Shin Megami Tensei- Devil Survivor (2009)

-Review by Paul Ewbank-

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This is my first review as a married man, if you’re interested in that kind of thing. Hence why it’s been a bit quiet of Ablogalypse of late- having a wedding to plan kinda reduces one’s time for writing dystopian media reviews down to a minimum.

Anyway, the DS game that’s been chewing through my non-wedding related time for the past few weeks has been the Atlus RPG Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. You know you’re in for a hardcore experience when half the title is in Japanese. Yeah baby. I’m a big fan of a lot of other games to bear the Atlus logo and this one received nothing but glowing reviews back in 2009 when it came out so I was pretty keen to give it a spin. And I should say right of the bat that I found this game to be absolutely fantastic. Obviously conceived and designed to be a genre-defining masterpiece, aiming to give you a huge, dimension spanning saga of angels and demons, told in a modern, culturally aware story with hip young characters and boasting just the right mix of old and new gameplay, what’s amazing is that they’ve pulled it off on basically every level. Devil Survivor is a nigh flawlessly executed experience and is right up there with the very best the DS has to offer.

So at the outset you take control of three ordinary teens in modern day Tokyo who are each given a tampered-with handheld computer device by the main characters mysterious older cousin. These COMPs turn out to have some pretty weird powers, including the ability to summon and control demons from the netherworld. Pretty soon demons are spilling through into our world all over the place and the Japanese government locks down the affected area of Tokyo, stranding thousands in an urban nightmare where otherworldly monsters roam the streets and people will do anything to get out. The COMP also has the power to predict the future via creepy news bulletin emails received each morning, and also lets you see exactly how long each person you meet has left to live in the form of a Death Clock hovering just above their head. The plot moves forward over 7 days as you explore the quarantined zone, battling demons and trying to find a way out, whilst doing your best to alter the morbid predictions received that day.

In terms of setting and initial plot this game has a lot of similarities with another acclaimed DS RPG: Square-Enix’s The World Ends With You. Both feature teen protagonists trapped in Shibuya while weird otherworldly stuff starts going down, and the interfacing of technology with old school magic is present in both. But in terms of both mood and gameplay they are totally distinct- TWEWY wasn’t exactly a bundle of laughs, but Devil Survivor is a heck of a lot darker, taking the idea of what would happen if a bunch of kids and ordinary citizens were suddenly given the power to collect and raise an army of monsters to it’s obvious conclusion- murder and chaos in the streets, power-tripping gangsters running amok, police forces killing indiscriminately to “restore order” and the government planning to nuke the whole place if things threaten to spill over into the rest of the world. Not quite the same world as Pokémon then. Gameplay in Devil Survivor is a cool mix of strategy and first person combat, with a lot of depth, a whole load of options to toy around with and some serious challenge. It doesn’t quite have the innovation or second-for-second intensity that TWEWY’s insane dual screen combat did, and there’s no meaningful touch screen use to speak of, but the sheer range of demons to summon and strategies to try out makes this a deep and satisfying system. Oh, and it can get hard as frikkin nails. Expect infuriating difficulty spikes throughout and the last day is a slog through some of the toughest boss fights I’ve ever come across. If you’re gonna play this then it’s worth knowing in advance that if you’re stuck on a boss, don’t waste time just trying to level up your guys and try again- if your plan ain’t working, it won’t work however overlevelled you are- you need a new plan. Re-forming your whole team and strategy for each boss isn’t really the way most other games like this are played so it does take some getting used to, but the game does make it relatively easy for you to get your hands on new, powerful demons thanks to the intuitive fusion system, where old creatures can be joined together to pass on their abilities to new, more powerful allies. Even so I found the last few boss battles excruciatingly tough, so be warned: if the idea of fighting a giant buy eyed demon who can absorb your attacks and lay eggs on you which then hatch into more bug eyed demons whilst killing their host sounds a little too much to bear, this game probably isn’t for you. Yeah, I really wasn’t a fan of that guy either.

"Come closer, my dear, so I can LAY MY CHILDREN IN YOUR FLESH LIKE THE MASSIVE PRICK I AM"
“Come closer, my dear, so I can LAY MY CHILDREN IN YOUR FLESH LIKE THE MASSIVE PRICK I AM”

As good as the combat is, the real way this game innovates is in its story. Devil Survivor doesn’t so much have multiple endings as it has multiple pathways through the game, which you choose-inadvertently or not- based on where you go and what decisions you make. Time progresses each time you fight or view a key event, and there isn’t time in the day to do everything, forcing you to choose what to prioritise, who to help and who to ignore. The consequences of these choices will determine which characters live and die, and the ultimate fate of Tokyo and humanity. I thought I played this thing pretty well but I still couldn’t stop one of my supporting cast from going all berserker-rage and getting himself murdered in the street right in front of his oldest and dearest friends. At least I stopped the troubled indie singer from killing herself. Each of the radically different endings plays out based on who is left alive and which faction you choose to side with, and it’s a tough choice. Side with the ravenous demons of hell or the cruel, uncaring angels who watch while they slaughter all of humanity? Gosh, they both sound so appealing. It’s a morally pretty bleak world and no choice leads to an outright happy ending, but some are definitely better than others.

The plot borrows heavily from religious imagery and its depiction of God, angels and demons is sure to piss off the more conservative among you, but at least it goes for equal opportunities offensiveness. I actually loved how the game grabbed cool characters and ideas from basically every major mythology and threw them all together- seeing the Hindu god Ganesha re-imagined as a sword wielding badass and facing off against Loki or Odin or the Japanese Sun goddess Amaterasu was a real thrill and added to the final stages of the game immeasurably. The demons are all suitably grotesque and disturbing too, especially this guy. So Devil Survivor definitely looks the part, and the lead guitar based soundtrack might be a tad repetitive but boast some kick ass tunes nonetheless.

Can't be THAT many games featuring our boy Ganesha.
Can’t be THAT many games featuring our boy Ganesha.

Devil Survivor is a difficult as balls game that deals with some pretty grim, edgy subject matter and leaves you free to see the grisly consequences of your actions if you make a wrong move or say the wrong thing. It’s also one of the most player-friendly games on the DS, with every interface and feature being easy to use and player choice impacting the outcomes on every level. The depth of the combat and the absorbing story had me hooked from the very beginning and I was enthralled right up until the nail biting final moments. I’ll definitely be playing through this one again to see what I missed last time, and there’s a sequel which by all accounts lives up to the same standard. If you like role playing games and want to see a totally unique and original take on the usual formula, you really, really need to play this game.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. sonatano1 says:

    Great review! The Shin Megami Tensei series is a massive one with lots of titles and spinoffs to it. It’s one of my favorite game series. Most of the games in the series are in the more traditional turn-based JRPG style, but they share Devil Survivor’s sheer difficulty (a lot of the demons are recurring characters in every game, and Beelzebub is ALWAYS an asshole.)

    I’d suggest you get more SMT games since you liked Devil Survivor, but since you’re married now it might not be a good idea – your wife might be upset by the hundreds of hours you spend on them. They are serious time sinks.

    1. paule42 says:

      Thanks, glad you liked the review! I’ll definitely be trying some more games in the series. I’ll play ’em while my wife reads game of thrones…

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