou can also perform spin kicks and various flashy special attacks. You can now carry multiple katanas with upgrades that allow for sword, spear, and axe special attacks, each suited for different sorts of combat.
Last but certainly not least, you can summon not one but two demons at a time. Initially I feared that having two lords of the underworld at my side might make the game too easy. What you will soon find, however, is that it actually complicates the game a great deal. Two demons means two liabilities. Battles are bigger and can involve more enemies, so if one of your guys gets swarmed or hit with a status ailment like confusion, the tide can turn quickly. I found several occasions where it was much easier to just have one demon companion around. You will usually have a chance to choose your demons and set their attack commands at the start of each encounter, and the L2 button can be used to give quick ‘hide’ or ‘come back’ commands to your demons on the fly. Factor in the improved demon synthesis and skill inheritance systems, and two demons ought to be more than enough to cover all your bases in combat.
Magnetite replaces MP this time around, with Raidou and his demons sharing a communal pool that everyone uses for magic and special attacks. You obtain mag by smacking enemies around after stunning them with the right elemental attack. You will have to pace yourself encounter by encounter using some enemies to refill your mag and at other times unloading tons of magic and special attacks. There are infinite solutions for every battle.
While the combat is leaps and bounds ahead of the previous installment, that is not where the gameplay improvements end. There are now 100 additional mini-quests called ‘side cases’ somewhat similar to Persona 3’s ‘requests.’ Some are long, some are difficult, some are necessary to continue the story and some will give you access to special demons, items, materials for upgrading your sword, and even additional pipes to carry more demons. They give you something to do if you feel overwhelmed or under-leveled for the main game and offer such a wide variety of rewards and amusing side stories that they are easy to get caught up in for hours at a time.
King Abaddon still suffers from a few annoying fetch quests. Helping to ameliorate this, you have a new notebook feature in the menu where important names and info are recorded. You’ll also have regular meetings with Narumi to analyze and organize new info pertaining to the main story case. These relatively small additions will at least make you feel like more of a detective as opposed to an errand boy with demons, a vibe that plagued the last game.
There are numerous other small improvements and features you will have to discover on your own. These include a mah-jongg mini-game where you can earn cash, free naps in the detective office to restore your team’s HP, and the ability to access Victor’s laboratory from any save point. The ‘luck’ parameter is also extremely important now thanks to a story integrated mechanic involving some special insects, and like Persona 3’s Death god, there’s a demonic super boss who can show up randomly to make your day worse. Two things I greatly appreciated were the new game plus feature and an improved hard difficulty called ‘King mode.’
Awesome as it all sounds, there are still some things that could be better. Boss fights could have used more variety; thanks to the story, you’ll be fighting a lot of giant bugs. The demon conversations are at times random and take a lot of getting used to for people who never played the earlier Devil Summoner or Persona games. Lastly, the enemy encounter rate is rather high in most dungeons and demon infested areas. In spite of these blemishes, what you have here is a very polished game which even folks who hated the last one will probably enjoy.
This is the one area where there is little improvement from Devil Summoner 3. There are some new areas and a whole new village to explore. Nevertheless, you spend a lot of your time around the same old hangouts from the previous game. To say that the game looks a lot like Soulless Army is not an insult, as Soulless Army was a fairly attractive PS2 game. While not matching the production value of Square Enix’s latest eye candy on PS2 (Final Fantasy XII) or XBox 360, where Devil Summoner succeeds is in its sense of style.
Period costumes and clothing are right on the mark, as are the towns, cities, and building interiors. Most dungeons and maps are average to relatively small in size, though the design is well done and will keep you guessing and exploring. A batch of new enemies and demons adds to the flair, and the larger battle maps make random encounters into miniature military skirmishes. With the SMT franchise as yet unrepresented on seventh generation consoles, King Abaddon is one of the best looking games in the series and a fairly attractive PS2 game overall.
The sound is excellent all around. Effects are sharp and evocative. Particularly the new gun and katana sounds are right on the button and create a dark though somewhat comic vibe to battle. Like its predecessors, King Abaddon has zero voice acting. The presence of good voice work would have been a plus, but its absence is not a criticism. Still, it’s a shame since the writing is so diverse and characters speak in such unique ways. One of the main female characters has two unique accents, a standard polite Japanese she uses when she first meets Raidou, and a rural dialect she uses in her hometown when talking to her family. I would have loved to hear a Japanese voice actor give life to her, and an English localization could also have been interesting.
Most importantly, the game has a phenomenal soundtrack. Shoji Meguro outdid himself with this game. There’s not a bad song on the entire soundtrack. The music is consistently enjoyable, whether you’re exploring a mysterious forest or just browsing through the list of requests at your office. There are some sweet remixes of Soulless Army tracks (and a Devil Summoner 1 track, but none of y’all have played that I bet), and four superb battle themes, all rocked out with great melodies on electric guitar. The blend of jazz, symphonic instrumental, electronica, and rock does a spectacular job of simultaneously taking you to prewar Tokyo and also evoking a sinister and ominous world with demons around every corner. It is a must have soundtrack for SMT fans.
Taking place immediately after Soulless Army, King Abaddon again places you in the shoes of detective / Demon pimp Raidou Kuzunoha. In typical noir fashion, the tale begins with a beautiful woman walking into your office begging for help. She’s named Akane, and it seems that her brother Dan (yes, Dan is a Japanese name) is trying to mess up her wedding. Raidou and his partner Narumi are charged with finding and stopping him.
Too simple for your tastes? How about a clan of assassins who use bugs that feast on good fortune to do their dirty work? How about the introduction of a new Devil Summoner under the name Kuzunoha Gerin and his plucky assistant Nagi? The wedding plot is complicated in chapters two and three (seven chapters in all, but trust me, this is a longer and bigger game than Soulless Army’s twelve episodes) by a human sacrifice twist and the revelation of exactly what King Abaddon is. We learn that Dan is actually not such a bad guy, though his methods are more than a little questionable. Ultimately the fate of the entire city will rest in your hands, and like the previous games, there are allusions to other Devil Summoner and SMT titles littered about.
Much of the game takes place outside of Tokyo in rural villages. The culture and language are perfectly tailored, as country people speak with heavy period accents. Dan is a chief offender here. He sounds like a Japanese Larry the Cable Guy (I would say that you should Youtube Larry if you don’t know who he is, but you might regret it). Demons also have their own unique personalities and Gerin and Nagi have their own amusing version of Japanese. Considering the diversity of dialects, the accuracy with which it reflects the period, and the degree to which speech effectively characterizes, the game is extremely well-written. It sure gave my electronic kanji dictionary a work out. Even my trusty Japanese fiancé struggled to read some of the archaic terminology, uncommon characters, obscure 1920’s slang, and metaphorical ghost-speak. It is fascinating and rich language, to be sure, but lacking Final Fantasy style cinematics and voice acting, all you have is the text, so here’s hoping for a good localization.
Again taking its inspiration from previous SMT games, King Abaddon allows you to alter the story and ending based on Raidou’s alignment. Your answers during conversations can push Raidou towards a Law, Neutral, or Chaos orientation. Boss battles, requests, and even whether or not you can obtain a few unique demons (rhymes with “mucifer”…anyone?) all depend on which side you chose. What makes this system so good is the fact that the central conflict of the story is ambiguous enough to make players seriously think about which side to choose. Dan’s motives are understandable, yet stopping him may be the only way to save many innocent lives. The pacing gets a bit scattered towards the end and depending on your route, you may dislike the finale. Still, King Abaddon’s story is suspenseful, unconventional, and true to the SMT spirit.
You do not need to have played the previous game to understand what is going on, but there is a bonus to players who have beaten Devil Summoner 3. Soulless Army data can be loaded into a new game giving you valuable items and stress-free recruiting of demons that were in your roster.
No real complaints here. The game uses a fixed camera, but rarely will your view be obstructed. Field menus are easy to navigate, and with your notebook and requests neatly organized, it is difficult to get lost. Battles are hectic real-time affairs, but you can pause and leisurely navigate menu commands at any time. It takes some getting used to since there is a lot going on and there are always many different strategies. People accustomed to older SMT games or other turn-based affairs will have a steeper learning curve, but should still be able to manage.
Devil Summoner 4 is one of the best entries in the illustrious Shin Megami Tensei series and rivals Persona 4 as one of the PS2’s best RPG’s. The game manages to blend a number of classic SMT elements into a supped-up action RPG that could give any Star Ocean game a run for its money. The challenge, complexity, and replay value are all there, plus a bangin’ soundtrack and an original story. While the unchanged graphics, lack of voice acting, and minor gameplay snags leave room for improvement, King Abaddon still generally excels all around. It is everything that the last game could and should have been, and is bound to bring a lot more folks into the SMT fandom.