Review: Devil Summoner 2: (PS2)

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 05/12/09


Before we begin, for the purposes of this review, when I reference Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army in short form, it will be referred to as “Devil Summoner 1″, and when I reference Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon, it will be referred to as “Devil Summoner 2″. For the record, I am doing this because this is how Atlus has chosen to title the games, not because these are the first and second games in the series. There are two other Devil Summoner games in Japan: “Devil Summoner” and “Soul Hackers”. Both of these are amusing little products in their own right, and both of which you would probably be able to play in English if Sony hadn’t allegedly told Atlus they had no interest in allowing US releases of either of them. So, just for the record, I know all about it.

So, somewhere about three years ago, Atlus released Devil Summoner 1, an Shin Megami Tensei action-RPG set in the 1920’s, to the US. As it happened, I was on staff with DHGF prior to its becoming DHGF when Devil Summoner 1 came out, so I took the opportunity to give it a whirl and see if it was worth bringing over. At the time, Devil Summoner 1 seemed like a pretty solid piece of work. It looked good, played fine, and featured an interesting main character and a strong story, even if it seemed a little base and shallow in certain respects. Well, three years later, here we are with Devil Summoner 2, and here I am, reviewing it. The good news for fans of the prior game, is that Devil Summoner 2 is still a strong action RPG with a strong story and a strong main character, and it has some nice and useful mechanical changes to boot. The bad news, unfortunately, is that even with the mechanical improvements, Devil Summoner 2 is not without its share of problems.

Devil Summoner 2 picks up some time after the events of what has since become known as, “The Soulless Army Case.” Raidou Kuzunoha is once again called into action by the Yagaterasu to defend the capital from the forces of… something. In the beginning, no one’s exactly sure what’s coming, only that it’s bad, so it falls to Raidou to not only discover what’s going on, but to also put a stop to it. With very little information to go on, Raidou goes back to working with Narumi at his detective agency, and as luck would have it, a major lead walks right in the door, looking for a detective. From there, Raidou finds himself facing off against another army of destruction, this time at the command of a man named Dahn who’s, among other things, looking to become the titular King Abbadon. The fate of the world once again is hanging in the balance. The “supernatural detective in the 1920’s” motif from Devil Summoner 1 still works great as a concept, and the plot presented is strong enough to take this concept and do interesting things with it. It’s interesting to note in particular that the plot isn’t really a typical example of “good versus evil”, but instead focuses on the sorts of things people will do to protect the things that matter to them, and how far someone will go to protect their way of life and the people they love. That’s a respectable way of doing things: when you can sympathize with the villain AND know that what he wants to do is WRONG WRONG WRONG, that’s a good thing.

Visually, Devil Summoner 2 looks good, though it also looks a good bit like Devil Summoner 1. This isn’t a bad thing per say: the character models are as clean and well-animated as ever, the demons you can summon and combat are as well designed and animated as they’ve ever been, and the environments are authentic and well assembled. The visual style of the game basically takes semi-photo realistic rendered backdrops and combines them with fully 3-D models to interesting artistic effect, much like the prior game, and the effect is as interesting now as it was then. We’ve seen this technique employed in games from the Playstation era, mind you, so it’s not a NEW technique by any means, but it’s not really a common visual style anymore. This helps to make the game look fresh since no one’s really doing this nowadays. Devil Summoner 2 looks very similar to the prior game, and while there are minor differences in the visuals here and there, the two look fairly similar. Now, Devil Summoner 1 was a very pretty game at the time it came out, but at this point Devil Summoner 2 looks a little dated, though not enough to be problematic. Aurally, Devil Summoner 2 is pretty much tops. The sound effects are as fantastic as any in the Shin Megami Tensei universe, and the music is a fantastic mix of staple J-Rock tunes and twenties sounding period pieces, which really helps to make the experience work. There’s little voice acting in the game, however, which is fairly odd considering Atlus’ last few titles (Persona 3 and Persona 4 in particular). While it’s not a big deal, it is kind of weird. Devil Summoner 1 lacked voice acting as well, so this isn’t anything new.

The gameplay in Devil Summoner 2 is quite similar to the gameplay in Devil Summoner 1, so for those who have not had the benefit of reading my prior review, here’s how things work: Like in most RPG’s, you’ll maneuver around the game world until you encounter random battles, and the overworld is where 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 older Persona titles 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 to shop, talk to NPC’s, and encounter battles. 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 2 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.

Then we come to combat. In Devil Summoner 2, the Shin Megami Tensei standard turn-based combat is eschewed in favor of an action-based combat system. Basically, when battle begins, Raidou, his summoned allies (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 used to stun enemies and attack from range. 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 do things by telling them what skills to use and whether or not to repeat said skills. 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.

You don’t have to just kill enemies, you can also recruit them and take them on as allies. In Devil Summoner 1 this was accomplished by stunning them and sucking them up into one of your tubes, but this time around the old Shin Megami Tensei mainstay of Negotiation rears its head. At any point in battle you can choose to negotiate with a demon to convince it to join your cadre of demons, by impressing it with your dialogue choices (or using the inherent abilities of your demons to do the same), then bribing it until it joins up. This will be welcome for fans of other titles in the franchise, though it can take some getting used to if you’ve never played a game that uses the mechanic before.

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 recruit enemies or how fusions of devils will turn out). I also haven’t mentioned 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. You can even sacrifice devils to your sword to make it stronger (and impart elemental resistances unto your character). 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. Then there’s also…

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.

Got all that? Good.

Now, of course, if Devil Summoner 2 did the EXACT same thing as its predecessor, well, it’d be .hack, and no one wants that. Fortunately, Devil Summoner 2 does a few new things to improve the experience a bit. The biggest change is that Raidou can now summon two demons in battle at one time, meaning you can vary up your strategy a little more as needed. In Devil Summoner 1 you could only summon one demon at one time, which made life difficult at times, meaning you’d most commonly just summon up something that could cast some variant of Dia to keep you going, then hope for the best. Adding the ability to summon a second demon allows you to summon up, say, demons of opposing types to be ready for anything, or one demon that can enhance and heal and another that can do direct damage or what have you, which makes com at more interesting and involved than in Devil Summoner 1. Combat is also changed up a bit this time around in a few ways. For one, you’re no longer given bullets of various types that can be used as needed but require replenishing. Instead, Raidou has infinite bullets that can be modified in type by allied spells. For another, Raidou can dodge around the battlefield, performing rolls and flips to evade enemy attacks, which makes him more likely to survive than in the prior game, when he could only block attacks. For a third, the way the game handles magic has been changed entirely; in Devil Summoner 1 each demon had their own magic reserves that depleted as they cast spells, but in Devil Summoner 2, you’re given one universal MAG pool that everyone draws from, meaning you use this to power demonic magic as well as your special attacks. You can replenish MAG by exploiting enemy weaknesses in battle or through item use, though it does replenish (slowly) on its own, meaning if you can successfully exploit your foes, you can keep the MAG flowing and repeat the process indefinitely.

In another nice addition, you’re also allowed to use Dragon Caves to teleport to the Gouma-Den (where you fuse demons), which allows you more opportunities to upgrade your demons and weapons whenever the mood strikes you. This means, in essence, that you can outfit yourself for whatever might be coming right before a huge boss battle or a potentially dangerous new zone. This makes things much more user-friendly than they were previously. Devil Summoner 2 also allows you to load up a save from Devil Summoner 1, no matter how far along you were in that game, and by doing so you’re given snippets of storyline you might have otherwise not been exposed to, as well as some nifty items you can sell for cash. You’ll also periodically meet up with demons you used in Devil Summoner 1 when you level up, and since they worked with you on your prior case, they’ll immediately join the cause on your behalf. These bonuses are by no means game-breaking, so if you’re still looking for a challenge you’ll absolutely find it here, but it’s a nice little payoff for those of us who played Devil Summoner 1, and it’s neat that Atlus stuck it in here. Of course, if you didn’t play Devil Summoner 1, no worries; you’ll still be able to recruit the demons you’d be getting for free here in Devil Summoner 2, but having played Devil Summoner 1 means you get a nice little reward this time around.

There’s also a new Luck based gimmick that you’ll first see somewhere around five to ten hours into the game. After some basic storyline explanation, you’ll randomly start seeing a luck roulette that either gives good or bad results, depending on your luck at the time and what the game feels like giving you. These results can make negotiations easier/harder, deal direct damage to enemies/allies, make specific types of demons more or less effective, make Raidou’s attacks more/less effective, and other fun stuff. You’ll also start coming across Luck Locusts, which are bugs you can keep in storage to boost your luck. Each Luck Locust you have directly increases your luck by one, and using one in battle can impart good effects for Raidou. Raidou will, at various points, have luck problems as he progresses through the game, as his luck will be decreased by various means, which you can purge at the Nameless Shrine when needed. The game also offers up multiple endings, depending on your moral choices throughout the game, and depending on how you complete the game that in turn determines which special demons you’ll be able to summon when you start again. There are a few other interesting additions here and there that fans of the first game will find interesting aside from this, but these are the major changes/additions to Devil Summoner 2, so fans of the first game should be able to determine if it’s worth a look from that.

The biggest complaint one can lobby against Devil Summoner 2 is that, even with the ability to summon two demons at one time and the odd combat changes here and there, it’s mostly identical to Devil Summoner 1. Weapon fusion, demon fusion, demon recruitment and combat in general are mostly brought to Devil Summoner 2 unchanged from either the prior game or the Shin Megami Tensei franchise in general. While these things all worked quite well previously, some additional tweaks and changes might have been nice to see. On one hand, this also means that fans of the first game will feel right at home in Devil Summoner 2, but on the other, familiarity breeds contempt, and the knowledge that this is almost entirely a duplicated experience from the prior game might put off some players, especially since the games also look a not insignificant bit alike, utilize most of the same characters, and in general feel a good bit alike. That said, two of the biggest changes to Devil Summoner 2 may actually hurt the experience more than they help it. The negotiation mechanic, while good in general, is a far more complex system than the recruitment mechanic in Devil Summoner 1 (stun an enemy and capture them), and is quite frustrating in comparison because it’s so goddamn RANDOM that it’s often more frustrating than anything else. You could potentially answer a demon’s questions perfectly, impress them in the most dynamic ways imaginable, and STILL fail to convince them to join you. After burning two hundred hit points, one hundred and fifty MAG, and an item or two, that isn’t even REMOTELY cool. I’m not even saying the mechanic doesn’t work, I’m saying it doesn’t work as well as it could HERE, as it’s been done better in other Shin Megami Tensei games. The combat maps have also been expanded a significant amount, which allows you more freedom to move around and fight, which is fine, but the camera is not a team player and will often focus on the wrong thing or refuse to move to the enemy you want to target, and you’ll find yourself running around a bit on occasion if you need to figure out where an enemy/ally is. This is a small complaint, but again, it’s annoying in comparison to the first game.

Putting aside the fact that this game is more than a little similar to its predecessor, there are also small issues and annoyances that. While not big problems on their own, combine to make the experience less enjoyable than it really should be. The biggest one is the fact that the game is a heavy loader. New zones can take up to a minute to load up when you enter them, and random battles can also take fifteen to thirty seconds to load PER BATTLE. This is tedious and annoying at the best of times, simply because you’re constantly changing zones and/or jumping into random battles across the course of the game. This means you’re spending a whole lot of time waiting for the world to load. It’s also worth noting that Devil Summoner 2 follows the “Shin Megami Tensei Main Character Death” rule, where if the main character eats it, no matter who else is alive and what their skillset, it’s GAME OVER, the end. Now, some people are going to like this and think it’s good that they’re punished for such a thing, but it bears noting that games like Persona 4 featured ways around this and Digital Devil Saga circumvented this ENTIRELY, so it’s kind of silly that Devil Summoner 2 still enforces this rule. It’s understandable that the game needs SOMETHING to make it challenging, considering that as an action-centric RPG it’s a good bit easier to manage than most other Shin Megami Tensei titles, but of all the ways the challenge could have been increased, this doesn’t seem a particularly good way of handling it. Also, as in the first game, 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, though you can now pull them to you and make them invincible to avoid such a fate if you see it coming, at least.

What it all comes down to is that Devil Summoner 2 is a good game, and it’s honestly about as good as its predecessor, but it’s not quite the GREAT game that it could have, and should have, been. The story is exceptionally solid, the visuals and audio are well done overall, it plays fine, there’s enough different for it to be worth checking out, and it’s a solid product for both fans and newcomers alike. That said, it’s not really different enough to feel like an evolved sequel, not all of the changes are necessarily for the better, the game takes forever to load more often than not, and frankly, it’s kind of more of the same. Now, in all fairness, it’s still good and still worth buying if you’re even a little bit of a fan of Shin Megami Tensei or action RPG’s, but hopefully the next sequel will do more to really expand on the concept and execution of its predecessor, ideally on a system other than the Playstation 2.

The Scores:
Story: CLASSIC
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: GOOD
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: GOOD
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
Devil Summoner 2 is a solid, competent, well-made, and occasionally lazy sequel that fans of both the franchise and the genre will love, though it might occasionally annoy more casual fans. The story is fantastic, the presentation is solid, and the gameplay has been improved in many key regards. There’s plenty to see and do, and plenty of reasons to come back for more as well. This makes the game worth playing through not just once, but several times, if you like what it does. Unfortunately, it carries over a lot of elements from Devil Summoner 1 that either could have stood to be freshened up or didn’t need to be carried over at all. Some of the changes it made won’t appeal to everyone. Devil Summoner 2 really is worth playing, and probably is worth owning, but it doesn’t really manage to be anything more than “good.” While that’s not at all a bad thing, it’s kind of disappointing that it isn’t more advanced and enhanced than it is.

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