For nearly 20 years, Atlus USA has been releasing games in the Shin Megami Tensei line. Going as far back as 1992, most of the titles in this line have followed a similar plot: Demons have come to earth, and you're going to need to recruit some of them to fight alongside you. Depending on which line you're looking at, you might be a high school student caught up in events beyond your knowledge (the Persona series), a tribal warrior who has the ability to metamorphose into the demons in question (Digital Devil Saga), or — in the case of the Devil Summoner series — the latest in a long line of fighters who wage war on demons whenever they appear in Japan's capital. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2 diverges very little from this path, and while it bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor, it's different enough to warrant inclusion in the library of any Atlus fan, and it's unusual enough that even neophytes to the series should give it a look.
Players take up the role of Raidou Kuzunoha, a young man who has been training for years to take up the role of Devil Summoner. This is actually a title of sorts; there was a previous Raidou Kuzunoha, and one before that, and so on. The Yatagarasu, a cadre of good-aligned spirits, have trained Raidou after he helped protect Japan's capital throughout the years, and you are the latest in that line. Raidou and his talking cat mentor, Gouto, are guided through a quick training sequence in which you learn the basic controls of combat, and then you're deposited unceremoniously at the Narumi Detective Agency under the tutelage of Shohei Narumi. Once there, a young lady enters and asks for help in finding a young man named Dahn with very little explanation, and the game begins.
Gameplay largely consists of two separate modes. On the one hand, you're an employee of a detective agency, and you're going to need to ferret out clues to solve various cases. This means talking to every single person you can find, preferably on multiple occasions; bring a note pad because you're going to want to keep a running tally of what you get out of people. Just like most games of this type, a lot of what people tell you will be backstory, but you'll occasionally find a nugget of useful information here and there. More importantly, there will be points in the game where the story simply will not progress until you talk to the right person. Devil Summoner 2 contains so many locations to visit and so many characters with whom you can speak that it can prove to be a real needle-in-the-haystack endeavor just to get the plot moving again.
The second game mode is battle. There is a dark version of most areas of town, where demons will attack at random. Whenever the screen shifts, the player has the opportunity to prepare for battle, negotiate with opponents, choose his allies for the fight, opt to flee, and things of that nature. Once the player has made his selections (and/or negotiation has failed), combat begins. The player has both a gun and a sword, and the weapons serve different purposes: The gun will do little damage but can be used to stun opponents while you slash at them, whereas your sword will be your main damage-dealer. Your demons will be useful as well, dealing damage to your opponents and buffing your team and healing, but you can't always rely on them to do what you want, when you want. The system is robust and responsive; you can block or dodge incoming attacks, combo off of previous combos, exploit enemy weaknesses to restore MAG (the power you use to fuel spells and skills) and do a number of interesting things throughout the fight.
The demons in this game are more than just enemies. You can negotiate with them, sometimes recruiting them to join your side. The negotiation system in Devil Summoner 2 is varied and interesting; different demons will bring different negotiation abilities to the table, and they'll respond favorably or poorly to different tactics. Discussions can go well right from the start, do badly and then recover, start well and then disintegrate, or go to pot from the beginning … and some demons won't negotiate with you at all, especially if the moon is full. Some demons want items or money to join you, some want to sap your health, and others will leave you alone if you've got one of their buddies in your party. Once you've recruited your demons, they can be switched out at will; only two demons at a time can join you in combat, but the ones that do fight alongside you will gain experience and loyalty, which will improve your rank as a Summoner and grant the demons new abilities.
Demons can also be fused; once your demons simply aren't strong enough, you can bring them to your doctor friend and fuse them into a new, hopefully better demon. The new demon will have some abilities of its predecessors and will hopefully be significantly stronger; you can't create demons that are of a higher level than you are, but any improvement is a boon in combat. You're allowed to see what your two demons will become before you fuse them and make choices accordingly; if you want a fire demon, you can sift through the ones you already have until you find a combination that works. New to this title is the ability to fuse swords by using various materials to improve upon your blades and give you the opportunity to use the best tool for the job, whatever that may be.
One important thing to note about Devil Summoner 2 — and really, most Atlus titles — is the difficulty. Atlus is renowned for being unapologetic about the brutal nature of its learning curve; you're capable of wandering into territories where the demon foes will utterly wreck you, and there are points in the game where saying the wrong thing can completely alter the availability of certain side-quests or items. The boss battles are especially unforgiving; the very first boss has several incredibly devastating attacks, and Atlus' attitude toward gameplay is, "figure out how to handle this or repeatedly lose." This, combined with some slightly adult themes (this title earns its "M" rating), suggests that the entire Shin Megami Tensei series is not for the faint of heart. The only other issue is that this game is very, very Japanese; don't expect English names, locations or other conveniences, and those with no cultural understanding of Japan might find some references lost on them.
Overall, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2 is an interesting and complex title with scads of replay value and an impressive level of depth. It's been referred to as "Pokémon for grown-ups," and it earns that designation with flying colors. Sure, this is a PlayStation 2 game, and it might not have the graphics or music that you'd expect from a current-generation system, but if you're looking for pure gameplay — even if it's the kind that will make you grind your teeth as you stare down that wall of difficulty — there's a lot to be found in Devil Summoner 2 that you won't find anywhere else.
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