"While the plot does have the standard SMT flair for the dramatic, with various factions vying for control of Japan by whatever means they feel to be necessary, Devil Summoner doesn’t take place in a world that’s already been purged of virtually all forms of civilized life. "
A quick summary of the games in the Shin Megami Tensei series would go down as such: In a post-apocalyptic land, one person must reshape the land according to their beliefs -- using ancient gods, devils and beasts in an epic role-playing war for supremacy. While the FREQUENT random battles in those games can become a bit tedious after a while, I’ve always been quite fond of them because of the mature storylines AND, let’s face it, insecure guys like me jump at the chance to give orders to the likes of Norse powerhouse Thor, archangel Michael and original temptress Lilith on a regular basis.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner -- Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army (name to be dramatically shortened for the rest of the review) can best be described as “different, but equal”. The player still controls powerful beings from various religions and legends; the fate of the world still is at stake and the random battles definitely can get tiring. However, there are two major differences between Devil Summoner and its predecessors: action-oriented fighting and an infectious sense of humor.
While the plot does have the standard SMT flair for the dramatic, with various factions vying for control of Japan by whatever means they feel to be necessary, Devil Summoner doesn’t take place in a world that’s already been purged of virtually all forms of civilized life. Instead, the player takes a journey to 1920s Japan in control of the assistant to a private eye -- after he learns the ropes.
My first action upon starting the game was to name my character. That task soon became meaningless, as he quickly earned the new moniker of Raidou Kuzunoha the 14th -- a title given to those men powerful enough to summon demons in the attempt to protect Tokyo from outside forces. The soon-to-be Kuzunoha begins in a long hall. After taking a few steps forward, a Zombie attacks and the first major deviation between this game and previous SMTs became apparent.
Instead of being taken to a menu-oriented battle screen, the player simply is dumped into a small arena against the offending undead. Controlling Raidou is a snap, with one button operating his sword and another allowing him to shoot his gun. The sword is used to deal the bulk of the damage to foes, while his gun’s bullets can temporarily stun them and perhaps even assault their weak point. A stunned enemy who has had their weak point discovered normally can (if weak enough compared to Raidou) quickly be captured to become part of the summoner’s army.
Monsters act independently in battle, attacking and casting spells on their own, but Raidou does have some control over their actions. By accessing a “tactics” menu, he can give a few limited commands to his allies such as to conserve magic or to focus on applying one particular spell or attack in a given fight. This can be very useful, as some demons go way overboard with their special moves. Take, for example, any monster with a healing spell. They'll drop whatever they were doing to cast that spell on Raidou if he suffers ANY damage (even if it’s an insignificant scratch). For the most part, though, they tend to be reasonably smart with their decision-making, although a number of them tend to be a bit too slow and plodding to be particularly effective in battle.
Anyway, after finishing Raidou’s tutorial in the hall, the player gets introduced to his supporting cast. Serving as his advice-giving familiar is a somewhat sarcastic talking cat named Gouto. Raidou’s boss at the detective agency, Narumi, seems more interested in running up large restaurant tabs and delegating authority than doing actual work. Tae, a reporter, constantly annoys Narumi in looking for hot tips. These definitely are not the overly-serious, “only I can forge the new world” sort of people that most of Nocturne’s main characters seemed to be.
It doesn’t take long for the player to be thrown into a major case. In responding to a teenage girl’s distress call, the two can only helplessly watch as a group of imposing red-garbed soldiers abduct her. From there, Raidou must rescue the damsel in distress, although demons, the “Soulless Army” (which proves to be a far bigger threat than he and Narumi initially feared) and a number of weird events constantly get in the way of that noble goal.
Unlike Devil Summoner’s RPG forefathers, this game is fast-moving and very easy to figure out. Devil fusing, which seemingly required a Ph.D. to figure out in some of the earlier games, has been greatly simplified. Monsters now only fall into a small handful of families, each representing one particular element. Most fusion combinations are quite easy to generate and the majority of recruitable monsters can be forced into servitude during battle.
Each monster also has abilities that can be used out of battle. Some are able to elicit additional information from people, while others can sneak into tiny passageways or find well-hidden items. To succeed in many of his quests, Raidou constantly needs to have a wide variety of different demons under his command, as virtually all of these skills are necessary to advance the game at points. Fortunately, the game makes this an easy task as, for the most part, any class of demon the summoner may require in a given area can be found in random battles in the vicinity.
As sweet as all of those things were, one very annoying problem keeps this game from earning the prestigious Overdrive Instant Classic award. Simply put, after going through a handful of the game’s 12 chapters, I found myself getting bored with most of the fighting. While boss fights tended to be pretty difficult, forcing me to use strategy both in Raidou’s actions and in picking which demon would be his ally, random fights tended to cause me to turn off my brain and mindlessly attack anything that moved. Maybe I was spoiled by Nocturne, where virtually every monster could be a legitimate threat if I didn’t pay attention to every aspect of my party at all times, but I just couldn’t maintain much interest in Devil Summoner’s fighting. It seems that in adding the element of real-time action to the proceedings, Atlus stripped battles of Nocturne’s depth, which played such an important role in making that game so great.
Still, I have to say this is one of the best and most ambitious action-RPGs I’ve seen in some time. To me, Atlus can't do much wrong when it comes to their SMT games and Devil Summoner proved to be no exception. This is easily one of the better games I’ve played in 2006 and is a title that deserves its fair share of accolades and recognition.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (November 24, 2006)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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