A high school student is looking for his cousin with his friends Atsuro and Yuzu in the streets of Tokyo, although he never appears. The only thing hinting at his disappearance is his portable Communication Player, or COMP. Before long, Tokyo is in full lockdown, and demons are roaming the streets, with seven days until the capital’s destruction. Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is the first installment of their long running series for the Nintendo DS, being a tactical RPG with many unique elements, although unique doesn’t mean good.
Combat is always central to tactical RPGs, so naturally the player will spend most of their time in battle. However, outside battle in map mode, the player can explore various locales in Tokyo and prepare the party for combat in the COMP menu. Up to four teams participate in battle, each with a human leader and two demons. The player can set up each human leader with various skills, many of which require their stats to be at certain levels to equip, although the skills of their demons are fixed.
When the player begins one of the many battles necessary to advance the story, they must place their teams onto the field in whatever formation they desire, after which they begin. Player and enemy teams take their turns depending upon speed, with the player gaining a number of options whenever one of their characters reaches his or her turn. These commands include moving around the field, engaging with an enemy in an adjacent square (although some passive demon skills can increase a team’s range of attack), and using one of the team member’s HP or MP-consuming field skills, if available, to heal or perform other functions such as temporarily increasing the team’s range of movement.
When one of the player’s teams attack an enemy team, or vice versa, the player goes to a separate screen for three-on-three turn-based combat where the player inputs commands for their team, and both teams exchange blows (although if one of the teams is attacking from a distance, only that team will take its turn). Depending upon agility and whether or not the player exploits the enemy’s weaknesses or lands critical attacks, they might gain extra turns, in which case certain team members can perform another action, with enemies able to obtain extra turns as well.
After both sides have executed their extra turns, the game returns to the field screen, where the player’s team can move and each member can execute a field skill if they haven’t done so. To defeat an enemy team, the player only needs to take down the leader enemy, although taking out its two allies will yield more experience and money. Similarly, the death of one of the player’s human characters will remove that team from the field, although it is possible to revive dead allies in the middle of battle with certain skills.
Eventually, Skill Crack becomes available, where, before a battle begins, the player can choose team leaders to analyze specific skills from enemies for a chance to obtain them, in which case a leader’s party must defeat the specific foe in an enemy team to “crack” the skill and make it available to equip on any character outside battle. The player can also occasionally obtain skill set bonuses after earning enough Magnetite from killing enemies, in which case they can select a cracked skill to equip on one of a team leader’s demons.
Outside battle, the player can use money to participate in the demon auction, and either bid against NPCs to purchase new demons, or pay a higher price to purchase them right away. Demon fusion also returns from previous Megami Tensei titles, where the player can combine two demons into more powerful (or in some instances weaker) demons. This time, instead of randomizing skill sets for fused demons, Devil Survivor allows players to select which skills for fused demons to inherit, a welcome improvement that saves the player valuable time.
While a promising battle system with plenty of good ideas, it nonetheless falls flat in execution, given the game’s lopsided difficulty curve, alongside many annoying escort missions where the player has to protect one or more weak NPCs from dying or face a game over. Grinding for levels and new skills is also a necessity throughout the game, and luckily, the player can retreat at any time from “free” battles that appear alongside story battles (where retreat is unavailable) if the enemy is gaining the advantage. However, late in the game, grinding becomes difficult due to the proportional nature of experience gain for characters. Overall, the battle system has some nice concepts, but combat often becomes a chore throughout the game.
The interface, though, is actually good, given the simplicity of the menus, ease of character management, and linear structure of the game. Micromanaging the skills of human team leaders can be a slight chore, but otherwise, the controls are solid.
Devil Survivor does many things different as a tactical RPG, such as putting units into teams, and having a unique degree of customization, although it retains many elements of the Megami Tensei franchise, such as many demons, skill names, and gaining extra turns by exploiting enemy weaknesses.
Devil Survivor is very story-heavy between battles, although the game often puts quantity above quality in this area, with scant character development. There is a plot branch towards the end and different endings, but the story, as seems to be the case with most Japanese RPGs, could have used a bit more focus.
The soundtrack consists mostly of a few techno themes that are okay, although somewhat overused throughout the game. The game looks better than it sounds, though, with pre-rendered environments in battle and character and monster sprites, although monsters are inanimate in the battle scenes. Overall, the game’s music and graphics could have been better.
Finally, playing time falls into the thirty-hour range, with a replay mode in which the player keeps demons, money, and cracked skills allowing for additional playthroughs. All in all, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is something of a letdown, being another RPG with good ideas but weak execution, given the lopsided nature of its battle system along with plenty of grinding. The other aspects, especially the interface, don’t suffer as much, although they can’t compensate for the often-tortuous gameplay, and in the end, Devil Survivor ends up a poor entry-level tactical RPG.
-Is escort mission hell.
-Too much grinding towards the end.
-Too much dialogue.
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 3/10
Lasting Appeal: 4/10
Playing Time: 30-40 Hours