I admit I don’t jump out of my chair when Japanese rpg’s walk by. They’re eccentrically dressed and talk in statistics and levels, children of micromanagement. However, I do find solace in the arms of the strategy JRPG. While the characters may be just as stereotypical, the added element of using one’s brain pulls me into the arena.
It’s not about standing face to face in the antiquated style of “I hit you, then you hit me,” but moving pieces around a board and making calculated strikes. When I got my hands on Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor for the DS, I wondered if this might be the mash up I’ve been waiting for: something to hybridize the different facets of what I dislike and love about JRPGs. What I got was a bloated, but engaging experience.
Tokyo will fall in seven days. Devil Survivor follows you, a 17-year-old hero, as you battle multitudes of the demons that have invaded Tokyo, as well as forming parties with them and allowing them to fight by your side. The demon element is not new to the Shin Megami Tensei series, with games like Nocturne exploring the game mechanic of fusing and befriending demons to form one’s team. Mix in a little Disgaea and you have a turn-based, strategy rpg hybrid that engages you both on a hexagonal grid, as well as in the good ol’ fashioned turn based experience.
When a battle starts in Devil Survivor, one must choose their team, or the demons and players they will be putting onto the battlefield. Once that’s been decided, you’re in tactical mode and asked to move your players to position them and indicate when you’re ready to attack. Before attacking, and subsequently switching modes, certain spells may be cast to aid your battle. Once attack is initialized, the screen switches over to the turn based side of things with enemies on the touch screen and your team and statistics on the top screen. Specific offensive attacks are then chosen for the members of your party that are able to attack the enemy. Once you’ve attacked, the enemy then gets their turn to retaliate. Rinse and repeat.
If that sounds at all confusing, don’t worry, it gets better. Enemies have strengths and weaknesses (another trait of the Shin Megami Tensei games), and if an enemy is hit by an attack they are weak against, you get another turn. This goes both ways, so beware of having members of your party weak against an enemy’s attacks. If a member of your party dies, you can summon another demon in their place; a helpful replacement system when you’re only ankle deep in HP.
Packing this much complexity into one title is a feat in and of itself, and packing such a dense experience onto the DS is even more impressive. After running through a couple of scenarios, it feels like it might be just too much. There’s always a tendency to eat ourselves silly when we go to a buffet, and when it comes to packing an overload of calories, Devil Survivor gets gold stars across the board. Just one turn feels like the work of an entire battle in a normal strategy or turn-based rpg. Each turn requires navigation through six or seven screens and an entire combat shift just to have enemies hit you. Then – voila! – you start all over again. While this may seem like heaven for some of the heavier rpg fans, the game feels bloated by its own conceit to include so much in the way of combat. It feels strenuous vs. fluid and when you’re dealing with something turn-based and repetitive, and strenuous is certainly not the direction you want to go.
Overall, the rest of the game plays consistently like most of the other Shin Megami Tensei titles. It includes what I like to call a “Tensei Ton” of dialogue with variable enough choices in defining your character’s position along a darker or lighter path. Money is obtained by your accomplishments in battle and the interface is straight forward for a game that seems to do everything else the hard way. The turn order is displayed clearly at the top of the screen, and the statistic screens, though congested, are easily read and analyzed.
For those who enjoy an overindulgence in all things rpg, this title might prove to be a hit. There’s certainly enough to work with. However, as a (self-admittedly) not so avid rpg fan, the process borders are almost inaccessible to those who might have wanted to try one, but didn’t know which way to go. It will be released on June 23, 2009 and here’s to hoping it will find the right audience to treasure it as the newest member of the Shin Megami Tensei family.