Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (Nintendo DS)

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Atlus
Genre: Tactical RPG/Turn Based RPG Hybrid
Release Date: 06/24/2009

Once upon a time there was a video game series. This video game series called Shin Megami Tensei: Akuma Zensho AKA Devil Summoner. Now this Devil Summoner series had little in common with the Action RPG series on the PS2. No, this was another turn based Megaten spinoff series similar to Persona, except a little more Cyberpunk. DS was one of the more popular games for the Sega Saturn and one of the better Megaten titles in general. Its sequel, Soul Hackers was even better. Soul Hackers took place in the Japan of the (then) far future where all these computers were hooked up to a network and that most people took part in virtual cities and secondary lifes. Not a bad prediction for a game made in 1998. Anyway, your protagonist was an 18 year old hacker (Part of a group known as “The Spookies.”) and while hacking you discover a secret virtual city called Paradigm-X which has been made by a company called Algon Soft. Soul Hackers was a very Shadowrun-esque gamewhere your computer and its programs would allow you communication with various types of demons, new attacks, and so on. It was one of the most popular of all Megaten titles, and I still remember the holy hell that occurred when the game wasn’t brought over to the US after Atlus USA said it was going to be. There are several conflicting reasons as to why, but as that was a decade ago, let’s leave them in the past.

Devil Survivor is a spiritual successor to Soul Hackers as both games involve the Internet, using computer technology to summon demons as well as adjust powers and gain new skills for your human characters. Both also involve government conspiracies and have a great cast of characters. However, gameplay is quite different due to SH being a first person dungeon crawl and Devil Survivor being a Tactical RPG with Turn Based battles. Still, this is as close to Soul Hackers as we’ll ever get in English, so how does both the first Strategic RPG and the first Nintendo DS title in the Megaten franchise for North America fare?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Good job Internet. Due to all the easily accessible crap on you, God has decided to destroy the world. It’s no surprise. After all, you introduced the average person to furries, lolcats, flame wars, vore porn, and Pedobear. Are you really surprised that God has decided you’re Tower of Babel 2: Electric Boogaloo?

At least, this is what a cult known as The Shomokai believes. After demons start appearing in the Shibuya district and start killing people, the locals start to put a little more stock in this belief. It also doesn’t help that these demons seem to pop out of a DS look alike known as The COMP (Communication Player). With everything within the Yamanote Line locked down by the government, it’s up to you, your best friend and your somewhat girlfriend to save the city, discover and defeat both religious and governmental conspiracies, and use find your cousin Naoya who appears to be the creator of the COMP systems and software. With precognitive emails warning you where the biggest dangers in the city will be that day, you and your two (more join later on) friends will attempt to cheat destiny and change fate. Can you survive the next seven days and prevent the end of well…everything?

Devil Survivor does a great job of telling its story and really fleshes out its characters. Because the game takes part in such a locked down area, you really get to focus on a small cast of detailed characters. There are no stores or any real NPC’s save for an occasional line of text when you choose to look around in a specific district of the city. I really enjoyed unearthing the dual conspiracies and seeing all the different characters in my game. I kept waiting to see who would be the fourth member of my team since I had a space open from the beginning of the game (I didn’t get him until day three.) and found myself curious as to whether or not any of the dialogue choices I made earlier in the game affected this character, if at all.

I had a really great time with this game and it is the best Megaten experience I’ve had since the dueling Persona 2’s of Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment or the first Digital Devil Saga. I really enjoyed the cast and characters and hope that Devil Survivor becomes a new Megaten spinoff series in its own right similar to DDS. Without a doubt, Devil Survivor offers the best storyline I’ve found on the DS to date.

Story Rating: Unparalleled

2. Graphics

You can really feel the old Devil Survivor roots in Devil Survivor when it comes to the graphics. You see, 95% of the game consists of static images. You have a series of character portraits for each character when they speak, monsters have a single still image for themselves and the only animation you will encounter is in battle when graphics straight out of an old Ogre Tactics game show up and character walk from gridpoint to gridpoint. This might be disappointing to a lot of gamers, as even most SRPG like the old 16 bit Shining Force games had animated battles, but as a person that grew up with Wizardry and many other first person dungeon crawls with static images, I was fine with this. It’s obvious though that Atlus could have done more with the visuals, but the Megaten games have never really been breathtaking or innovative when it comes to graphics.

Character and Monster portraits are well done. One of the things that I really liked is that the art isn’t the usual across the line Megaten art that you see throughout the franchise and even into games like Maken X. Instead it looks somewhat familiar to those titles but yet retains a style all its own. I really loved all the character designs and each character really stood out to me. The same can be said about the monsters. I swore some of them were ripped right from Revelations: Persona, but no. Again, it’s a similar feeling art style, yet distinct enough to be their own creatures. Except of course for the Atlus standbys like Pyro Jack, Jack Frost and so on.

People who are really into how a game LOOKS will no doubt be disappointed by the in-game graphics here due to nothing being animated and the battles looking like something that I could find on my old Sega Genesis. I can’t blame them. Still the portraits for characters and monsters alike are excellent, so there is something to be positive towards in this category.

Graphics Rating: Mediocre

3. Sound

There is no voice acting in Devil Survivor but that really should surprise anyone as it’s on the DS. There’s not a lot of voice acting for the system. What that leaves is music and sound effects. I really enjoyed the score for Devil Survivor and found myself humming several of the tracks even when I was away from the game. There aren’t a lot of musical tracks in DS, but everyone of them really fit the theme and pacing of the game perfectly.

Sound effects are standard fare. There’s nothing here mind blowing. It’s just the usual noises for spells or physical attacks. There’s not a lot of options here as many attacks and powers overlap with their sounds, but what’s here is fine.

Much like the graphics, nothing in Devil Survivor‘s audio department is going to truly wow you, but I wish I had gotten a CD with this game like Atlus has been doing with a lot of their other titles this year.

Sound Rating: Good

4. Control and Gameplay

Bear with me as this is going to be long. The game is divided into 7 days. As you progress through the game, you will be able to go to different districts. Here you can talk to people, look around, or talk with your party. Sometimes, there will be clock next to each district, along with a character portrait and/or the world battle. This means doing this particular event will move the time counter thirty minutes. This is important as some events happen at specific times. Thankfully doing things like just generically looking around or fighting “free battles” don’t advance the clock, so you have plenty of time to explore the game.

Actual in-game combat is done as a hybrid of Tactical and Turn based RPG gameplay. What this means is that battles begin on a grid based map. Character moves along squares on the map (based on their movement stat). Then when said character is close enough to engage in combat, the game doesn’t just resolve actions on the map screen (unless it’s an NPC vs an NPC). Instead it switches to a first person battle screen ala the old Phantasy Star games. Now your character and their zero-to-two demons engage in combat with the enemy (which consists of one to three demons). Here combat is standard turn based combat with Agility determining which characters go in what order. Some characters will get the chance to gain an “Extra Turn” from the beginning of the combat sequence, while others can earn a second attack through critical hits or by using a power or skill that the opposing enemy is weak against. Killing enemies nets you Mecca (the equivalent of money in the game) and XP. When you level up, characters gain one point in one of four characteristics. Aside from your protagonist, this is automatically distributed. As you control the growth of your main character, you can make them however you want. With mine, since you start the game with Yuzu who is (geared for magic) and Atsuro (who is geared for combat), I basically went for MA (Magic) and Vi (Vitality) so I had a slow and physically weak character but who also was incredibly high in defense toward both magic and physical attacks and who was quite power with Magic based attacks to boot. As such, my main character never once died in my original playthrough. He just was just too defensive.

You start off with a set of three demons, but you gain more through purchasing them in a demonic equivalent of Ebay or by fusing your purchased demons into new, more powerful creatures. Leveling up your demons for a few levels can get them extra stat points and/or new skils. However, you can see these skills right away so you’ll know immediately how long you have to train them. It’s generally not a good idea to stick with a demon for too long as they take forever to level up compared to your main characters once they learn their latent abilities. Basically, a good rule of thumb is to level them up, and fuse them with another demon you have also levels up for three or four levels to give the new demon created from their fusing choice skills (You can pick and choose from the previous forms list along with the new inherent skills of the created form to be.) and stat point bonuses. Sometimes though, you’ll get such a stat bonus, you’ll stick with a demon for far longer than normal simply due to the fact even higher level demons don’t have their stat bonuses. Case in point, I created a Garn (Think hellhound with only one head) who was made from creatures with some strong stat bonuses. As such it ended up having a strength of like 16 when fused and by the time I had all its skills learned, its strength was at 18. This was quite powerful compared to what else I had at the time, so I just kept him around for strength reasons until I could fuse him into an even more power creature that also netted its XP gain and critical hit bonus.

Fusing creatures takes a lot of planning as you may be able to create a new demon right away, but only with two creatures who have such great skills, you’ll hate to lose any of them in the fusing. You also might end up with a creature whose natural weakness is lost. I created a Wendigo that had three passive skills of Anti-Ice, Anti-Fire and Anti-Electricity. Usually Wendigos are weak to Fire magic, but not this one due to selective breeding. Again you can see that I’ve played enough Megaten games that I tend to make characters and creatures with major defensive capabilities. It’s a lot of fun to make new demons and you’ll spend a lot of time tinkering and tweaking to ensure you have the perfect roster.

You also gain new skills for your characters by using skill cracks. If there is a monster with a power you don’t have, you can choose it as a specific target for a character on your team. If that character kills that monster, you will gain access to that power. Now, that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be able to use that power right away (They’re stat specific), but at least you’ll have learned it for later. These can range from attack skills, magic spells, defensive powers or auto skills that begin each battle. At certain times in the game, you’ll be able to teach spells or attacks to a demon on a character’s squad, further enhancing their use in both battle and in fusion.

As the game progresses, you’ll fight battle after battle, most of which just have the goal of “Kill all the monsters” or “Don’t let XXX and/or YYYY die!” What I really liked is that the two RPG styles are fused perfectly (much like a well made Tyrant Frost) and that the game is really easy to pick up and learn, even if you’ve never done an SRPG before. I have to admit I loved the blend of styles, and how the game felt both fresh and yet like a classic Megaten title all at once. The engine is seamless and the gameplay is fantastic. I could have asked for a better RPG Hybrid in terms of ease and fluidity.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Unparalleled

5. Replayability

There are roughly half a dozen endings in the game that range from running away out of town and leaving everyone to die, becoming the lord of all demons, killing all demons, or making demon summoning a commonplace act in everyday life. You’ll get access to an ending based on dialogue choices. Basically the more you side with a specific character, the more likely you are to have the option to take part in that character-centric ending. When you beat the game, you’ll have to start your characters over, but you’ll get to keep your roster of demons, your level cap for demon summoning is removed and the sliding experience cap is removed, meaning you’ll blow through the replays. Each ending is fairly unique and a lot of fun to watch, so it’s definitely worth coming back to this game time and time again. Besides, each time you play will be drastically different due to how you make your character with stat points and how you choose to fuse demons. There’s an amazing amount of replay value in this little cart. It’s just too bad you can only have one saved game at a time on here.

Replayability Rating: Great

6. Balance

Another thing Devil Survivor has in common with Soul Hackers is that both games are shockingly easy. The AI from the computer controlled opponents are completely random and the fact you can set your skills AFTER looking at who is on the field for this battle means there is no way you should fall in combat. It’s as if each monster has a bulls-eye painted on to it. Through my entire first playthrough I only ever had to replay a mission once (Saving three sets of townsfolk from demons because my movement skills weren’t set accordingly). I also only ever lost a main character once out of all the battles I played through and that was Yuzu somewhere in Day 2. There is absolutely no way you should have trouble with this game if you’re played either a SRPG or a Megaten game before. It’s just a matter of hitting opponents with their weaknesses. Considering these are telegraphed to you before the battle starts and you should have had plenty of opportunity to use Skill Crack or fuse demons, Devil Survivor should be a cakewalk.

However, just in case you aren’t able to adjust to the hyrbid RPG engine, you have limitless free battles. You can even choose between Normal and Hard battles for more experience with the system, as well as more experience POINTS for your team. The game lets you munchkin up your characters’ to your hearts content, so if you have to level grind (and shame on you if you do), the option is there. Really though, you shouldn’t need it.

It’s great to see how each battle really stands out from the next as your progress through the game. I loved seeing new monsters and figuring out the best skill sets for each character or debating on what demons to bring in. I also liked that the free battles meant I could fuse a demon needed for a later fusing and could level them up so as to get full access to their stats without wasting story XP on these soon to be fused fodder.

Most importantly, I loved all the dialogue options and what endings they open up for you as you advance. You really do feel like each choice you make means something, which inspires you to go back and try again with different options.

Overall, Devil Survivor is a great “Baby’s First Megaten” game. It’s quite easy, but it works as an intro to turn based RPG’ing for SRPG fans, an intro to SRPG’s for people who have only done turn based RPG’s and for Megaten in general. Sure it’s not up to the level of the original Devil Summoner or Persona 2 games, but what’s here is well done with enough difficulty to make you work for your win, but never enough that you ever should feel in danger of losing a battle. It may not be as rewarding because of this, but the story more than helps to make up for it.

Balance Rating: Great

7. Originality

It’s never a good thing when a game reminds you a lot of another one to the point where you can actively pick out what came from those earlier titles. It’s even worse when those games are all from the same franchise. Devil Survivor basically uses the Persona system from Be Your True Mind for demon fusing, the trappings of Soul Hackers, the battle visuals of Ogre Tactics and the art style of countless Atlus games, Megaten related or not. At first glance, Devil Survivor seems to be a mish-mash of bits from other series rolled into a ball and served as a new game. Thankfully, this isn’t quite the case.

Devil Survivor does a nice job with the story and characters and making them stand out from other games. After all, Soul Hackers took place in a (mostly) virtual world, as did Digital Devil Saga 1 (But not DDS2…kind of). Instead we have a game that takes place fully in the “real” world and uses COMPS as a gateway between dimensions and as a summoning tool. Although there is ALWAYS a conspiracy in the Megaten games involving a government or religious body, Devil Survivor manages to do something unique with both the SDF and The Shomokai, give us twists and turns from beginning to end. Of course, the gameplay is also rather unique with SRPG style movement but turn based Wizardry style battles and the nifty Skill Crack concept. However, if you’re a True Megaten nut, you’ll realize the gameplay is similar to Ronde, another Megaten spin-off for the Sega Saturn

I can’t say that Devil Survivor really redesigns the wheel, but it does put a new shine on it. It makes old things feel new and fun again.

Originality Rating: Mediocre

8. Addictiveness

I had an incredibly hard time putting this game down. Hell, I wanted to keep playing instead of writing the review. I was playing it in a car while a friend drove. I was playing it instead of sleeping. I was completely engrossed with the game. I wanted to see who I would meet next, if Haru would ever join my team (she appears to be unplayable) and what demons I would be able to call up next. There is something insidious about being able to see demons you can make five levels before you can. You just want to keep making new demons so that you can get to that one. Then you see new demons you can make a little bit later if you just keep playing. SO YOU DO. It’s all one giant spiral of time suck due to an awesome story and equally awesome engine. I can’t think of a game this year that has sucked me in as deeply as Devil Survivor. I’d probably put this in my top five Megaten games along with Eternal Punishment, Innocent Sin, Be Your True Mind/Revelations: Persona and Soul Hackers.

It’s been a pretty good year for SRPG’s on the DS. First Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume and now this. All we need now is a new quality Shining Force done by Camelot or Quest to reunite for a new Ogre Battle and I can die a happy man.

Anyway, Devil Survivor is engrossing, intelligent, charming, and offers an amazing amount of content and options for a handheld SRPG. Strategy buffs, this is your GOTY right here.

Addictiveness Rating: Unparalleled

9. Appeal Factor

This is a bit of a hard one. I’m happy to see Megaten games getting released left and right in the US these days, but it’s still only a cult title instead of a Final Fantasy or Pokemon level selling title as it is in Japan. Devil Survivor won’t be the title that changes that either. I’ve noticed most RPG gamers tend to have a preference with their sub genres (Tactical, Action, or Turn-Based) and there’s not a lot of cross over between them. I can see turn based and dungeon crawl fans being annoyed by having to plan moves out two or three in advance while SRPG fans being annoyed by turn based battles where you can’t see the exact percentage and damage of what your hits will do before you move into combat. It also doesn’t help that SRPG’s have never really been that popular of a game to begin with, at least in the US, save for the Shining Force series back in the 16-bit era. Finally you have static graphics rather than anything animated, which can be a death knell in this day and age where people want style over substance.

That being said, I have no doubt Devil Survivor will find its audience and turn them into ravenous zealots craving the next installment of the franchise…if there ever is to be another. This game is sure to be a hit with fans of outside the box storytelling, Megaten in general, or just gamers looking for a novel new RPG to experience. Those that take the chance to experience SMT:DS may just find one of the best games of the year nestled in their DS for quite some time.

Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous

Wait. What’s this I see? Is Atlus charging only $29.99 for this title after a string of releases ABOVE the MSRP, and with a Megaten title to boot? My god, what’s happened? Personally, I don’t care. I’m getting a high quality title for less of a price tag than a stream of localized suck costing between five and ten dollars more than the average game. I can’t complain there.

For me, Devil Survivor is the best Megaten experience I’ve had since 2005 where I was completely enraptured with our eventual Game of the Year winner Digital Devil Saga. It was equal parts mystery, classic Megaten existentialism, solid gameplay and engrossing characters that had me hooked from beginning to end. I also loved that I could take it with me wherever I go. I loved how the game took pieces from all my favourite Saturn Megaten titles, added a dash of Be Your True Mind, blended it together and gave me and end result I was unable to put down until I had played through it twice. I’m still playing it regardless! From seeing old classic Personas and Demons with face lifts and new playability to a cast of characters I want a sequel for, Devil Survivor has captured my heart in a way I’m sure no other game this year will…save for Heart Gold and Soul Silver that is…

Devil Survivor is not only incredibly fun, but it’s a reminder of why I love gaming. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled

The Scores
Story/Modes: Unparalleled
Graphics: Mediocre
Sound: Good
Control and Gameplay: Unparalleled
Replayability: Great
Balance: Great
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Unparalleled
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Unparalleled

Short Attention Span Summary
Devil Survivor takes its heart and soul from Soul Hackers, the fuse system from Persona: Be Your True Mind and a bit of gameplay from Majin Tensi: Ronde. However, SMT: DS then puts its own distinct spin on each of these pieces, and also adds a compelling story filled with fun characters to boot. The end result is a great little hybrid of both SRPG gaming and traditional Turn Based goodness. At worst, Devil Survivor is a reminder of why we all fell in love with Megaten the first time we saw Mark dance crazy. At best, it’s a GOTY contender. Pick this up ASAP.



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17 responses to “Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (Nintendo DS)”

  1. Ian Avatar

    It makes me sad that I haven’t played the games you reference.

    I’m sure I would dig them, but I can’t play retro titles anymore because I barely have time for new games. :'(

    1. Alex Lucard Avatar

      Ian – A lot of the games I reference are Japanese only, so it makes sense that you probably haven’t played them.

  2. Craig Avatar

    The other odd item about the game is that it is rated “Teen” instead of “Mature”. The only other Megaten games I remember not being rated “M” was “Revelations: The Demon Slayer” for Gameboy Color and the two “DemiKids” games for the GBA. Okay, Persona for PS1 was “KA”. Anyway, I can buy a Megaten game for my best friend’s 13 year old son!

  3. Craig Avatar

    I’m an idiot. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was strangely rated T. Anyway, I expect my copy of Devil Survivor to have the 120+ hours of my Pokemon Platinum game.

  4. […] this and Devil Survivor my consoles haven’t been on in weeks. It’s been all handheld gaming baby. Crimson Gem […]

  5. […] this and Devil Survivor my consoles haven’t been on in weeks. It’s been all handheld gaming baby. Crimson Gem […]

  6. […] time and even when I do, I find I get bored quickly. Even games that I have loved this year like Devil Survivor or Crimson Gem Saga are titles I can’t do for more than two or three hours in a […]

  7. […] time, and even when I do, I find I get bored quickly. Even games that I have loved this year like Devil Survivor or Crimson Gem Saga are titles I can’t play for more than two or three hours in a […]

  8. […] Arts, Developer: EA Tiburton) The Legendary Starfy (Publisher: Nintendo, Developer: TOSE) Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (Publisher: Atlus USA, Developer: Atlus […]

  9. […] Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor […]

  10. […] GameFAN staff would agree. In 2005 Digital Devil Saga won our Game of the Year award, and last year Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor won our awards for “Best DS Game.” This year Atlus brings us another spin-off in name, […]

  11. […] Lucard reviewed the game when it came out, and absolutely loved […]

  12. […] way back in June of 2009, Atlus brought Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor to the States, and there was much joy to be had in the land… for those who like the Shin Megami […]

  13. […] up to that point). The answer is yes. More so than say, purchasing Overclocked if you already own Devil Survivor. In the case of Overclocked, you’re basically getting an enhanced version of a game that is […]

  14. […] to that point). The answer is yes. More so than say, purchasing Overclocked if we already possess Devil Survivor. In a box of Overclocked, you’re fundamentally removing an extended chronicle of a diversion that […]

  15. […] at SRPGs, to the point where it still baffles some of the other staffers here at DHGF that I called Devil Survivor a cakewalk. However, my guess is that because I’ve played through the first two games with […]

  16. […] at SRPGs, to the point where it still baffles some of the other staffers here at DHGF that I called Devil Survivor a cakewalk. However, my guess is that because I’ve played through the first two games with […]

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