Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor - Staff Review  

I'm a Survivor
by Michael "Macstorm" Cunningham

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor
20-40 Hours
+ Tons of dialogue options that matter
+ Evolved tactical RPG gameplay
+ Demon fusion is very user friendly
- Music and visuals are so-so
- End challenge encourages grinding
- Some dialogue seems superfluous
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   Day One -- you and your companions, Yuzu and Atsuro, are called to what seems like a simple gathering of friends. Once there, you all receive a Comp, a small portable electronic device that looks like a DS. Through this Comp, you all receive a strange e-mail message that warns of upcoming danger. The choice of what to do next is in your hands. Do you take the threat seriously or do you go on like nothing's wrong? Do you comfort your scared companions or brush off their fears? These are just the first of your choices and the beginning of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor.

   During the prologue, the team inadvertently summons forth a group of demons that attacks the party. Once the party defeats the attackers, the demons offer their servitude to the group, which comes in handy as more and more demons are beginning to flood into Tokyo. Further complicating the situation, a mysterious explosion forces the government to send in special forces to lock down the city. And to top it all off, another uncanny Comp e-mail comes through to clue the party in to the fact that they only have a set amount of days left to live, notated by a number that shows above their heads.

   The story of Devil Survivor is a key focus of the game, even though the overall plot is not as strong as it is in many other Shin Megami Tensei titles. The game offers a handful of characters to talk to, but sadly their development is fairly shallow despite the copious amounts of dialogue, making the main appeal of the story its branching paths. Choice is a major focus, as a simple decision to visit a specific person before another might result in never seeing that other person again... at least, alive. Go to the right place at the right time and things may work out for the best, but say the wrong thing once there and the story will take a totally different path. While it's not possible to deviate from the overall path set, the options exist to shape that path to your designs, making it end how you want.

Stick Out No, you stick out in other ways.

   Further pressing home the importance of decision making is the fact that there is only one save file, so players need to think carefully about how they want to progress. While it's simple enough to save, try an option, and reset if that choice was not the one the player wanted, sometimes the consequences of decisions aren't immediately obvious. Thankfully, there is a new game + option upon completing one of the story paths, so players can go back through the game again, keeping their money, pool of learned abilities, and any demons they had with them.

   Even though the story presents lots of options, the major focus of the game is the combat. There is no true exploration, as the world map is merely a menu of locations to visit in order to progress to the next story battle. Devil Survivor features a hybrid battle system that combines traditional, grid-based tactical combat with a turn-based system once enemies are engaged. Players will have up to four teams available, each of which requires a leader and has an option for two demons. When the player's team attacks an enemy group on the grid, the game shifts into a menu-based battle screen where a command must be selected for each of the team members. Teams will battle back and forth until the leader on either side is defeated. Players can rush things and aim to just defeat the lead unit, or they can gain bonuses by taking out the assisting units before destroying the leader. Experience is only awarded upon defeat of an enemy unit, and bonuses are given based on combat performance. Defeat an enemy or two without taking damage and gain a percentage bonus, but lose an ally during the fight and get less. All of the player's units with the exception of the main character will gain random stat bonuses upon leveling up, but with the main character there is an option of boosting his strength, magic, vitality, or agility, so he can become whatever the player wants him to be. Overall, it's an original system that works well at blending the two areas together, and while it is simple in concept, the customization options are much deeper.

   Each unit can have a maximum of three command and three passive skills, but only one special skill. Special skills for humans are automatic enhancements that fire off at the start of combat, boosting things such as speed, defense or strength. Demons have unique racial skills based on their type that are more diverse, ranging from an ability that heals units from a distance, one that converts HP into MP, or the ability to attack from a distance. Human leaders are able to equip any skill that has been cracked by the team during combat. Cracking skills requires each leader to select a skill and associated enemy unit before the battle begins, and then that leader's team must defeat the selected unit to unlock the ability. Once an ability has been cracked, it goes into a pool to divide up among the leaders any time between battles. Demons have set skills, some of which will unlock as they level. They are not limited to these skills only, as an efficient team can occasionally earn the option of replacing a single command skill for one demon. Other than that, the only way to improve demons' skills is to acquire new demons.

Ice Attack Not THAT Wendigo.

   The two main ways of obtaining demons are by auction and fusion. The demon auction is just what it sounds like, a bidding war against two AI controlled opponents where each try to outbid the other without spending too much. Demons are ranked from one to five stars based on their stats and available skills, with costs rising alongside quality. The fusion system for creating new demons is also fairly straightforward, but offers a lot more diversity. In any fusion, two demons are merged to create a new one. The new demon will have its standard skills, but will also be able to fill in any blank skill slots with command and passive skills from the parent demons. Players are able to decide which of the skills the fused demon obtains, so it's a very flexible process. All of these options allow for a wide variety of party customization to suit whatever play style best fits the player. Fusion is also more than just trial and error, as there is a fusion database that lists which pairings will create a specific demon.

   Devil Survivor's artwork looks great, but sadly, you don't get to see much of it throughout the game other than the character portraits. There is an extremely minimal amount of animated cutscenes, so the majority of the game will be spent viewing battle sprites or watching still portraits. The music is another area that is not bad by any means, but it's just not very impressive. Replacing Shoji Meguro this time around is the guitarist and vocalist of the Japanese rock band Godiego, Takami Asano. While he does a decent job with it, the end result is nothing spectacular. The lack of voice acting is also noticeable, but with the insane amount of dialogue, voicing even a large portion of the game would have been a major undertaking.

   The challenge of Devil Survivor is fairly well balanced and offers options for taking easier or harder paths, so players on both ends of the spectrum will be fine. The way the story battles are spaced apart can lead to a need to grind, but thankfully that option is easily available as well. Grinding for new skills and higher stats isn't going to be required very often at the beginning of the game, but the closer to the end you get, a few extra battles are likely to be needed. The very end of the game, regardless of which path you take, does rise noticeably in terms of challenge, but it's nothing that's unmanageable with the right strategy. A few of the harder paths will likely take a lot more work then the easier ones, though. A single playthrough will generally last around twenty to thirty hours, but the new game + option will have many gamers going back for more.

   Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor has a lot going for it. Fans of tactical RPGs will enjoy the game's solid and original combat, which will also appeal to those that have grown tired of playing the same old thing. Even those RPGamers who are generally turned off by tactical RPGs might find this new hybrid combat system enough to offset the things that normally turn them off from the subgenre. Lovers of the SMT series will enjoy the branching storylines and tons of choices that are tossed at them throughout the game, even if the overall plot is fairly straightforward. The power to save the world is in your hands if you choose to take it, but if you're too scared to try, you can always turn tail and run. The choice is yours. I survived once and am excited about doing it again.

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