Back in 2006, Atlus brought us Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army – a real-time combat spin-off of the traditionally turn based Shin Megami Tensei series. Despite mediocre critical response, Atlus gave the Devil Summoner series another whirl with Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon, the direct sequel to The Soulless Army.
While many JRPG developers have long since made their move to HD console development, Atlus continues to dish out their critically-acclaimed MegaTen titles on the PlayStation 2 and proves that the console still has some life left. Atlus made us sing with Persona 3, FES and Persona 4, but will they maintain the harmony with Devil Summoner 2 or will it be another weak entry like its prequel?
In DS2, you take the role of Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha the 14th to save the Capital of Japan from utter chaos. Accompanying you is your feline mentor Gouto, feisty journalist Tae and detective Narumi – the owner of her own self named detecitve agency. The adventure begins when a mysterious woman hires this agency to look for a character by the name of Dahn. Though reluctant at first, Narumi decides to take on the case, which sends you and your companions through a complex and intriguing tale of assassin clans, bizarre rituals, and even “luck locusts” – insects that steal people’s good fortune. While this may sound complicated, it isn’t necessary to play the first game to understand the story. Just keep in mind that it starts off painfully slow – taking roughly two hours to really get interesting.
The story is broken up into several chapters, and at the end of each Narumi will ask you questions regarding the case – very similar to Hotel Dusk’s mini-quizzes. It’s a great feature because it recaps what happened in that chapter, clarifies the overwhelming events, and refreshes your memory if you haven’t touched the game in a while.
The best thing about the story is that it plays with your mind and diverges from the standard “good vs. evil” plot. You’ll often find yourself relating to, or even sympathizing with your enemies – which will make you think twice before engaging them. During certain events, you may look back and wonder if the actions you took were indeed the right thing to do. The game will ask you some uncomfortable philosophical questions, the answers to which affects the game’s ending. Players accustomed to light-hearted stories like Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy might be turned off by Devil Summoner’s mature themes.
Despite it’s strong story, DS2 falls short in the category of character development. While a few cast members display unique and rich personalities, many are completely lifeless. Another issue is the repetitive dialogue; it gets very tedious reading the same lines over and over.
Much of Devil Summoner’s gameplay revolves around using the abilities of the various demons you recruit along your journey. For example, you may use one demon to extract clues from a stubborn character via mind-reading, or another demon to walk through a wall. This mechanic forces you to recruit or fuse demons in order to overcome the various obstacles that hinder your investigation. A few such obstacles were ridiculous and time consuming, and require a demon that possesses a particular, difficult to obtain skill, or has one of his stats elevated above 30 (meaning you would have to spend time leveling and hope that stat increases).
As stated before, Devil Summoner ditches turn-based combat in favor of real-time, which makes for much more fast-paced and entertaining battles. Raidou is able to dodge, block, and attack with both a gun and sword – but his moves are still limited. His abilities will only take you so far – for the rest you will rely on your demons. In the same way they help you overcome the in-game obstacles, they also assist you in combat.
At the start of a battle, Raidou can summon two demons to fight alongside him. You can give them direct commands, or have them repeatedly execute a move by auto-selecting it. The demons’ AI is incredibly smart – casting spells and using abilities only when the situation calls for it. For example, a demon won’t waste MAG (The game’s version of MP) to heal you unless you’re below a certain threshold of health.
Every demon uses the same MAG, and it can be overwhelming how fast your MAG drains during the first portions of the game. The only way to regain this vital resource is to expose your enemies’ weakness and attack them while they’re stunned. Compounding the issue is your reliance on MAG – without it, you’ll struggle in battles, especially those against bosses.
Instead of capturing demons like the first game, they are recruited via negotiation – similar to Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Demons will ask you questions regarding life, your character, or the demon itself. If you tick off the demon with your answers, he’ll slap you and refuse to negotiate. If you succeed, you’ll get down to nitty gritty- which consists of bribing the demon with items or energy to make him join you. The negotiation process will not always be successful; some demons will just take your stuff and leave. It can be a little frustrating to give up items and get nothing in return, but that’s luck – which plays a huge role in Devil Summoner 2. It controls the positive and negative effects you’ll receive in battles – which is an interesting concept, though poorly executed. No matter how high your luck is, you can still receive negative effects several times in a row.
By far the most frustrating aspect of Devil Summoner 2 is its repetitive nature. Raidou doesn’t learn any new maneuvers – only the demons do, and despite having a variety of spells, they execute them all in the exact same manner. Boss battles also lack variety, and a few of them are fought several times. Character dialog is extremely limited, with demons and companions often repeating the same text over and over. All of this is exasperated by an extremely high encounter rate – there were times when I would take but three steps before being sunk into a battle. Fortunately these encounters no longer occur in the city and load times are practically non-existent.
Arguably the best thing about Devil Summoner 2 is the unique 1930s Japan setting, which the game does a fantastic job of recreating. Pedestrians and vehicles realistically migrate throughout the city – even reacting to Raidou as he enters their path. Furthermore, the quirky, yet well-written dialogue further immerses you into the environment. Villagers would say “yew” instead of “you” which added to the old-fashioned style.
The game is pleasant on the ears, and features a fantastic soundtrack of jazz and rock tunes (though some are repeats from the first game). Unfortunately, some of the music seemed in contrast to the mood of a situation – often playing an upbeat track during a dramatic scene. Sound effects like swords or demon grunts are well done, however the game has no voice-overs which might bother some players.
It’s time to dust off your PS2 for Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2. It’s a fun and entertaining game with brilliant sound and art direction. Not only should you remember Devil Summoner 2 for having an extremely long name, but also for being one of the freshest and craziest JRPGs we had in quite a while.
Devil Summoner 2 just oozes with style and has a strong Japanese ambiance. The story is intriguing but falls short on pacing and character development. Camera angles take a while to get used to, and there are a few frame-rate issues.
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Using demons for both combat and investigations is a fun and fresh concept. Battles are fun and force you to play wisely. Unfortunately, the game gets repetitive.
The jazz and rock beats are fantastic. Sometimes the tune will feel out of place. A couple were featured in the first game which is a tad underwhelming.
Devil Summoner 2 should take between 30-40 hours to complete, but the game has multiple endings. If you can stand the game’s repetitiveness, you’ll spend hours and hours collecting and fusing demons, as well as doing optional case files (side-quests).
Devil Summoner 2 is a huge improvement over the first and another great installment in the Shin Megami Tensei series that both newcomers and series veterans can enjoy.