Whodunit? Who cares.
Besides having the longest title ever, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Raidou Kunzunoha vs. the Soulless Army is also the latest in the acclaimed Shin Megami Tensei series. This iteration sees some interesting changes to the formula, and fortunately the good outweighs the bad, even though nothing outweighs that honking title.
Set in an alternate universe version of 1920’s Japan, you’re a young man who’s just inherited the equally gigantic title of Raidou Kunzunoha the 14th, detective, tamer of demons, and finder of lost children, esquire, M.D. Through your job at the Narumi detective agency, you find the ‘Capital’ has recently been overrun with bad monsters and bad monster activities, so you set out across twelve episodes gumshoed and flat-footed to find the culprits.
You’ll spend your time collecting clues and following leads, which can alternate between interesting and bothersome, depending on the task at hand. For example, having to travel to the ‘Dark Realm’ of the other side of town to free someone from a cage is a worthy task, but having to go all the way back to a shop for the lock pick is pretty tedious.
Unfortunately, Devil Summoner is full of characters requiring one magical item in order to let you proceed, sometimes making you feel more like an errand boy than a super-sleuth. On top of that, where you need to be next isn’t always as clear as it could be, since the slew of locations and districts are all left in the original Japanese. There is sort of a world map, but it’s mostly a segmented maze drawn on top of the city. It’s as hard to unravel as your case.
But, as the title suggests, in the midst of all this running around, you’ll fight and befriend a large variety of demons. Combat is handled in real time, with Raidou using basic gun and sword attacks to vanquish foes alongside your chosen demon in a small, enclosed arena (think Radiata Stories
). Some demons can heal, others focus on damage, and using them correctly is the only way to collect more demons. Each one has some type of weakness, and exploiting this will stun the monster, leaving it vulnerable to critical strikes and subsequent capture, accomplished by hammering a button really fast. If you don’t happen to have the correct demon with you, you can substitute elemental bullets to weaken monsters, but it’s noticeably easier to have your little minions help.
Sometimes, though, the friendly AI is better left out of the equation. Raidou has a fairly easy time dodging or blocking attacks, but your demons have a hard time getting tactical unless you give them tedious direct commands via a menu screen. Combine that with a fixed combat camera that causes frustrating depth perception issues, and the battles quickly lose their charm. You can’t avoid them, either, because Devil Summoner uses a random encounter system.
Your demonic legions also lend a hand with your investigations, as most demons have an ability to gather information, like ‘read mind’ or ‘ignite’, which garner a different response than a simple chat. Some even have utility skills that allow them to fly over impassable areas or tell you what type of demons inhabit your current area. Since demons are invisible to most humans, you’ll also send the buggers off on their own to eavesdrop or scout an otherwise inaccessible area. It’s all worked into the writing pretty well, and makes you feel sneaky.
Speaking of that writing, although most names are in Japanese, the script itself has been wonderfully localized, spiced up well with humorous comments from your slew of demons and your would-be ladies’ man of a partner. It does a pretty good job of assuaging the tedium of errand-running, although some spots are still a drag.
One such grind is the Gouma-Den, a mad scientist’s lab where you can combine your demons to form more powerful ones. While it’s a cool idea, you can only work with demons you currently possess, and most of the time they need their ‘loyalty’ meter to be maxed out. While you can register a demon and re-summon them back into your ‘hand’, it costs an exorbitant amount of money, even for the weaklings. Another type of fusion allows you to infuse a demon with new powers by sacrificing another, but the chosen skill is both random and viewable before you commit, so to get what you want, expect to cue up a combination numerous times. It’s a neat system overall, just not without hang-ups.
Equally spotty is the graphical style of real-time models running around on static backgrounds. It allows the models to look smooth and animate well, but the fixed viewpoints can easily cause navigation issues, much like the battle camera. Most of the environments are typical city streets, which forces you to become good friends with the area map to get to where you need to be.
The Shin Megami series has always had interesting music, and the addition of jazzy big band tracks to the repertoire fit the atmosphere very well. The omission of voice-over during many scenes is noticeable and disappointing, but the loads of silly quotes spouted by your demons in the interim make up for it.
While not without flaws, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kunzunoha vs. the Soulless Army makes up for many of its technical foibles with superb writing and an interesting demon collection system. It’s probably not the opus of the series, but it’s a good enough case to warrant further investigation.