Shin Megami Tensei games are a lot like their end-game bosses. I’m not talking about them being hard, as that would be an extremely uninspired simile. I’m thinking about something a bit different. If you’ve played this series in the past, think about what you’ve been up against. In the beginning, any given SMT game has you fighting puny, under-leveled grunts with weaknesses that stretch across the entire elemental spectrum. But what about by the end, after you’ve wasted away demon after demon so much so that you could easily start up a nice taxidermy shop with all those dead Jack Frosts and Incubi? Well, then there are the bosses. They’re big and scary and strong and have strengths and nulls against every form of attack, and they’re way too good at what they do. To me, that’s exactly what these games are: Strong in all areas. And yes, they are hard. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is no different. It has that classic SMT challenge and a slew of great positives that make it a welcome addition to this dark and dismal series.
Devil Survivor takes place in a modern day Tokyo setting where technology and computerization play an extremely prominent role in society. One of the more wide-spread devices used throughout the city is a communication trinket known as the COMP, a pocket-sized, Nintendo DS lookalike which sports convenient little applications such as email, internet, and demon-summoning. Well, okay, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Not all of the COMPs have that last one, but it’s an ever so handy feature that you and your group of teenage hipsters will stumble upon early on in the game.
After the entire city has essentially been closed off by a government agency known as the Self-Defense Force due to an alleged and hazardous gas leak underneath the city’s surface, demons begin pouring in from who knows where and terrorizing the locals. City borders are hermetically sealed, exiting routes blockaded, and subways inaccessible. In other words, everyone is trapped. Trapped within a bubble filled with devilish creatures completely hell-bent and hungry for human interaction. And by that, I mean they want to eat you. And probably rip off your face.
With nowhere to go and nowhere to hide, panic begins to spread throughout the capital. It’s a nightmarish scenario, and the air is quick to be contaminated with pessimism. Survival takes precedence over everything else.
Luckily for you and your mess of friends, however, you’ve got those beefed up demon-summoning COMPs in your possession. What’s even stranger is that they begin receiving eerily prophetic emails that predict deaths, murders and other horrendous happenings that will take place throughout the day (seven days total), allowing you to more or less change the future by preventing these predictions from occurring. The truly frightening part, though? Some of these emails are about you. So with demon allies just a button tap away, you set off to do the only thing you can: Survive.
The thing that’s always managed to grab me SMT after SMT is their particularly strong narratives. The story in Devil Survivor is unquestionably the strongest aspect that the game has to offer. What starts off as a chilling tale focused on survival and survival alone is quick to evolve into one of cowardly escape as the main characters desperately attempt to flee from the brutalities at hand. Even then, the focus on abdication eventually shifts to a save the world epic involving government conspiracy, the world’s reliance upon technology, and religious epistemology. The progression from start to finish was amazing, not only with the story itself, but with the setting alterations, as well. Tokyo is transformed into a downright apocalyptic abyss of turmoil by the end of the journey. Simply observing the mannerisms of the characters and the changes that the setting goes through makes for an extremely powerful experience. The clichés are definitely here (angels and demons, “you’re the one that can save us all” dialogue, whiny female love interest), but they’re masked very well by the intensity and desperation that the story drenches you with.
This talk of setting is a good way to transition into the visuals and audio. As mentioned, Devil Survivor takes place in the current day, so everything seen and heard accurately reflects that. This game has a great sense of style, with expressive character portraits, diverse demon designs (I personally got a bit moist after seeing the fatty hippo goddess which seductively bit at its finger), and a slick, heavily digital menu interface. The battle sprites look decent at best, though the environments are rich and surely representative of Japan, with each section of town flaunting its own territorial look. The lava-pitted, this-is-where-you-go-when-you-die maps seen in the demon world look appropriately unpleasant, though I wasn’t exposed to too much of it during my playthrough. To further enhance the narrative, the color palette begins bleeding progressively, with everything becoming more clouded and roseate as the game’s tension heightens.
Musically, I was impressed. A lot, actually. Tons and tons and tons of screaming guitar riffs and crazy… well, I don’t know. Guitar stuff. There’s a plethora of guitar tunes to listen to, and when it comes down to it, I don’t think I’d rather be listening to anything else whilst beating those demons back to whence they came. I’m mostly harping about the battle themes (Get it? Harp? Music!?), which are extremely grungy and fanatical, and I honestly found myself humming them in between battles. The word “bodacious” comes to mind. I mean, I usually don’t associate heavy metal with Japan, but given the situation within the story, I thought it all fit rather nicely. Everything else – basically the opening vocal track, a few emotional/buzzkill songs, and the one or two happy-optimistic-fun-time instrumentals – is equally catchy. There was nary a time where my volume slider was turned to anything less than full.
So does the gameplay match up with the music’s brazenness? The short answer: Absolutely. Enemies are forceful, mission objectives are steeply tilted out of your favor, and bosses are all of the above and then some. From the very beginning, it becomes apparent that Devil Survivor loves to stack the odds against you and make you feel as though you never really have a fighting chance, which is good, considering the story’s central theme. Survival will rarely be a cakewalk.
Gameplay is naturally separated into two parts: In and out of battle. The latter will have you running around town, chatting with key characters you’ll meet up with regularly throughout the course of the story and tinkering with your battle parties. As previously mentioned, the emails your COMP receives reveals various happenings that will occur throughout the day, so time management plays a vital role in the direction that the story travels. Each conversation spent with an NPC takes up thirty-minute chunks out of your day. That said, it’s important that you watch those minute hands like a hawk. Coordinating your meet-ups and keeping track of where you need to be and when you need to be there is crucial to the plot progression. At times, characters you’ve taken a likening to will be targeted within those emails, and if you accidentally get an ice cream cone on the other side of town during the supposed times outlined in those messages, you can say bye-bye to your peers, because they will die.
The game’s finale is where this all becomes important, because there are a handful of endings that you can experience depending on your actions throughout the story. It’s not just the endings that branch off either; it’s the whole final chapter. For me, the selection process was extremely difficult, as each path offered pros and cons. It was here where I realized how invested I was in the whole ordeal, and valuing one outcome over the other was, in a word, gut-wrenching. I’ll leave it at that and let you experience it for yourself!
The battle system is where things are at their peak of brutality, however. Devil Survivor’s combat is a smooth blend of strategy gameplay and the Press Turn system seen in past SMT games, with a good variety of gameplay tweaks to keep them gelled. The result is both fun and challenging, though let it be known that it’s not for those easily frustrated.
Four human characters can be sent into battle at a time with a maximum of two demon partners accompanying each of them. Here, it’s your standard tactical, grid-based fare where characters will move around and attack whatever gets in their way. Protecting and rescuing civilians, deactivating enemy COMPs, booking it when strong demons pop up; this game forces you into doing many uncomfortable tasks (that’s a good thing, mind you). Variety is the key word, here. Surviving is the bottom rung, however, with every mission building off of that one basic theme.
Once you’ve targeted an enemy, you’ll swing into the turn-based system. One turn of battle apiece is all you and your opposition will receive before being whisked back to the grid, so be sure to use it effectively. Everyone will have their magic attacks, strengths and weaknesses and designated roles in battle, so it’s not all that different from previous SMT titles. As per SMT norm, intelligence and patience are awarded with the grandest of all treasures, Extra Turns, which are occasionally handed out by performing well in battle (i.e. hitting foes where it hurts, nullifying/draining/reflecting enemy attacks, pulling off critical hits, etc). And of course, those you are fighting against are equally as well off and will decimate you with Extra Turns of their own if given the opportunity.
The demon recruits for your party can be bid upon over a demonic server via your COMP. If you spot something you like, you can compete against other in-game tamers in hopes of adopting the silly little specimen into your ranks. The more you buy, the higher your rating will rise and the better quality demons to which you’ll have access. I like to call it eBane. It’s stupid, sure, but its existence is justified, so no worries there.
With your newly purchased cadre of minions, players are encouraged to combine them into new creations by utilizing the series’ signature demon fusion system. Mixing two demons together will (hopefully!) result in significantly more powerful teammates with upgraded stats and spells. SMT veterans will feel right at home with this, though due to a stunningly gracious addition to the formula, the fusion process has become infinitely more pleasant to partake in. Instead of demons adopting random attacks from their parents, players are able to handpick them from the paternal pool, meaning that the days of pressing the select and back buttons, hoping and praying and groveling for that perfect stack of moves, are finally over. Why hasn’t this been done sooner, Atlus? It’s absolutely amazing, and a huge time saver!
Speaking of saves, you’re going to get one save file. Just one. That’s it. I didn’t enjoy that one bit, especially when I accidentally (and unbeknownst to me) killed off one of the main characters, which completely axed my chances at one of the endings. And speaking of endings, I would have loved to experience them all, but because of the save system, I’m forced into replaying the entire game over and over and over again if I want to take a gander. That’s not a bad thing, since the game is quite the crowd pleaser, but it’s an inconvenience, nonetheless.
The final aspect I’d like to mention is the difficulty. Devil Survivor is a tough cookie to crack, one that quickly escalates from easy to “Dude, are you serious?” in a matter of chapters. And while the battle system always plays nice and never teeters into the impossible, I grew frustratingly tired with how much excess grinding I was forced to do toward the end of the game. The path I ended up choosing had an insanely rewarding seven boss scramble, with each fight requiring tons of time wasted on demon fusion and experience farming (here’s where that supremely witty taxidermy joke comes into play). The experience system seemed really botched to me; every time my characters leveled, the amount of experience they received became less and less. And less and less and less. It wasn’t fun earning triple digit rewards when two levels earlier had me lining my pockets with four or five.
Negatives aside, Devil Survivor is a great success. It provided me with one of the most engaging, grin-inducing plots I’ve experienced in recent memory with themes and messages experimental to the genre. Surviving catastrophes is such a milquetoast occurrence in the video game medium, so it’s a rarity when a game can come along and give some weight to it. When characters are affected by something, when their lives are in peril, when a player can sync up, sympathize, and believe the unbelievable, that’s a pretty cool achievement. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor doesn’t go above and beyond to shake the genre’s foundations, but with a strong story, hip aesthetic, and testing battle system, it’s an RPG that plenty of gamers should want to survive through.