This 2009 ‘spin-off’ in the Megami Tensei series is a turn-based tactical combat game, with the usual demons, magic, exploration and battles – presented in a mix of comic-like panels (for the conversation sections) and isometric landscapes (for the combat sections).
The story is about a small group of teenagers who are caught inside a government lockdown in a small section of Tokyo, and who learn how to use ‘COMPS’ (pocket-sized computers that look very much like DSes) to summon friendly demons, in order to fight hostile demons that are ravaging the city. The characters are set, and well-written, and the idea is to manage them as a party, with each individual able to contract two supporting demons (one on either side of them) to help fight their battles.
As a player, you can have up to four individuals in your party, and for the majority of the game you play with three ‘core’ members – a named, main player-character; Atsuro, a young computer whizz; and Yuzu, the player-character’s girlfriend. The fourth slot in the party is for additional members who come and go, and these change over time.
The game takes place over the space of a week, with each day playing out in sequence, as the story unfolds.
As I said earlier: combat is turn-based, and the moves your characters can use are supplemented by a system called ‘Crack Skill‘. What this basically means is that you can learn new moves by taking them (‘cracking’ them) from demons that you encounter during battles. If there are crackable skills available in a battle you get to choose which of your party members are going to acquire them, and must then fight – and beat – the appropriate demons to gain them. Once you’ve gained these skills you can switch them between your characters (in-between battles) by accessing the skills menu on the party screen (this is something I didn’t realise until a way into the game, but, yeah – you can do that). The downside is that – with your main party members – only one character can equip a particular skill at one time; you can’t equip, say: “Berserk” to two characters at the same time. So you have to be selective with your skill placements.
As well as ‘active’ skills (skills you can use in battle, by choosing them in the combat menu), there are also ‘passive’ skills (skills that enable passive powers, but are not selectable in combat – like, for example: poisoning; turning enemies to stone; anti-fire, ice, electricity, and anti-mystic skills; life/mana boosting skills; and many more), and ‘auto’ skills (skills that automatically activate when battle starts or ends, like: self-healing; offensive and defensive boosts, et cetera).
The demons who fight for you can learn cracked skills, but this only occurs when you fill your ‘magnetite’ meter during battle, and the game lets you know when this is possible. This is one of the few frustrating elements of Devil Survivor, because said ‘magnetite’ meter is invisible (as far as I can tell) and knowing when it might pop isn’t clear at all (and it really should be).
A crucial element of demon-management in Devil Survivor is the Demon Auction, where you can buy contracts with new demons by earning and spending money (called Macca in this game), and also the ability to ‘fuse’ demons together, into more powerful, new demons. Macca is earned by winning battles, and the more efficiently you win them: the more money you earn. Fusing demons is a fairly simple process and the game has a nice demon search engine to show you which new demons are available through fusion. The idea is that you must keep up with the increasingly tougher demons you fight by fusing demons together and making new demons that can beat them.
It has to be said that Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is a somewhat challenging game, which is a good thing – to a degree. You can easily screw your game by not paying careful attention to what you’re doing, or by ploughing through the game without grinding. When you choose timed encounters, thirty minutes disappears out of the day, and these encounters are usually reserved for key events. There are ‘Free Battles’, which don’t consume time, and which allow you to grind. These are usually found between major events and should be used to level up your characters and demons by continually re-playing them. While grinding is a little boring at times, you’ll be glad you did it when it comes to the boss battles, which are pretty tough. The game does give you hints about beating the many bosses you encounter, although some – like Beldr (end of day three) – are more easily beaten by learning to put away your demons at the right time (by using “Return” from the combat menu, during battle), which isn’t taught by the game and which you have to work out yourself. And the game has other, more subtle, features – like a branching/evolving path that depends on decisions made earlier in the game – which are worth understanding, if you’re going to get the most from it. There are plenty of online guides and forums discussing Devil Survivor, though, and some are worth reading before embarking on your first playthrough – because the game can be quite unforgiving. That said: after a slightly frustrating mis-start, I found the relatively high difficulty quite refreshing. Combat, at times, can really get your heart pumping – as you cling on for dear life, in order to clinch victory from the jaws of defeat. Of course the game is much easier to play in an emulator, with quicksaves, rather than on a real DS.
Overall, I think that Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is an excellent game. The graphics are really nice and the gameplay is well-designed and expertly crafted. I liked the fact that, other than the main character, all the other characters were set, well-written, and likeable. The only real downside, I found, was the music, which is very repetitive (I turned it off after a while – the squealing guitar solos of the combat music got right on my tits after a few hours).
If you like turn-based tactical combat games this is arguably one of the best on the Nintendo DS, and is a worthwhile addition to the Shin Megami Tensei series. A direct sequel to this was also released in 2011.