Fast-becoming the RPG titan of Japan, Atlus continues to release new IPs and iterations for their many franchises. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor stroked the dark side of our imaginations, and made us question our morality when thrust into an apocalyptic setting. Pacifistic self-preservation could be wrong, and murder could be right. Done tactfully with excellent writing and characterization, Atlus reminded us that writing in JRPGs can be so much more than belt-clad teens saving the world from enigmatic, obligatory “ultimate evils.” But Devil Survivor also offered tight, balanced gameplay with robust customization – a feat few game developers can accomplish. From start to finish, Devil Survivor tested our ability to calculate three turns ahead with varied teams. Atlus even made each battle matter to the story, an approach still mysteriously lacking 25 years into the business. Oh, by the way, slap the number “2” at the end of each previous instance of “Devil Survivor,” and each statement is just as accurate.
Sequels imply a different experience with borrowed characteristics. The idea: take what worked, improve upon it, and add a few new knickknacks here and there. DS2 says “screw that!” and instead of synthesizing a whole new demon, throws on a mask with a crayon-scrawled monster face and claims to be new. Make no mistake, Devil Survivor 2 is quite literally a second Devil Survivor and not its own entity. In fact, some of the character artwork and personalities are so strikingly similar that I found myself accidentally projecting characters from the first game onto the new cast – and I haven’t played the first game in over a year. Although far from optimal, this doesn’t mean that the game is bad, but people should know what they’re buying: a repackaged copy of the first game. But, really, who can complain?
All warnings aside, DS2 takes on a slightly different approach from the first game in terms of story. Our young protagonists find themselves in Tokyo when disaster strikes. After witnessing their deaths on a website known as Nicaea, the horrifying video becomes reality, but lo! A demon appears to save their lives! …And then attacks them. Having survived their foreseen death through supernatural means, the teens find Tokyo in shambles. Sound familiar? DS2 does differ in that the three students join a secret government organization formed for the sole purpose of preventing such a catastrophe. Oops.
However, Atlus’ ingenuity shouldn’t be understated. Frequent dialogue options truly get the player involved in the conversation, and while some options are as simple as choosing between “Yeah” and “Alright,” this implies that tone factors into character development. A tremendous amount of thought and forking went into how the game plays out, matched only by BioWare. Unlike most JRPGs, conversation and interpersonal growth (or deterioration) truly add to gameplay, rather than just story. In fact, colorful characters and impactful choices will encourage another playthrough rather than the actual combat. Although a second playthrough feels much the same at first, who Hero aligns himself with and what he says increasingly influence the trajectory. Think of the course of the game like glass-blowing: linear for a fair portion, but fans out into multitudinous praise or dismay depending on how good you are at blowing glass. With this in mind, hidden demon boss battles, unlockables, and achievements add extra incentive to save the world once more.
Unlike the first game, DS2 introduces the Fate system: a method of tracking one’s buddyhood with the rest of the cast. Fate starts at level 0 and can move up to level 5, and each level grants some gameplay advantage or unlocked demon. The formula by which Fate rises is a mystery, though: are points accumulated for amicable response choices, or do key events decide if one levels up? Either way, friendly, like-minded choices determine Fate progress. Interpersonal growth may seem obvious, but gameplay bonuses are a welcomed perk. Though, I must say that the Fate system almost devolves into a quasi-dating-sim. Rather than focusing on what’s personally right or interesting to the player, Hero may find himself occasionally making artificial choices guided by incentive to level up. After all, if one isn’t gaining points to level up Fate, what are disagreeable choices doing? The combat enhancements, although slight, only serve to exacerbate this issue.
Our heroes have the ability to summon, synthesize, buy, and command demons. Almost identical to the first game, players battle in parties of three on a large grid. When a unit encounters an enemy and attacks, a mini-battle starts in which both teams share blows in one or two turns depending on speed and performance. After combat, the screen reverts to the battlefield until two more units clash, and so on. The middle character or demon is the leader, and if they die, that unit is lost. Each demon has three active and passive abilities, and a race or automatic ability. DS2 offers tremendous variety, almost entirely borrowed from the first installment. However, succeeding in combat alone isn’t enough: players must crack abilities from enemies decided in the beginning of battle. A specific unit must destroy their assigned demon, or the ability is not earned. This adds a necessary dimension of complexity and strategy, since haphazardly roaming the field to destroy foes, while fun, would be too simple. Again, taken from the first game. The only real difference is the way in which players purchase demons. Although the auction system returns, a little more risky guesswork is thrown into the mix. Under a five second time limit, players must decide just how high or low they should bid in order to beat NPC opponents. While this new method adds some flavor to the first game’s approach, the base remains the same.
A word of caution to those who hate grinding or investing twenty+ hours of gameplay for nothing: although DS2 enjoys the pinnacle of gameplay balance, players may find themselves trapped against an impossible end-game boss. Of course, depending on one’s route, different final battles open up, some harder than others. While the game offers free battles throughout to aid in much-needed skill cracking and leveling up, the experience growth end-game is so poor and the skills so under-powered that a final boss may be literally impossible without hours of painfully mindless grinding. After several attempts and hours invested against a multi-stage boss, I finally won, but had it not been for a few key cracked abilities earlier in the game, the victory wouldn’t have been possible. On the other hand, this limitation forces players to endure some of the most adrenaline-infused strategic combat I’ve had the pleasure of gritting my teeth through; however, beware the end-game and make a couple of alternate saves.
Also much like the first game, DS2’s gameplay flows in half-hour increments. Players decide where to go based on which character’s story progresses in that specific location. For instance, if you’re enamored with the crazy cosplay chi – err, dancing chick, then you can easily click the place that corresponds to her. Almost too easily. Unlike the first game, which offered a sense of randomness and opportunity, DS2 neatly lists almost the entire cast available for conversation at all times per day. In fact, if a player neglects one character’s story from Day Two, rest assured that that exact plot point will be available in Day Three. Whether this improves or hinders the game is a matter of personal preference, of course, but part of what made DS so different and engrossing from the usual fare was the tension – not only in the actual story, but in the notion that if an opportunity with a character is missed right now, it may never be available again. Combine this safe feature with the cozy comfort of a government-funded underground base stocked with food and luxuries, and the entire sense of immersion from the first game disappears faster than Atlus’ inability to objectify women.
Breasts full of helium. Or maybe the entire female cast of DS2 stuffs their bras with balloons. Whatever the case, Atlus’ artists have no respect for the laws of physics. Although well-drawn, DS2 clearly caters to a certain kind of gamer. But I digress. The sprite animations, details of a devastated Japan, and backgrounds during dialogue all enhance the sense of immersion. Musically, DS2 again bows its head before the first game, but mediocre melodies certainly don’t hinder the experience. Stylistically similar, the new sound simply lacks power.
I harped on the fact that DS2 is a DS clone in this review. However, do not misunderstand me: this is a fantastic game worth every dollar. After all, two versions of a unique title still outweigh a history of repetition from the land of Japan. With a strong narrative chocked full of fascinating characters and choices, DS2 ably sprints ahead with the torch passed on from the first game. Simply, those underwhelmed by the first game will not like this installment, while those who lauded the former only have to decide if the safety and security of structured, neat opportunities and a lack of tension hinder the experience. Personally, I can’t wait for a third game – as long as Atlus returns to its demonic roots.