Hands down, my two favorite RPG franchises are Final Fantasy and Shin Megami Tensei.
The Shin Megami Tensei series is pretty weird. While most of the games don’t share stories, timelines, or characters, they have a few hallmarks, in the same way that almost every Final Fantasy game has chocobos and a character named Cid. The games are generally (but not always) set in modern Japan, a big change from the usual psuedo-medieval settings most RPGs use. Shin Megami Tensei games almost always focus on recruiting/summoning/manifesting demons or Personas, and the games feature the same core hundred demons or so, often taken from various mythologies around the world. You could have a party consisting of Loki, Hecate, and Oberon, for instance. The games often incorporate an apocalypse of some kind. And you kill God a lot. Though, mind you, there’s Final Fantasy games where you kill God, too. Actually, there’s a LOT of JRPGs where the final boss is God. Which is actually pretty weird when you think about it. But that’s a post for another time.
It’s my opinion that the Shin Megami Tensei series’ heyday was on the PS2. My first game, Nocturne, was a pretty early PS2 release, back in 2003.
I loved the creepy feeling of that game, the cell-shaded graphics, and the moral decisions you had to make that ultimately shaped the end of the game. After I played that game in college, borrowing it from a friend, I had trouble tracking down some of the others until I subscribed to GameFly. A lot of the early PS2 SMT games like Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2 and the Raidou Kuzunoha games are really rare now, but if you ever stumble upon a copy, I highly recommend them, particularly Digital Devil Saga. After the major critical and commercial success of Persona 3 and 4, the more recent SMT games are much more mainstream and way easier to find.
A video game store one town over from me had a going-out-of-business sale a few months ago, and that’s when I picked up Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 on the cheap.
I played the first one, and quite liked it, although it wasn’t anything as stellar as the full console offerings I was used to. This second game improves on the formula of the first in every conceivable way. The plots aren’t at all related, though, so you could just pick this one up and play it without touching the first.
The game stars Mr. Nameless Hero. I always name my SMT Nameless Heroes Morgan Pendragon. That’s what I named him in Nocturne, and that’s what I’ve named him ever since. I didn’t have enough spaces for his full name in this game, though, so he’s Morgan Pendra this time around.
Morgan Pendra, and his best buds, Daichi Shijima and Io Nitta, are just normal high school students living in Tokyo, Japan. One day, on the way home from school, Morgan and his friends get a weird text on his phone, about something called a “death clip” being uploaded to a website called Nicaea (yes, the same name as the city where the Christian Nicene creed was developed by the Councils of Nicaea – there’s a lot of disjointed Christian allusions in this and every SMT game). This mysterious website shows videos of the deaths of your friends before those deaths happen. In this case, the (surprisingly graphic) video shows Morgan and his friends being crushed by a subway train.
Before they have a chance to freak out too much, the events of the video transpire, except instead of being crushed to death, Morgan and his friends are saved by a demon, which immediately turns on them and attacks with some of its friends. Morgan and company defeat the demons, forging pacts with them through an app on their cellphones called the Demon Summoning Program, which has also mysteriously been installed on each of their phones. With their newfound demon allies, the three emerge from the ruined subway station to discover Tokyo in ruins and chaos. And overrun by demons! Which you must fight, of course.
The battle system is pretty much exactly the same as the system in the first Devil Survivor game, a combination of turn-based strategy and turn-based menu combat. At the start of each battle, you organize up to four three-man teams, each consisting of one central human character flanked by two summoned demons.
Then, you assign Skill Cracks for each human character, a cool system where you can learn skills from demons that you defeat. Finally, you position your characters on the battlefield and initiate combat.
Each character’s turn has two phases. First, you move your character on a grid-based map to attack demons, ala Final Fantasy Tactics.
Then, when you attack an enemy, the game switches to a party vs. party view, pretty much like any turn-based RPG ever.
A key part of these battles is exploiting elemental weaknesses to get extra turns in battle. The upper screen of your DS displays enemy stats, and you’d better use them to gain the upper hand. Using the right attacks can allow you to annihilate an enemy party in one turn, netting you bonus money, but using attacks your enemy is strong against will allow them to gain the upper hand. It’s a pretty fun battle system. My one gripe is that your position on the grid map confers no real tactical advantages. In many strategy RPGS, flanking an enemy or being adjacent to your allies confers advantages that can really affect the way a battle goes. In the Devil Survivor games, all that really matters is that you are positioned in range, and it doesn’t really matter where you’re exactly positioned. It seems like there’s some untapped potential there to make it a more strategic experience.
Demon Fusion and the Demon Auction are back. You can buy demons through an app on your phone that functions something like demon eBay, and then you can fuse demons together to make stronger demons. Fused demons inherit the skills of their parents, and in this game, unlike in most SMT games, you can actually manually select which skills the resultant demon will inherit. I appreciate this little touch greatly, as I feel I have wasted probably hours of my life starting and then cancelling demon/persona fusions in SMT games until the game randomly selects the skill set that I’m trying to get. This way, every demon I fuse has exactly the skills I want it to. Man does that make my life easier. There’s also a Demon Compendium, which saves every demon you’ve ever owned in a database so that you can resummon them later for a fee, but the prices are so prohibitively high that I’ve never used it for that function.
The in-game time is divided into seven chapters, or days. Each day is further divided into 30-minute chunks. Many of the actions you perform, like talking with characters, visiting a location, or engaging in a battle, takes up one of these time chunks.
That screenshot of your map menu is super misleading, mind you. This is from very early in the game, so there’s only one option. By mid-game, it’s not unlikely that you will have somewhere between 10 and 15 choices for each 30-minute time in-game time window. It is impossible to do everything on one playthrough, so there’s a great deal of replay value here, if that’s what you’re into. I’m not, so I tended to save often and just go back and forth until I saw all of the location events that I was interested in seeing. There’s another very good reason to save often. VERY OFTEN.
See this guy? This guy’s name is Jungo Torii. He’s a chef. That’s all I know about him, and that information comes from the game manual. You know why that’s all I know about him? BECAUSE HE DIED.
Yes, friends, this is one of those rare RPGs that feature permadeath. If you get a death clip, and you don’t go save that character fast enough, they will die. FOREVER. And if you don’t have a recent enough save file to go back to, you just lose them. Jungo died before I had even recruited him into my party, so it didn’t affect me or my game much. Later on, however, I got careless, and lost Otome Yanagiya, one of my active party characters to a fireball of doom from a demon named Bifrons.
I always have mixed feelings about permadeath in video games. On the one hand, it’s super frustrating. You spend a lot of time leveling a character and getting to know them, and suddenly they’re just dead? WTF! On the other hand, it’s adds a level of tragedy and realism that a lot of RPGs lack for just that reason. There’s less tension in a fight if you have 99 Phoenix Downs. In this game, you spend a lot of time leveling a character and getting to know them, and suddenly they’re just dead. Like life. It adds emotional impact. It also adds a very real feeling of guilt. I saw Otome’s death clip. I knew it was coming. But I still went and talked to some other characters to level up their Fate links before going to save Otome, and so she died. It was my fault. And even though she’s just a character in a game, a picture and some words and some bits of data, I still feel kind of guilty about it.
The plot and character development is pretty good. Interacting with the characters in your party levels up their Fate, which confers useful advantages in battle such as the ability to share Skill Cracks and demons. It’s a pretty similar system to the Social Links system in Persona 3 and 4, albeit a much simplified system. Figuring out the cause of the worldwide demon disaster is interesting and has a lot of twists, though nothing too unexpected, especially for an SMT game (spoiler: you end up fighting God).
The music is pretty bland and repeats a lot, which is somewhat disappointing after the excellent music of the most recent Persona games, but I end up playing most of my handhelds on Mute, anyway, so I wasn’t that heartbroken. The art is very nice, and the sprites are well-animated. Some of the design choices…well, take a look at the female characters:
Their boobs are just…so…big! Like unnaturally so. Io’s especially look like they’re about the same size as her head. Hypersexualization and fan service is nothing new in JRPGs, but…man. I guess I’m just not used to it in my SMT games, which usually don’t go any further than the obligatory anime-inspired hot springs scene (in this game, the hot springs are replaced with a medical exam, but it’s the same idea). Oh well. They’re nice boobs to look at! And you can see most of Hinako’s (bottom right, seriously, how does she get away with running around Osaka dressed like that?).
My only real complaint about the game is how difficult it is to grind. There’s always “Free Battles” available to fight, which take up no in-game time blocks. However, these battles give money, but very little EXP. I’m currently stuck on a late-game boss that I can’t seem to beat, and the minuscule amount of EXP I can get from the available Free Battles is doing very little to advance my level to the point that I can beat him. It’s really frustrating. And it’s not like I haven’t been doing Free Battles the entire game! I don’t think I’m underleveled. Maybe I just need different demons? Who knows. Hopefully I figure it out and murder this guy so I can get on with murdering God!
Man, seriously, what is it with JRPGs and murdering God?