Release Date: October 10, 2006
It's been a frustrating thing, being a Megami Tensei fan who can't read or speak Japanese. Almost none of the games have made the jump to U.S. shores, and the few that did initially were somewhat offensive. Revelations: Demon Slayer (released in Japan as Last Bible) for Game Boy/Game Boy Color was the first RPG, embarrassingly predated by Jack Frost, a strange action/puzzle game for Virtual Boy, of call consoles. Yes, a crazy Virtual Boy spin-off arrived before a real Megami Tensei game did!
It wasn't until Persona that this incredibly interesting series was finally brought to U.S. shores in a palatable form. Only half of the sequel made it over due to controversy over plot points concerning a bunch of neo-Nazis attempting to resurrect Hitler. This could have been somewhat understandable had the player's party been the ones trying to bring back the old tyrant, but, alas, U.S. gaming in the late '90s still had a fair share of unsubstantiated censorship. We'll see if Persona 3 makes it over; the demon-summoning system in that game requires players to shoot themselves in the head.
I won't list each and every Megami Tensei game on which non-Japanese fans have missed out since the beginnings of the series on the Famicom, but I will say that we've missed out on two Devil Summoner titles so far, the original and its sequel, Soul Hackers. For undisclosed reasons, Atlus will not be releasing the PSP port of the original on U.S. shores. This may be because the PSP does not appear to be a solid investment for many developers, which is frustrating, but at least censorship does not seem to be the impetus behind the lack of an English version. Finally, these games are arriving intact, offensive warts and all.
So, the game being billed as Devil Summoner: Kuzunoha Raidou vs. the Super Power Army in the U.S. is, in fact, Devil Summoner 3. According to Shin Megami Tensei series designer Kazuma Kaneko, players can consider the missing PSP port to be in the spirit of the recent "Star Wars" prequel films, while Devil Summoner 3 can be enjoyed purely on its own, the same as the original trilogy.
While "Star Wars" is about as far off from the brand of fantasy found in Devil Summoner, the parallel makes sense. I haven't seen a single frame of Devil Summoner or Soul Hackers in action, and I don't feel like I'm missing out on any important plot points at all. There is a sense that there are an abundance of amusing references that I'm missing out on, but the same goes for any Megami Tensei game. While I'm smiling every time I see a recognizable demon from my times with Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga, another player is seeing something completely new; they'll just get in on the fun when they move on to another title in the series.
For experienced Nocturne or Digital Devil Saga players, Devil Summoner will be something of a shock. The title is mired in Shin Megami Tensei lore, true, but the gameplay has little to no connection to previous U.S. titles. Frankly, it doesn't have the same high production values as those games. The pre-rendered backgrounds that make up most of the visuals look like a good Square Enix game from the PlayStation days, and the polygonal characters and demons don't seem to be up to the sleek benchmark established by Nocturne.
Kaneko justified this stylistic shift by noting that the detective theme of the game could be fully realized much easier by using pre-rendered backgrounds. He's mostly right. Titular hero Kuzunoha Raidou, devil summoner/private detective extraordinaire, runs a very different style than other Megami Tensei leads. Obviously, the guy's a detective, and unlike so many RPGs with interesting characters, this actually plays a massive role in the gameplay. Think in terms of the great LucasArts PC adventures titles of the '90s, or even the illegal snooping portions of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The major difference: constant random battles during the entire investigative process.
The battles are real-time, fast-paced, and fairly simplistic compared to the Press Turn system from the three previous Megami Tensei PS2 titles. At first, I was somewhat disappointed. These battles weren't the mind-breaking, strategy-minded affairs that I was used to, but as the game progressed, I realized that this was for a good reason. Devil Summoner is all about exploring the same details repeatedly, until the important facts are uncovered, and you need to have a wide array of demons to be able to do so. The demon's spells can be used in-game during investigations, and without a colorful lineup, you won't get very far in the individual episodes. So really, the battles are there for two reasons:
- The obvious one. Fun. These battles are quick and simple, but there is enough to pay attention to that they aren't entirely brainless (ahem, Tales of games). You still need keep tabs on the magical alignment of your demons if you want the poor little guys to survive, so expect to do a lot of memorization of which does what early on if you haven't played any Megami Tensei games in the past. Other than that, it's the visceral enjoyment of watching blood spatter about freely – uncommon in most RPGs – while using simple one- and three-hit combos in conjunction with magically-charged gun-blasts, to take down the damn demons.
- Collecting the demons themselves. For example, if you don't have a fire-aligned demon, you can't cast the "invigorate" spell, which excites NPCs into saying what they really mean about a certain detail in the case. Having a volt-aligned demon scan the area can discover unseen details. Above all, you'll need a strong, well-trained demon to handle battles solo while investigating areas that you can't enter for unforeseen reasons, since humans cannot see or sense the presence of demons most of the time.
Clearly, Devil Summoner has an entirely different feel from other Megami Tensei titles, and while it was achieved with much lower production values, it's something special. Really, the game has more in common than not with the previous titles. There are no new demons, although the designs are different from those running on the cel-shaded Nocturne engine. The pre-rendered backgrounds are a far cry from the fully realized, hyper-detailed world of Digital Devil Saga, although they have much more going on than the sparse overworld and dungeons from Nocturne. They represent a very different setting from the other games, but the alignments are still intact and almost completely unchanged.
Best, or worst, of all, depending on how you look at it, the style of music is virtually unchanged from Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga, although the songs are all new. Squealing guitars punctuate strange synth riffs, exactly what we're used to. This is a sound that is completely unique to Megami Tensei games, and while I was on pretty bad terms with it when I first booted up Nocturne, they style has grown on me to the point where I cracked a smile as soon as I heard the first few notes of battle music in Devil Summoner.
So there is no doubt about it: This is a Megami Tensei game, meant mostly for Megami Tensei fans, but with a much greater level of accessibility than the already simplified Digital Devil Saga. The real-time battles may turn off purists, but I found them to be simple and creative in all the right ways.
This game is more about investigation and getting engrossed in the demonic lore, more than anything else. Yes, players will find themselves in the same locale again and again, scouring for clues, which is a surefire sign of this being a low-spending production. Does that matter when that style is used to a good end? Again, purists might not agree with me here, but I had a lot of fun checking rooms top to bottom. That's how a case would work. You wouldn't be jumping from dungeon to dungeon; that's what Dragon Quest heroes do, not private detectives.
For anybody looking to have a proper introduction to the demons and world of Shin Megami Tensei, Devil Summoner: Kuzunoha Raidou vs. the Super Power Army is probably the best jumping-on point next to the hard-to-find Persona 2. Get this, get Digital Devil Saga, and when you're done, you'll be ready for the incredibly difficult dungeon-crawling of SMT3: Nocturne.