Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner (PS2)


Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 10/10/06

RPG franchises, if you’ll allow me a moment to abuse my analogy license, are a lot like relationships. No, not because of what occurs within them, and not because of all of the people that fall in love with semi-main female leads and draw all sorts of bad fan art of them. And no, not because I’m pathetic… I mean, I may be, but I’m not that bad. Yet.

Lemme explain. Various RPG franchises can be likened to relationships with others (for the purposes of perspective, I will use “women” as my example) based on their depth and substance. Dragon Quest, for example, is the reliable girl you can come home to at the end of the day. She’s not so much to look at, but she’s got lots of depth and substance, and she’s really nice to spend time with (and all of a sudden, she got a face lift about two years ago, so now she’s attractive to boot). Final Fantasy is the hot girl you pick up in the bar and spend some time dating; while she’s cool at first, sooner or later you realize she’s stupid and dump her (though some of us never do). Pokemon is like dating someone ten years your junior: you get weird stares, but hey, SHE understands you, so screw what other people think.

And, to get the analogy back to a point where it’s relevant, the Shin Megami Tensei franchise is a lot like the cool but weird girl. She’s smart and entertaining, pretty, and really great to be with, but she’s really morbid and people look at her funny because she always looks like she just left a funeral. You might like her, but people you know don’t get why, because she’s beyond them.

Which brings us to Devil Summoner. Yet another title in the SMT lineup, Devil Summoner is a little different from its previously localized brethren. For one thing, it’s an action RPG. Random battles still occur, but instead of going through turn based combat, you interact with battle more directly, by running up to enemies and bashing them in the face. For another, it’s not in the same tone as prior SMT titles; wheras previous titles dealt with heavy psychological and philosophical concepts, Devil Summoner instead chooses to deliver a more reasonable narrative. Also, instead of delivering a dark and depressing atmosphere, Devil Summoner delivers a Lupin the 3rd sort of experience, complete with upbeat music and the odd pratfall in-between serious exposition.

In other words, it’s an SMT title for everyone else. But is it any good? Signs point to yes, but let’s have a look.


1. STORY


The story of Devil Summoner can, conceptually, best be related in design to the Persona series; unlike games like Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga, the game takes place in our actual world (more or less), albeit in the past (specifically during Taisho year 20, or the 20th year of Emperor Taisho, who died in his fifteenth year… hence the “more or less”). You take on the role of Raidou Kuzunoha the 14th (which isn’t exactly your real name, but nevermind), mystical devil summoner who works to preserve the safety of the people from assaults by devils. Raidou works for a detective agency, which he uses as a front of sorts to seek out cases of odd occurrences, so that he might more easily track down devils and deal with them. As the game picks up, a young girl approaches him with a rather… odd request, and from that, things go to hell in a handbasket.

The storyline, despite lacking the psychological and moral concepts of Nocturne and DDS, is still very solid, but for different reasons. Devil Summoner exists in a semi-realistic Japan during the industrial revolution, and a great deal of attention was paid to making sure the details of the concept were fleshed out perfectly. This was a huge point in the transition of Japan from a nation of mysticism and spirituality to a nation of machinery and technology, and it’s handled quite nicely in Devil Summoner. You don’t need to be familiar with the subject matter, though; the game gives you enough of the concept to work with, so you’re not left completely in the dark.

There a couple of mild issues with the story, though most of them are personal issues and don’t take away from the game so much. When compared to the stories of DDS and Nocturne, Devil Summoner’s story, while interesting, doesn’t hold up as well as their tales do. Casting Raidou as a school-age kid with the ability to summon devils and pass trials and such seems silly, though it’s something of a stereotype in standard RPG’s. And I’m getting kind of worn out on Rasputin as a bad guy in RPG’s at this point, though what they do with him in Devil Summoner actually makes a lot more sense than I expected, and meshes with his most recently discovered “correct” history. Also, there are more than a few references to older SMT titles in the game, which would be great if A) Devil Summoner were part of the normal continuity, and B) ATLUS HAD BOTHERED TO BRING ANY OF THEM OUT IN AMERICA… but as they didn’t, you kind of miss the point of them (well, I did, anyway). This aside, though, Devil Summoner has one of the better stories I’ve seen this year, and minor flaws aside, it’s a well-written piece of work that’s well worth experiencing.

Story Rating: 8/10


2. GRAPHICS


By and large, Devil Summoner is a good looking game, though some cracks exist under the surface. The character models look similar to the previous SMT titles we’ve seen stateside; in other words, they look like characters from Nocturne and DDS. Both the human characters and the enemies animate nicely, but generic NPC’s suffer from “ice-skating” problems; in other words, they look like they’re skating as they walk. Cutscenes look especially nice, as we’ve come to expect, and the style of the characters as they’re rendered contributes to that very nicely. One thing that is somewhat noticeable is the backgrounds; while they were fully rendered in Nocturne and DDS, they’re static backgrounds in Devil Summoner. This doesn’t really hurt the presentation any (though it doesn’t look as natural as the other two titles), as the backgrounds are drawn very well and look quite nice, if occasionally flat. Overall, Devil Summoner is visually DIFFERENT from its predecessors, but it’s not really better or worse, and while it’s not the best looking title on the system, thanks to the art of Kazuma Kaneko (the artist for most all SMT titles, as well as Maken X), it’s certainly one of the most stylish.

Graphics Rating: 7/10


3. SOUND


Again, SMT fans will be please, if unsurprised, to know that the music of Shoji Meguro (lead music director for Nocturne and DDS) is once again all over Devil Summoner. This is something of a double-edged sword, however. On one hand, several tracks repeat between the four titles, and music that I was cool with in Nocturne I’m now beginning to become annoyed with in Devil Summoner. On the other hand, several of the tracks that are new are designed to sound like they’d be wholly at home in the 1920’s, and those tracks are absolutely outstanding. It all kind of balances out in the end, but if I hear any of the repeating tracks from Devil Summoner in Persona 3, I’m going to be highly pissed off.

Just saying.

Anyway, the voice acting in the game is conspicuous by its absence. It makes sense; certain characters refer to Raidou by his real name (including your devils and Gatou), and since you can choose Raidou’s real name from the start, this makes voice acting kind of difficult. That said, small verbal acknowledgements (ala Skies of Arcadia) would have been a good idea, and the lack of voice acting is noticeable, if not wholly depressing. The various devils do have mild snippets of dialogue when summoned and in battle, so at least there’s something to give the audio some further personality. And regarding the normal sound effects, they’re pretty spot-on and sound nice overall, but that’s not really a surprise. Overall, Devil Summoner sounds really good; certain music tracks are repeated from older SMT games, yes, and the lack of voice acting is a little depressing, but overall, the game sounds great in general, and you’ll still enjoy what you’re presented.

Sound Rating: 7/10


4. CONTROL/GAMEPLAY


Much like most SMT titles, the gameplay in Devil Summoner is conceptually simple, but contains a lot more depth beneath the surface. Much like in most RPG’s you maneuver around the game world until you encounter random battles, and it is from here you do most of your story progression, investigating, et al. The game is divided into two “overworld” types. The first of which is the standard overworld map, which consists of different cities/buildings/dungeons/whatever you can progress to, the odd person to talk to, and lines that connect the various different locations. Fans of Nocturne or Persona should be able to wrap their heads around this pretty quickly. The second type is the “dungeon exploration” type, which involves moving your character around through the dungeon/town/whatever for exploration purposes. This is done via a fixed third person camera, and you move Raidou around as you’d expect with the left stick. It’s all old hat to most RPG players; look around, search for stuff, talk to NPC’s, etc, but Devil Summoner adds another dimension with the Summon option.

Basically, this is how it works: as you progress around the game, you’ll find there are certain things you can’t do… maybe an item is out of reach, maybe someone won’t cough up the info you need, whatever. At any time, you can summon a devil you have in reserve, who, if he or she has the right skill, can interact with said person, place, or thing, and resolve the issue. For instance, if a person won’t cough up the info you need, summon a devil, read their mind, and get what you need. Or, if an item is out of reach, make your demon fly, then grab the item as needed. The game is usually pretty good about clueing you into what you need to complete something, but occasionally you’ll find none of your devils have the skill you need to progress; this can be annoying, particularly if you need the skill to progress the story. Otherwise, though, it’s a neat dynamic.

And then we come to combat. More recent SMT titles focused on the “Press Turn” combat system; basically, you were given a number of combat turns equal to your party members (occasionally more), and each time you performed an action, a turn was used up, etc. Go read Lucard’s DDS review for a better explanation. In Devil Summoner, however, the Press Turn system is eschewed in favor of an action-based combat system. Basically, when battle begins, Raidou, his summoned ally (if any), and your opposing devils spawn onto the screen, and you’re tasked with smacking the crap out of them. Raidou isn’t a magic user, but he’s provided a sword to cleave foes, and a gun that can be loaded with different types of bullets, each of which have different effects. You basically run about the battlefield, smacking down enemies with your weapons as needed, and blocking and dodging when you must. Your devil allies, on the other hand, are able to use magic, and they will do so to assist you in combat. The computer will control your allied characters, though you can dictate how they should behave through simple instructions (heal me, don’t use magic, that sort of stuff). Ideally, you can summon an ally who is of opposing element to your opponent, which allows your ally to hit the enemy with a spell they’re weak to; when this happens, the enemy becomes stunned, and you can wail on them for critical damage.

But you don’t just have to kill enemies, you can also capture them and take them on as allies. Basically, when an enemy is hit with an attack they’re weak to and they become stunned, you run up on them and span the O button, which starts up a bar that increases as you press the button. Fill the bar, and the demon becomes yours; don’t, and the demon chides you as you fail. It’s a lot simpler than the Nocturne dynamic of negotiating with devils, which is good for inexperienced players, but it makes the game seem even more like a Pokemon knockoff than it realty is.


And, of course, I haven’t even mentioned all of the other stuff yet, like the ability to customize your character as he levels up (you can dictate what stats improve by choosing where to allocate your points). Or, the fact that the phases of the moon influence the world around you (including whether or not you can capture enemies or how fusions of devils will turn out). Or, for that matter, that you CAN fuse devils (in a lab that’s run by a guy who looks suspiciously like a goth version of Dr. Frankenstein, right down to the same first name), which can make more powerful devils, upgrade existing ones, or come up with random results you weren’t expecting. Or how you can sacrifice devils to your sword to make it stronger (and impart elemental resistances unto your character). Or how using your devils allows them to grow loyal to you, which in turn increases your group loyalty, which in turn increases how many devils you may have in reserve at once. Or…

Look, there’s a LOT to do here. The gameplay is as deep as just about anything I’ve seen, and it’s all very easy to understand and work with. Devil Summoner is a complex, easy to understand, engaging gameplay experience that’s all sorts of fun. But… it’s not perfect. As I mentioned previously, the change from negotiating with demons for their services to sucking them into a tube, while it simplifies things, is a let-down from previous SMT titles, which were more engaging in their design. Combat, though it is fun for a while, ultimately feels limited, as it doesn’t really become any more complex as the game progresses. Also, allied devils are kind of dumb and can wind up dead simply because it doesn’t occur to them to move the hell out of the way of incoming attacks. And when there are multiple enemies on-screen in battle, combat becomes very busy, and it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what the hell is going on. Also, the inability to summon more than one devil to aid you sucks a little, though this ultimately goes hand in hand with the fact that you’ll ultimately just try to fuse all of your demons so that they end up with some sort of “Dia” spell (healing), so they can act as support. And, as noted before, the camera angles kind of suck sometimes.

So, while Devil Summoner is not without its flaws, gameplay-wise, it’s still quite a lot of fun. It’s not as complex and detailed as earlier SMT titles, and some of the gameplay elements could be improved or changed around, this cannot be denied. But overall, it’s a very solid gameplay experience that’s quite a lot of fun and very well assembled, and there’s a lot of detail in the gameplay. Devil Summoner ends up being a very good, if not great, gameplay experience, and it’s well worth your time to check out.

Control/Gameplay Rating: 7/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

Well, SMT titles tend to have solid replay options, and Devil Summoner is no exception. There are all sorts of hidden locations to visit and devils to summon, and after completing the game, you’re given the option to start over with your Loyalty intact (so as to allow you more devils to summon from the get-go) and your Devil Chart listings as you left them. You can also take on Hard Mode (which is… um… REALLY REALLY HARD, just so you know) and undertake a quest to find your own personal demonic fan (and, speaking as someone who’s not really among the “Hello Kitty” or Pokemon idolists out there, he’s insanely cute). There’s not multiple endings like there were in Nocturne, and there’s no uber-powerful ultimate boss like there was in Digital Devil Saga, sadly, but considering how many RPG’s offer you NO reason to ever go back to them, this is still absolutely outstanding. And when combined with the fact that the game is good enough to merit a second go-round on its own, well, this is definitely a game with a high replay value.

Replayability Rating: 8/10


6. BALANCE

Devil Summoner is a dramatic departure from the other SMT titles released over the years; whereas Nocturne and the DDS titles were generally challenging for the most part, Devil Summoner is significantly easier. Once you learn the fundamentals of combat, it’s entirely possible to whip the hell out of a good portion of the battles in the game, using little more than your elemental bullets, your sword, and some good dodging. There can be some tense moments in the heat of battle, but even so, with the proper items in your inventory, the right bullets, and some good devils to summon, you shouldn’t have much problem ripping through the game.

Of course, beating the game unlocks Hard mode, as noted, which is kind of the exact opposite way. I’d have liked it if a difficulty mode existed between the two choices, and was available from the get-go, but at least the Hard mode is present, and at the default difficulty, Devil Summoner will feel a lot more accessible to those who aren’t so skilled at action RPG’s.

Balance Rating: 7/10


7. ORIGINALITY

On one hand, Devil Summoner feels like an SMT title crossed with Shadow Hearts. The game universe feels very much like the “alternate Earth” world of the Shadow Hearts series, only with SMT presentation and concepts throughout. Oh, and a combat system that feels like something from a “Tales from” game.

But if you examine the game a bit more closely, you find that the game harbors quite a bit of originality. Not only does it take its source material seriously and flesh it out a great deal more, but it’s also a lot more tongue-in-cheek about itself, which makes it quite enjoyable and quite different from the more morose SMT titles before it. I mean, it’s plenty serious, but you can tell that the game has a sense of humor about itself, which is enjoyable and unique for the franchise. The various trademark SMT touches are also all over the place in Devil Summoner, which might not be unique per say (considering how many SMT titles we’ve seen in the past couple of years), but it more original than what you’ll see in most RPG’s. Devil Summoner definitely feels different, not only from its predecessors, but also from most action RPG’s on the market, and while it’s certainly not the most original game on the market, it IS very unique, which is definitely a major plus.

Originality Rating: 8/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS

Devil Summoner is one of the more fun RPG’s I’ve played in a while. Turn based combat is fine, don’t get me wrong, but the action RPG elements in Devil Summoner are a welcome breath of fresh air and kept me entertained a while into the game. The story is solid enough to keep you coming back, and the plethora of things to do (upgrading your weapons, building or capturing new devils, etc) will keep you coming back at least until you beat the game, if not beyond that.

Addictiveness Rating: 8/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

Normally, were I writing this, I’d sit here and lament the lack of appeal such a title should have; how its quirky Japanese presentation combined with the complex combat system, while fantastic, make it very difficult to recommend to casual players, etc.

This isn’t that kind of game.

See, Devil Summoner, if I had to come up for a way to describe it, is “Shin Megami Tensei for the American market”. Make no mistake: this can seriously appeal to the hardcore SMT fan, with all sorts of extra stuff crammed into the title, lots of customization options, and a hardcore killer hard difficulty stuck somewhere in there. But THIS is the SMT title to show your casual gaming friends and relatives. It’s easy to learn, simple to play and understand, not overly difficult or complex, and quite interactive. The story is much more reasonable and easier to wrap your head around (as it’s less philosophical and more tangible), and the presentation is a lot more user friendly.

Is it going to make a mint? Probably not. But anyone could pick this up and enjoy it, it’s accessible to the most casual of gamers, and it’s stylish as hell. There’s a very strong and distinct amount of appeal to Devil Summoner simply because of what it does to make itself something anyone can play. It’s as simple as that.

Appeal Rating: 7/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS


Devil Summoner isn’t going to end up becoming my favorite SMT franchise (that’d be Persona).

Devil Summoner isn’t the best RPG I’ve played this year (that’d be Oblivion).

It isn’t the best game I’ve played on PS2 (Okami), or the game I’ve been looking forward to the most this year (Twilight Princess), or even the most unique game I’ve played (Cooking Mama).

But what it is… well, it’s a consistently entertaining, amazingly presented, highly enjoyable game that is simultaneously everything like and nothing like what I expected. When I got into my first battle and found out Devil Summoner was an action RPG, I was absolutely floored. After playing a few battles and realizing how GOOD of an action RPG it is, I was very pleased. No disrespect, but I was getting a little tired of seeing the same thing game after game, and the fact that Atlus totally faked me out and gave me something new and different not only pleases me because the game is new and different, but also makes me more openly receptive to seeing the Press Turn system again. But even beyond my appreciation of Atlus titles, Devil Summoner is a very good game that’s a hell of a lot of fun. And if nothing else, it IS the best RPG I’ve played on the PS2 all year.

If you’re at all a fan of action RPG’s, you really should give Devil Summoner a shot. I can’t say it any simpler than that.

Miscellaneous Rating: 8/10

The Scores:
Story: 8/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 7/10
Control/Gameplay: 7/10
Replayability: 8/10
Balance: 7/10
Originality: 8/10
Addictiveness: 8/10
Appeal: 7/10
Miscellaneous: 8/10

Overall Score: 7.5/10
Final Score: 7.5 (GOOD).

Short Attention Span Summary
Devil Summoner might not be the sort of game you’d expect with the SMT name slapped on the box, but I can tell you it’s still an awesome game. It’s not without its flaws, but the deviated combat system, interesting storytelling, and very solid presentation are more than enough to make this game a keeper. If you’re a fan of RPG’s you really should pick this up, and if you’re an SMT fan, this should already be in your collection.