Ambivalent About this Series
I played Revelations: Persona when it first came out in 1996. I didn’t enjoy it that much; it was far too obtuse and clunky though I enjoyed the concept of collecting monsters for use in combat and wished it had been better implemented. After learning more about the series (and that it predates Pokemon by a decade) I found that earlier games expect even more while giving even less; their brutality and negligence of the player are legendary.
Similarly to the SaGa series, many of the Shin Megami Tensei games have obstacles in place that not only make the game challenging but actively thwart players and attempt to prevent them from enjoying themselves. A standard JRPG boss might have an instant-death attack. A Megami Tensei boss will instead have several different total party kill spells (each needed a different method to block them), an instant 100% self-heal, immunity to 3/4 of the things you can do to it, and counter the remaining 1/4 with attacks that leave your party crippled. Even basic enemies can exploit your party’s weaknesses and instantly wipe you out without warning. These games take unfairness to incredible heights, having learned well from the days of Wizardry and Bard’s Tale about screwing over the player and still making them like it.
Even the relatively user-friendly Strange Journey is still fantastically vicious, though it’s kinder than other Megami Tensei games; it at least has an in-game map and warns you when a ridiculous near-invincible boss is coming up as opposed to other games in the series that will just murder you with no indication of what you’re supposed to do. But the Megami Tensei games are still grievously harmful and unrepentantly obstinate in their difficulty level. Many are turned off by the antagonistic attitude of the games’ creators, but some people enjoy the death-defying challenge of a JRPG that isn’t a brainless grindfest.
At Last, a Great Megami Tensei game
Someone at Atlus must have said “enough of this” and decided to make a more playable Megami Tensei game and gave us Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, a 2009 strategy RPG that is a profound improvement over previous entries. It has many things in common with other games from the franchise but it is both better in its presentation and much more reasonable in its gameplay elements.
The combat in Devil Survivor is a synthesis between two similar genres. Your characters move about a grid like a typical strategy RPG, but while attacking enemy units you enter a 2-round turn-based RPG battle before taking you back to the battlefield. These two flow effortlessly between each other and offer a new degree of complexity not found in other JRPGs.
The humans in your party can select abilities from the ones you already know, but each ability can only be used once for the entire party. This means you can’t load them all up with the overpowered skills and steamroll the enemies; you have to manage them with aptitude. Overload one character and the others will be weaklings, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; you might have the right monsters to protect them and make it a viable strategy.
When picking your monsters, you might have a team that is beastly in battle but lacks utility, which will put you at a significant disadvantage against enemies with long-range spells who can soften you up before you get in close. Or you might have lots of monsters with Devil Speed and Animal Leg to increase your movement capabilities, but this would be at the sacrifice of more potentially useful racial skills like Switch (flip positions with a target on the grid), Blood Wine (lose HP to restore MP) Double Up (attack twice in one turn), or one of the healing spells. It’s up to the player to find the right fusion of the drastically different monsters available in order to have a capable team. The game will nudge you along but you have to scale the cliffs yourself with your own resourcefulness and tenacity.
This game is hard–it will stretch you to your limits–but it is not painful to play. The fight with Beldr had me struggling to get through but I never felt hopeless like I did in so many other Megami Tensei battles. I replayed it until I figured out the best team and best course of action, then I won; it just took a dozen attempts as opposed to two hundred. This game will pound you into the pavement and laugh at your weakness but at least it will let you get up before starting the beatings again.
Also present is a system of conversations that is a more playable and less obnoxious version of the one found in Persona 3. You still talk to other characters and make decisions that affect the future significantly, but here you have some clue what to do. During the seven days of the game’s storyline you meet lots of new people, all with a conflict that beset them. It’s not possible to save everyone from outside forces or from their own stupidity, but you can accomplish a lot of good. And unlike dating sims (Persona 3 and 4 included), you don’t need GameFAQs to get even basic functionality out of the game; significant events are marked with clocks on the locations list so you don’t have to resort to trial and error.
One of the few downsides in comparison to other Megami Tensei games is the lack of bargaining with enemies to convince them to join your party. That was my favorite aspect of the series, and it’s entirely absent here. However, combining monsters to create new ones eliminates a lot of tedium, as does the ability to set skills for the new creature based on those belonging to the two monsters being merged. You can also buy new ones at an in-game demon eBay, but I sure wish I could talk to those loveable bozos. Buying or fusing Odin or Nyarlathotep into your party just isn’t the same as recruiting them.
There is no unnecessary overworld and no irritating obtuseness to any step of the game. This is a tightly knit and entertaining game. In fact, it’s possible to complete one of the harder paths on your first playthrough even without grinding. It doesn’t have the irritating ally AI that casts the wrong spell and leads to an instant game over (I’m looking at you, Persona games) nor does it demand you level up for dozens of hours to complete a single hard fight. It’s tough but friendly.
Aesthetics and Plot
The music is a decent mixture of fast-paced hard rock with catchy riffs, tense technopop, and unsettling droning. It’s an unexpected and entertaining combination of styles, much like the gameplay itself.
You play as a trio of anime teenagers who are able to cope with a big (unnatural) disaster in Tokyo because the protagonist’s cousin gave them enchanted Nintendo DSes that enable them to fight and capture monsters. It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds; the game has a sense of urgency to its seven days but accomplishes this without harassing the player.
There is some mystical gibberish–a combination of ideas and personalities taken from various world mythologies–as is par for the course in the Megami Tensei series. But it’s muted and less embarrassing compared to the other games that had you do things like fight freaking YHWH (presented as the Demiurge) as a final boss. Some of Devil Survivor has goofy quasi-Judeo-Christian elements, like the thing with Cain and Abel and several references to Gnosticism and Kabbalah, but they are not intended to be tedious oh-so-edgy pokes at Christianity as much as more sources to draw cool monsters and plot points from.
Character designs are passable but somewhat generic. There’s a certain softness to their looks that makes them all look childlike, which fits in with the theme of helping people during their times of need. Despite this, I forget a lot of character names and the events that occurred despite having beaten Devil Survivor three times. And it doesn’t help that the protagonist is a mute one.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is a highly streamlined game. It is quite challenging but more thoughtful and rewarding of cleverness than other Megami Tensei games. This game will crush you but it will do so fairly, like God Hand or Dark Souls. That is a difficult middle ground to achieve, but Devil Survivor does so quite well.
Devil Survivor received a sequel for the DS and a “remix” for the 3DS, both of which I am too poor to play, so I cannot judge their worth. Regardless, this is the finest game in the venerable thirty-year JRPG franchise. It is more mature, more understanding, and more rewarding. If others in the series have put you off, try this one. It’s better.