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Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor

Platform(s): Nintendo DS
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: June 23, 2009


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NDS Review - 'SMT: Devil Survivor'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on July 1, 2009 @ 4:20 a.m. PDT

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor invigorates the series with an unprecedented RPG/SRPG combat system and more character customization options than ever before, all wrapped within a compelling, branching narrative.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is set in Tokyo in the modern day. Players take the role of an unnamed human as he and his friends find themselves in the middle of a crisis. Tokyo is sealed off by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, trapping everyone inside. Mythological demons have begun appearing all over the city, summoned by mysterious Nintendo DS-like devices called COMPs. The hero and his friends receive COMPs of their own from the protagonist's cousin, Naoya, and quickly begin using demons to defend themselves and others. However, the COMP also comes with a few other disturbing features: the Laplace Mail and the Death Clock. The Laplace Mail is a mysterious e-mail sent to the COMPs that predicts the future, including the deaths of people and the arrival of powerful demons. The Death Clock allows the main character to see the number of remaining days that a person has ... and nobody except the JSDF soldiers has more than seven days left. It's up to the heroes to use their COMPs to survive the chaotic week that follows and to see if they can figure out a way to survive the impending Armageddon.

Devil Survivor's story is divided into seven days. During these days, you have from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. to do whatever you need to do. Each day has a basic plot to follow, but there are also a number of side-stories that you can find yourself involved in. Each side-story influences the plot and involves saving characters whose Death Clock is about to run out. However, you only have a limited amount of time with which to do all of these side-plots. Every action you take will also advance the clock by 30 minutes. Depending on what you do, certain paths or events may become unavailable to you, and there are also certain times of the day when you have to go to a certain place. As a result, there are a lot of branching paths in the game. Characters may live or die depending on your actions, certain demons may become available or be forever locked, and the entire path of the adventure may change. The title has a vast number of possible endings, and the available endings are determined by how you play the game. This really adds a lot of replay value, especially since the game's single save slot means you can't just save before every decision and go back to try something else.

The strategic battles in Devil Survivor take place in an isometric grid-based combat area. Every unit in the game is represented by a sprite showing its leader, and player and foe take turns moving their units around the stage. A unit is made up of a group of two demons and a human, and they function as a team. A player can have up to four units, while enemies can have far more. It's not an overly complex system, although there are a few interesting mechanics involved. Outside of combat, players can use healing abilities and certain buffing abilities to alter the flow of battle. Some units can bind enemies to prevent them from moving as far, while others can cure damaged allies. However, the more actions you take outside of battle, the longer it will take for that character's next turn to come. Combat begins when a unit is moved next to an enemy and the player selects "Attack." By default, every unit in the game has a one-square range, meaning you must be directly next to the foe to attack him. There are certain demons in the game that grant the ability to extend your range, although this usually comes at a cost to some of your attack abilities.

For the most part, combat is a three-on-three battle. Once the skirmish begins, both sides can choose to attack each other in traditional turn-based combat. You pick an attack or spell, identify a target to use it on, and the combat begins. The interesting tactical situation involved here is how you can defeat enemies. You see, both your parties and the enemy parties are built around a leader; it's the Tamer for humans, and for enemies, it's the demon in the middle of their party. A leader is inherently given a huge defense bonus. Compared to his sidekicks, he'll take far less damage and only takes full damage once his two demon minions are dead. However, if the leader dies, the entire party is considered defeated, regardless of how many demons are left alive. How you plan to defeat an enemy can play into your strategies for that battle. Sometimes it is more effective to defeat the leader, and other times, it is better to defeat the entire party. The same goes for your own party members; while it's rare that you'll lose your Tamer before his two demons are dead, your own leaders are still the backbone of your party, so you need to defend them.

Devil Survivor brings back a modified version of the Press Turn system seen in the PS2 titles. Normally, each attack against an enemy lasts for one round, so every character can act once and then you're returned to the overhead screen. However, this is where weaknesses and strengths come into play. If a character hits an opponent with an element attack that the opponent is weak against or scores a critical hit with a physical attack, there is a chance of that character earning an extra turn. Additionally, if a character blocks or reflects an attack, that character may gain an extra turn. However, hitting an enemy with an elemental weakness or reflecting an enemy's attack will not only give you an extra turn, but it will also take away the enemy's extra turn. A really good player can get an entire extra attack round on a defenseless enemy, while poor planning can leave your characters vulnerable to devastating enemy counterattacks.

Exploiting the extra turn system isn't just essential for defeating enemies; it's how you make money in the game. At the end of every battle where at least one enemy has been defeated, you'll earn Macca, or demon currency. The amount of Macca you earn is set, and then you gain a bonus depending on how well you did in combat. You'll gain a multiplier for gaining extra turns or taking them away from enemies, for defeating all three enemies in a single round, for taking no damage, or for reflecting or blocking attacks. However, be warned that this can work against you too. If you end up losing more turns than you gained, lose an allied demon in combat, or have your own attack reflected or blocked, you may find yourself in the negatives. Fortunately, the game will never take money away from you, and you'll always end up with a base amount of cash from every fight. Doing well in combat also earns you magnetite, which can be used to teach demons skills.

One thing that will sound quite good to Shin Megami Tensei veterans is how much more friendly the skill system is in Devil Survivor. Every character in the game has seven skill slots: three attack skills, three passive skills and either a racial or auto skill. Attack skills are magic spells or special attacks that damage the foe, and passive skills grant bonuses to the character. Racial skills are for demons and are an ability that every demon of that type has. Some are passive abilities, and some have to be activated before they have an effect, but these unique abilities which can't be taught to other demons or learned by humans. Auto skills are exclusive to the human characters, and it's automatically cast at the start of each round. Some take MP, and some do not. These Auto skills tend to be special passive boosts that increase your entire party's offensive or defensive abilities, and they're easily among the most valuable and powerful abilities in the game, although they're also among the hardest to acquire.

For your human party members, learning a skill is quite easy. At the beginning of a round, you can see a list of the skills of every enemy in that stage. You can assign a skill to one of your human party members through a process called Skill Crack. If that human's party defeats the demon, the skill is "cracked" and added to your group's skill inventory. Once a skill has been cracked, it can be equipped on a human, although each skill is unique and can't be equipped on multiple people. Each skill also has a stat requirement, and it can't be equipped on your characters until they meet the stat requirements for the skill, although you can crack any skill you encounter. This system does a lot to cut down on the grinding, since the abilities you learn tend to come from careful tactical planning instead of farming for EXP. Skilled players can learn up to four new skills a round, which really adds up to a hefty inventory of useful abilities.

Fortunately, learning skills for demons is a total breeze. Demons have a number of pre-set abilities that they begin with, and they have a handful that they'll learn as they level up. If you create a demon via fusion, you can fill any blank slots in the demon's attack or passive menu with any of the attack or passive abilities from either of the two fused demons. For those who remember the endless rerolling of skills required in Nocturne or Persona, this is an absolute godsend. Creating the right demon for a situation is far easier and faster than it has been in any of the other games, severely cutting down on the time needed to make useful allies. Demons can also learn new skills in combat. Doing well in combat fills up an invisible magnetite meter; when the meter fills up, whoever filled it can choose to teach one of the demons in their party any attack skill that is in the human's skill pool. As you can imagine, this is ridiculously useful and allows you to put rare abilities onto powerful demons. The only problem is that getting the magnetite meter full seems like a bit of a crapshoot. There's no apparent way to see the magnetite level, so getting the bonus feels almost random. It's great when it happens to a demon you can give a useful attack to, but it's awful when you waste a full magnetite bar on two demons who are already set to kick butt.

By and large, Devil Survivor's levels are unique and interesting stages. It's rare that you'll encounter a mission where your only goal is to defeat a group of enemies. Instead, you generally have to deal with a gimmick of some kind; some missions require to you to stop a flow of enemy reinforcements, defeat certain enemies without draining all of their hit points, escape from a powerful foe, or protect innocent civilians. As a warning, Devil Survivor contains a ton of escort missions, which means you'll have to protect various NPC allies from enemy attacks. As far as design goes, however, Devil Survivor is very good about the escort missions.

The AI tends to have intelligent and predictable routines that make sense, and the few AI fighters you have on your side are OK at staying alive, even if they're a bit reckless at times. Furthermore, you can heal any allied NPC, which helps to make them less frustrating to keep alive.  There are a few weak allies, especially early on, but the game is quite fair about defending NPCs, as long as you plan ahead and use the abilities available to you. The level design is good enough that every stage feels like something new and interesting, so you don't feel like you're beating the same enemies over and over.  Even with all of that praise, anyone who doesn't enjoy escort missions, even well-designed escort missions, is going to find frustration here. The stages are fairly difficult, so if you don't plan ahead, it is very easy to find yourself being brutalized by powerful enemies. You can look at the strengths and weaknesses of every enemy on the map beforehand, so pre-planning can mean the difference between an impossible fight and an easy win.

Devil Survivor is a surprisingly nice-looking game. The character artwork is solid enough, and there are some nice demon redesigns. Every character and demon has a special map sprite used for the overhead view in combat. These sprites are well-animated and very expressive, and it's even fun to watch their idle animations. The combat animations are a little bland, involving the old-school method of using a still picture and occasionally adding a few visual effects to represent spells or attacks. It's the same method used by the older Shin Megami Tensei games in Japan, but it still looks rather hollow compared to the nicely animated sprites on the map screen.  The game's soundtrack is also a little uninspired when compared to the music found in the Persona or main Shin Megami Tensei games, but it has a few nice tunes, even if they're not particularly memorable. 

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is easily one of the best strategy-RPGs on the Nintendo DS and may even be one of the better strategy RPGs ever made. It does almost everything right. Players are given a wide variety of freedom, both in combat and in the story line, which really helps keep the player's attention. Combat is fun and fast, and it encourages players to think ahead and use everything in their inventory. The stage design is great, with a wide variety of interesting mission challenges to keep the game feeling fresh. The difficulty level and reliance on escort missions may be a barrier for some gamers, but those willing to break through it will find an excellent game awaiting them.

Score: 9.3/10


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