Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2 Review
For the hardcore RPG fan, Atlus has become the premier developer in their eyes. Not only have they continued to pump out a large number of niche titles over the past three or four years (while the new PlayStation 3 started slow with the RPGs), but most Atlus games are often of a very high quality. They may appeal to a somewhat small portion of consumers, but you had best believe that said portion is most decidedly loyal. The Shin Megami Tensei franchise has enjoyed widespread critical acclaim and maintains an avid following, which is why we’re always interested in seeing the latest installment in that series. It hit for the PS2 last month and after spending a sufficient amount of time with it, we conclude that while Devil Summoner 2 doesn’t quite have the pacing and intricacy of gameplay and depth we would’ve wanted, it still delivers on the standard Atlus promise. And that promise is: “if you love RPGs, there’s a darn good chance you will enjoy our products.”
The graphics are a step above the typical, late-generation PS2 title, as the big-eyed, wide-mouthed characters are somewhat original and nicely designed, and perhaps surprisingly, the sprawling, active towns take center-stage in the visual presentation. They’re not huge, but they feature plenty of activity and fluid transitions between sections, and there’s a decent amount of background detail. This contrasts sharply with the world map, which consists of little more than a distant, top-down view and a linear progression of your character along set paths. Fans of this series will expect it, though, so we probably shouldn’t harp on it. The battle screens aren’t as impressive graphically – they’re often darker than anticipated and while the animations are fluid, the effects aren’t overly special – but at the very least, they’re acceptable. As you progress, there’s a good amount of variety in the backdrops, although you may feel somewhat restricted in your exploring and as a direct result, the graphics can seem repetitive. But we did like the clean lines of the visuals from front to back; they represented an appreciated upgrade from the old-school PS2 titles.
As there are no voiceovers in Devil Summoner 2, the game doesn’t quite have the liveliness and personality we’ve come to expect from RPGs, but hey, Final Fantasy VII doesn’t have voices, either. The only problem is that the dialogue isn’t great and Atlus has an irritating habit of repeating the same statements and comments during cut-scenes (only with different wording), and it seems they’re doing it just to extend the sequence. How many times do we have to be told where to go? Outside of this, the soundtrack is almost a little too upbeat for just strolling around town, and a bit too underplayed during combat. It can also get a little repetitive but at least it kicks up a notch for boss fights. The sound effects are fairly standard and nothing to get too excited about, but they fit the atmosphere and work nicely when you execute the special attacks; in other words, they’re satisfying when you go all out. One of these days, though, even the die-hard fans will start requesting something different in the way of music, and eventually, voice acting will also have to arrive.
The game is set in fictional 1920s Japan and the main character is Raidou Kuzunoha the 14th, a high school student (what’s Atlus’ obsession with high school students, anyway?) who is a descendent of the legendary Devil Summoners. During the introductory tutorial sequence, Raidou will become a full-fledged Summoner and be given his first assignment, which is protecting the Capital from invading Demons. Ironically, he can also control a variety of Demons in battle and he has a partner, a black cat known as Gouto. Locating, obtaining, training and even breeding Demons has been the cornerstone of the gameplay in SMT titles since the days of Nocturne, and this process is once again both engaging and entertaining, especially for all you micromanagement buffs. Essentially, you will take up residence at a detective agency in the Capital and embark on a series of cases, both primary and secondary, as you seek to fulfill your obligation as a protector of the people. You may think there’s a great deal of detective work involved but it acts more as a setting than an actual gameplay mechanic, although you will seek out clues and do research.
You explore the towns and speak to people in an effort to bring each case to a successful close, and as you progress, you will participate in more and more battles. But this may be the biggest issue with our Devil Summoner 2 experience; the pacing seems erratic and tedious at times, as it will take a while to really dive into the battle mechanic. We also didn’t think too highly of the cases we accepted, as they often lacked in the way of ingenuity and intrigue. But the good news is that the storyline is worthwhile and the player will typically want to move forward simply to see what happens next, which is the mark of any solid plot. The characters leave a little something to be desired as Raidou himself is a little bland and doesn’t have much of a personality, while other characters have more of a “face,” so-to-speak. This makes the entire game feel a little incomplete, and with the aforementioned lack of voices, we often had difficulty getting involved in the proceedings. We usually just wanted to push forward to a point where we could step into battle and play around with our Demon recruiting and training. Perhaps we’ve become a little impatient as the generations have just flown by (and man, they have), but we just think the pacing could’ve been better.
As for the combat, it’s a little different than what some of you Atlus fans may expect. For those who wish the industry hadn’t left traditional turn-based fighting in RPGs behind, Atlus has often been a safe haven for the old-school aficionados. But while you can pause the battles in Devil Summoner 2, the action plays out in a real-time format, which may or may not alienate the hardcore fans. Either way, it works very well, as the mechanics are simple and straightforward and you always have full control of the events on the field. Any Demons you Summon will respond immediately to any Commands you issue, which you can deliver by pausing the action and selecting from a menu. As for Raidou himself, he can attack with the circle button, execute a more powerful, special attack with the Triangle button (usually a good finisher after a set of light hits, performed with the Circle button), fire his gun with the Square button, dodge-roll with the X button, and block with the L1 button. Factor in the Demons and their own abilities, and you’ve got the requisite depth and appeal.
The AI is a bit ridiculous, though, as many times, enemies will simply go after Raidou and let the Demons pummel the snot out of them without ever turning their attention in the correct direction. This also makes it somewhat troublesome when it comes to charging into battle, especially early on in the game when the main character feels a tad underpowered. But you likely won’t tire of the combat, and being able to learn new skills with your Demons (not to mention the actual locating and seizing process) is strangely addictive. The possibilities for battles are almost limitless and while the detective aspect of the gameplay doesn’t amount to much, it still acts as a worthy complement to the exploration and combat. As we mentioned before, some of the cut-scenes are drawn out too long with unnecessary dialogue and the character lineup isn’t exactly stellar, so you may encounter “interest issues” if you sit and play for a few hours or longer at any given time. Thankfully, the battle’s fun factor remains high throughout and you’ll rarely want to run away. Really, the very point of RPGs is leveling up and making characters stronger, right? It has to be fun or the game fails.
And so, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2 most certainly doesn’t fail. It falls a little short when it comes to pacing, character development, the implementation of a detective/investigating gameplay mechanic, and the overall personality. But it excels – as most Atlus games typically do – in the battle department, as the combination of depth and accessibility is excellent. The graphics are nice, there are some great highlights in the storyline, and the collection and control of Demons is endlessly entertaining. Not surprisingly, it’s a solid option for any RPG fan, but it’s not quite as polished or accomplished as Persona 4, which remains the best PS2 RPG we’ve played in quite a long time. But if you’re done with that one and need another long and involved Atlus fix, Devil Summoner 2 has you covered. Just remember, we’ve got some real-time stuff here, so don’t think it’s like Nocturne…
6/9/2009 Ben Dutka