If you enjoy SRPG or Shin Megami titles, this one's for you.
I've never been one for turn-based, strategy-heavy RPGs, but when given the opportunity to review Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 (SMT:DS2) this past week, I decided to give the genre another go. Historically, I struggle to connect with the characters and story in SRPGs and I also loathe the pacing and grid-based maps. Even though SMT:DS2 doesn't do much to dispel those concerns, I can still appreciate what is a very well-developed game that fans of the genre and series are sure to enjoy.
SMT:DS2 is about a group of high school students who must band together, with the help of demons that they can summon to their aid, to fight against other demons determined to destroy the world (starting with Japan). The story begins when your friend, Daichi, comes up to you and tells you about a bizarre new website that can send you video clips of other people's deaths, before they happen. No sooner do you learn about this unsettling website than do disasters start occurring all over Japan -- are earthquakes to blame or something supernatural? Where does this mysterious website fit in? These are some of the plot points that you will uncover as you build up parties and engage in battle against numerous demons.
This usually does not mean good news.
Gameplay in SMT:DS2 is a potent blend of classic RPG and SRPG. Players are able to visit a variety of locations from three Japanese cities and there are many dialogue sequences where you are prompted to respond with one of two options. You can build or damage relationships with a variety of NPCs, although you may want to stay on the upbeat side as good relationships can be synergistic in battle, yielding extra offensive power. Additionally, dialogue paths that you take count towards the multiple endings available, although I've yet to see any of these due to struggling mightily with the missions (more on those shortly).
Although you are given the ability to visit multiple locations for optional character and relationship building dialogue, you have to pay attention to the clock, too. Most location visits take up thirty minutes, and you only have so much time to spare when it comes to preventing death from claiming your allies. You can tell which area is the next story-mission by a marker next to the location name in a 'hub' screen where you get to choose where you want to insta-travel to next.
Veterans of the genre should feel right at home.
Besides traveling to different locations and participating in plenty of conversations, there's a deep battle system. Battles are segmented into Missions which have strict Victory and Defeat conditions, not uncommon for the genre. While I haven't played a lot of these types of games, the combat system is accessible, but yet full of nuances that will separate skilled players from the rest (like me). That said, I wonder that even skilled players from either the original SMT:DS or other SRPGs won't struggle with the stout difficult that DS2 brings. Sure, the first few battles are fairly easy, but within just a couple of hours I was sweating bullets trying to keep my characters alive. It's certainly possible to have some NPCs die and they cannot be resurrected, but obviously you don't want that to happen and many times you can't let that happen, or it's game over. Figuring out what strategy and demon powers you need to call upon to defeat the demon invaders is no small task.
Difficulty is one thing, but forcing players to sit through an overly dramatic and long game-over screen, and then still have to go through all of the dialogue preceding the battle is a punch in the gut. It's time consuming and, I don't know about you, but I hate repeating parts of games, especially when all I want to do is get another crack at the objective. That said, most seasoned and passionate players of the genre are used to pouring in hours upon hours into fine-tuning their tactics and grinding, so if you're into that, you may take to this type of play much more than I did.
If only that "HELP" summoned more friendly demons...
I touched on it only briefly until now, but one strong feature of the battle system in SMT:DS2 is how humans (a party of three) have demons paired with them that they can summon. This essentially doubles the number of offensive options you have for each character's turn. That alone adds a lot of depth to the game, but when you combine the fact that you can contract, purchase, and even fuse demons to create a more powerful demon, the customization and depth options begin to go off the charts. Not only is collecting and fusing demons a feature, it's a requirement if you hope to get very far. For players who like to collect and experiment with combinations of character skills, this is a major gameplay element.
As a first foray into SMT games, Devil Survivor 2 was both inviting and discouraging. I liked the premise, in that it kind of reminded me of my favorite DS game, 9-9-9, and I also like dialogue sequences that mean something. On the other hand, the slow-paced, harsh difficulty made this one tough to stick with and easy to put down. Naturally, fans of the genre and SMT games are going to get better mileage than I have, and while I may have my reservations about the game, I'm able to respect and appreciate its quality.