Apocalypse (Seven Days From) Now.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor follows the typical Shin Megami Tensei mentality in that it isn't typical. All of the dark, eerie, estranged multiculturalism and playful collaging of religious avatars and sci-fi technological concepts wrapped up in a Japan-centric viewpoint, have been richly retained. And that's just scratching the surface. As a first foray onto the Nintendo DS for the series, Devil Survivor successfully captures the serious and sometimes unholy mysticism entangled in the roots of Shin Megami Tensei while presenting a system that works for both a pick-up-and-play mold and a 30+-hour adventure on the couch, though its presentation and production are woefully lackluster.
[image1]Yet again, Tokyo will be the center of the apocalypse in seven days, and your cousin (or the protagonist's cousin), a crafty genius computer scientist with red pupils and white hair named Naoya who loves to dress in a loose, silky,
totally effeminate Matrix-styled robe, seems to know all about it. While enjoying a casual sunny day in the bustling shopping centers of Tokyo, you and your friends Atsuro and Yuzu try to meet up with Naoya and eventually receive modded Nintendo DSs COMPs from him for the simple reason that "you'll need them". After a few short cut-scenes, Atsuro hacks into the COMPs, causing demons to be summoned via an out-of-control computer program that seemingly translates ancient demonic summoning rituals into C++, and you'll have to deal with the repercussions for the rest of the game.
One day later, everything within the Yamanote Circle is cut off - no electricity, no means of communication with anyone outside of the circle, and dwindling sources of food and water. Government SDF forces have quickly barricaded all exits, perhaps quicker than normal, telling the panicked citizenry that the subway stations have been filled with poisonous gases. An orange-robed cult who call themselves the Shomonkai are preaching the coming of God's ordeal, harking back to the Tower of Babel, a story where God punished man for trying to reach the heavens by splitting their language into a thousand different tongues. They claim that the Internet and computer code have unified the language of man, undoing God's punishment and thereby invoking God's judgment once more.
Meanwhile, demons have appeared within the circle, some from rampant COMPs whose users have probably been defeated or likely eaten by the demons they summoned and others from unknown means. Thankfully, the demons you and your friends summoned have become bound under contract to assist you, and with your new role as a demon tamer, you have the power not only to save the innocent and punish the wicked, if you so choose, but also to save yourselves... literally. In an allusion to the popular Japanese animation, Death Note, the leader of any group of COMPs - that includes you - can see a number above the heads of anyone in the group that gives an estimate of the number of days that person has left to live. Though the number has minimal impact on the gameplay other than giving you a clear indication of when the major boss fights will occur and that nearly everyone in the circle will die in seven days through some unforeseen event, it adds enough tension to the story to keep it engaging.
Where the story suffers is in some awkward choices that cheapen and diminish its effect. The focus on the events is extremely insular, disregarding the would-be chaos occurring outside the circle, especially by family and friends who suddenly have no way to reach their loved ones who are trapped inside. The economic, sociological, and political impact of a lockdown of an area that is as important as Manhattan is to New York City isn't fully expressed.
[image2]The vast majority of cut-scenes are told through dialogue sequences, none of which is voiced, with character portraits of a limited variety and heaps of scrolling text. Environments are likewise reduced to a blurry background and a description like "the place is lined with fancy shops", turning what is supposed to be a high-tech metropolis that can easily serve as a inspiration for the art direction into a bunch of words and still frames. Other than the grid-based maps for battles, there is no actual on-foot exploration whatsoever. Now, I'm all for reading well-crafted lines of dialogue and Devil Survivor has them in droves, but pictures are worth a thousand words for a reason.
Similar to other Shin Megami Tensei titles like Nocturne, the ending changes depending on what you think is the best solution to the lockdown, the appearance of demons, and the clashing of incompatible philosophies. Six endings are available, most of whose pathways will clearly present themselves on the sixth and seventh days, with your choice hinging on whether you wish to escape the lockdown or not, agree with the demons or the angels, and how sympathetic you are to the human race. Spread throughout the seven days, during events that take up a half-hour chunk of in-game time (that is, not a half-hour in real life), you have to answer questions in one of two ways that may impact the ending and the victory or loss conditions of an upcoming battle.
However, most of the choices thrown your way have about as much meaning as picking between purple and violet. They either lead to the same outcome or one of your party members covers the other choice, anyway - in other words, foldback schemes. And with only one save slot, you'll probably only reach one or two endings before putting the game to rest, despite being able to keep all your demons in New Game+.
[image3]But most players won't take much issue with the slightly flawed story, which has a better concept and better execution than those of most RPGs, and the hybrid battle system that combines grid-based strategy with traditional turn-based Dragon Quest-styled gameplay will satisfy any player's need for difficulty and innovation. Battles are played on a grid where teams of up to three members move around the board in a turn-based fashion, according to a queue that is shown at the top of the bottom screen. While on the grid, team members can use a host of abilities once per turn, notably healing spells and any special racial traits. Whenever two characters attack each other, they go into an up to three-on-three brawl for one turn and an extra turn for those team members that have high agility, land critical attacks, or exploit the enemy's resistances.
Getting extra turns and just performing well earns you a better Macca bonus after defeating enemies, which also nets the victorious team experience points. This reinforces the player's ability to work the battle system to their advantage, but it doesn't award that much more Macca and, anyway, the motivation for doing well mainly comes from not wanting to see your characters die. Macca, though, isn't spent purchasing items since there aren't any, unlike in other SMT titles; instead, they are spent hiring better demons in an auction site through your COMP. From there, you can fuse demons together to create better ones that share up to six of its parents abilities, three command abilities and three passive skills.
Human characters, though, don't gain skills through fusion, but by cracking skills from assigned demons in battle. If a character kills the demon, which you specify at the beginning of the battle, with the ability you want, that skill is cracked and can then be assigned to any human in the team menu selection screen. The only restriction is that a cracked skill can only be used by one person at a time, which doesn't make much sense, other than to make battles artificially more challenging by forcing characters to specialize in different areas of attacks and defense for any one battle, and not letting every character have access to awesome spells like Prayer (recover all of team's HP and ailments) and Megidoloan (large Almighty damage). Instead of snubbing the player with a restriction, the battles should just have been harder.
In fact, until New Game Plus, I didn't know that characters could choose freely from a roster of cracked skills. I thought that once a character cracked a skill, it was pretty much permanent on that character unless it was replaced with a new cracked skill, and that if a character left, all the cracked skills on that character disappeared into the virtual wasteland. I had a whole rant ready, complete with hard-hitting vitriol that would make Atlus send me exploding hate mails.
[image4]Even then, getting through the game still isn't terribly difficult, even though some victory conditions require that you protect people who love to get themselves killed. Sometimes, you'll just be unlucky. Aside from a little bit of trial and error, though, grinding is essentially all you need to complete each story mission and it's easy to do. Free battles don't take up any time, and exiting a battle (by being victorious or just retreating, which can be done at any time during any of your characters' turns) recovers all of your and your team's HP and MP. An equivalent of this would be getting a free Bead of Life (or Megalixir) after every fight, essentially making skill cracking much easier and removing the worry of running out of healing magic.
Without question, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is a solid reworking of the themes of the Shin Megami Tensei series on the handheld, yet has a spirit and style of its own. It gladly takes a more realistic approach to the apocalypse while introducing a grid-based system that doesn't clog the already polished SMT gameplay. If the story's scope, artwork, and music, which is mostly comprised of repetitive 20-second loops, were given more attention, Devil Survivor would have been as brilliant an outing as The World Ends With You, but as it stands, it's a great start for yet another branch for a quality RPG franchise.