A long series of train rides last weekend convinced me to pick up Devil Survivor, a tactical RPG for the Nintendo DS in Atlus’ Megami Tensei series. Even before this game was announced, I was hoping that a decent Megami Tensei game would be released on the DS, because the series’ intricate demon fusion and skill transfer systems are a perfect fit for a portable system. As long as I’m inevitably going to pour silly amounts of time into managing my party, I’d rather do it while waiting for the bus than at home. When I learned that Devil Survivor would be a tactical game rather than a traditional RPG, my anticipation grew even further, despite some rather questionable character design choices. With the exception of occasional innovators like last year’s excellent Valkyria Chronicles, tactical RPGs tend to succeed or fail based on their party management and skill systems, and Megami Tensei games are more or less built around excellent party and skill management with their demon fusion system. When I heard about this, it seemed likea tactical RPG game would probably be a great fit for the Megami Tensei series, and about 7 hours in I am definitely not disappointed.
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The game takes place in modern day Tokyo, and the central premise is that everyone inside the Yamanote Line is sealed off from the outside world under mysterious circumstances. The main character is able to see the number of days both he and everyone else have left to live, eventually noticing that no one except the members of the Self Defense Force enforcing the barricade to contain everyone inside the Yamanote Line area have more than 7 days left to live. He and the rest of the party receive e-mails with news of various disasters before they occur, and their goal is to use this knowledge of the future to change their fate. Like Persona 3 and its sequel, Devil Survivor’s plot moves through time rather than space, so initializing events consumes game time. The events themselves seem to move a brisk pace, if only because dialogue between 2D character portraits moves faster than dialogue between the jerky, slow moving polygonal actors that seem to be the norm in contemporary RPGs. I am hoping that choices about how to best use the limited 7 days of in-game time directly affect Devil Survivor’s branching paths and multiple endings, but I’m still not far enough in to evaluate this and don’t want to get my hopes up too high just yet.
The battle system is an interesting combination of Final Fantasy Tactics and a typical Megami Tensei game. You move units around on a grid like in a standard TRPG, but you move around parties of 3 (1 human and 2 demons) rather than individuals. When you initiate an attack, it breaks into a single turn of Megami Tensei style combat between your party and the enemy unit’s party, with the possibility of gaining an extra turn or erasing an enemy extra turn for any character who strikes an weak point. This chimerical battle systems mashes together styles in a way rife with possibility to be awkward, but in practice transitions between the typical TRPG style grid and classical first-person Megami Tensei combat is fast and smooth. There are also area based abilities for use outside of turn based combat that work much like skills in a standard TRPG. So far these seem to largely be limited to support and recovering skills, and they have a variety of effects including guaranteed critical hits, limiting enemy movement on the field, and healing techniques.
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Demon party members must be obtained via an in-game auction, which I personally don’t enjoy as much as the negotiation based systems in games like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon or the random post-battle drop systems in Persona 3 and 4. On the other hand, it is a simpler and more straightforward way to recruit that I think anyone frustrated by the more complicated methods will enjoy. Character creation with demon fusion in this game is especially customizable and forgiving, allowing for direct control over which abilities will transfer. Compared to Megami Tensei games on the Playstation 2, the number of demons feels somewhat limited, but compared to other tactical RPGs the possibilities for party recruitment and customization are incredibly expansive.
I feel like I’ve still only scratched the surface of the game at this point, but so far I’m really enjoying it. It’s the portable Megami Tensei game I’ve wanted since I first fell in love with the series while playing Persona 3 a year and a half ago, and it’s also the original portable TRPG I’d hoped for since being disappointed with Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. The biggest complaint I have with Devil Survivor at this point is that the reoccurring English voice sample of some guy saying “You’ve gotta be kidding” during the battle theme will probably be stuck in my head for the duration of my time with the game, but that is the kind of minor frustration I’m willing to deal with.