Friday, June 19, 2009

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon

Thus far, game discussion on this site has focused solely on Playstation 3 games. Alas, I do not yet have a Playstation 3, so I begin my game-reviweing tenure at Me and Matt on Media with a discussion of a recent PS2 game.

The other Matt often derides Japanese games for being needlessly retrograde, archaic, and generally behind the times. When one looks at the portrayal of Africans in Resident Evil 5 or the fourteen years Capcom went without updating a major character's graphics, my arguments for the continued vitality of Japanese game development start to look pretty weak. Role-playing games often suffer from this kind of stagnation; when Square-Enix announced that Dragon Quest IX would have an action-based battle system instead of the same battle system, more or less, that the original Dragon Quest had in 1986, fans protested so much that Square returned to the old battle system. At least they got rid of random battles - In most Dragon Quest games, you'll walk around an area until, without warning, you find yourself facing monsters on the battle screen. So they got rid of that old design crutch. After twenty-three years.

Given the state of Japanese game development and the bad tendencies of RPG developers, it’s somewhat surprising that some of the best and freshest games I’ve played in the past few years have belonged to one of the oldest and most popular Japanese RPG series, Shin Megami Tensei. I’ll summarize by saying that SMT games generally involve recruiting, summoning, and fusing various “devils” based off figures (not always malign) from various world myths, literatures, and religions. The interpretations of these characters are often a bit strange, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the infamous bondage Angels or the phallic Mara offended someone. And while I may claim that the Meagami Tensei games are fresh, the games often reuse assets, including 3D renders and artwork, from previous games in the series. The demon Leann Sidhe (Gaelic scholars will tell you "Sidhe" sounds something like "Sithi"), for example, has the same character model in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, and the subject of this review, the epically-named Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon.

Unlike most of the SMT games, the Devil Summoner games are action RPGs, meaning that the games mix skill- and reflex-based gameplay elements with more some more leisurely-paced business involving strategy and screens full of Important Numbers. The RPG genre isn't for everyone, and an RPG is much more fun to play than to watch. A "girlfriend game" Devil Summoner 2 is not.

The first Devil Summoner game, Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army, was apparently fairly mediocre, despite the fact that it involved using demons to fight a robotic, time-traveling version of the Russian monk Rasputin in early-twentieth-century Japan. The plot also involves rocketing a talking cat into outer space to destroy a satellite that controls a Soulless God. Doubtless it all makes sense if you play the game. Devil Summoner 2 doesn’t assume you’ve played the first game, which was neither a critical nor a popular success. The plot of King Abbadon is less baroque than Soulless Army’s, but it still has its share of bizarre moments. Once again you play as the devil-summoning detective Raidou Kuzunoha, who wanders about nineteen-twenties’ Tokyo solving supernatural crimes. Though there are scenes of deduction and investigation, this game isn’t really about solving a mystery. It’s about hitting things with swords and magic, not establishing who shot whom in the dining room.

Though Raidou is a silent protagonist, other characters are often overly talkative – There are several plot-recapping “Investigative Meeting” scenes that are quite frustrating, as Our Hero’s companions seem to assume he has zero long-term memory. I was surprised to find that Devil Summoner 2 has no voice acting; it’s been years since I’ve played a console RPG without it. The cutscenes aren’t terribly attractive either; this was not a big-budget game.

Devil Summoner 2, unlike the last two Persona games, includes random battles. Normally I would spend whole paragraphs complaining about this antiquated design choice, this crime against responsible game design, but they actually work well here. The battles load quickly and the “battlefield” you fight in has more room to maneuver in than the areas you explore. I still don’t believe random battles are ideal for any game, but they work well enough here. If anything, the battlefield is too big – the player doesn’t control the battle camera, and your enemies (and allies) will often be off the screen. Still, it's not too much of a problem. For one thing, the game isn't terribly hard, so one doesn't need to always have a perfect grasp of everything happening around Raidou...

The game’s battle system is fairly simple – Raidou can shoot a gun, perform strong or weak sword attacks, use items, block, and roll. The variety in combat comes from your demon allies. You can have two demons “out” and fighting with you at any given time, but there are 158 demons in the game, though you cannot gain all of them in a single playthrough. I would say that the demon acquisition methods are unique, but they’re actually fairly typical for a Megami Tensei game. You can either negotiate with the demons you encounter in battle – almost everything outside of boss fights is recruitable – or fuse two of your older demons together to create something new. While one could theoretically beat the game without fusion, many of the strongest demons are available only to cunning fusers. Plus, fused demons gain skills from their “parent” demons – With a little skill, you can create demons much more powerful and useful than the ones you might find in the “wild.”

I haven’t touched on every aspect of Devil Summoner 2 – I find few things more tedious than the sort of exhaustive, multi-page review IGN specializes in. I’ve barely discussed the plot, nor have I described the wide variety of side quests in the game. Devil Summoner 2 may not be the greatest game ever made, but it’s worth your time if you have an interest in the Action RPG genre. It’s fun, somewhat addictive, and decently long – over twenty hours provided you don’t rush through the game.

While Devil Summoner 2 is a very good game, I’d recommend that anyone who wants to try Shin Megami Tensei and doesn’t mind a turn-based battle system try Persona 3: FES. A reissue with added content, FES is one of the best games on the Playstation 2. It features a long and compelling story (with voice acting), a deep and fast-paced battle system, and great art design. Unlike Devil Summoner 2, FES is an extremely polished game. While it may not have the mass appeal of a GTA, a Metal Gear, or even a Final Fantasy, I think there’s a case to be made that Persona 3: FES is the best game on the PS2.

Because American gamers have no taste, FES did not sell as well as it should have. It’s currently available for $15 on Gamestop clearance. It’s a wonderful game, even if it doesn’t have Rasputin or cats in space. It does have a knife-wielding dog though, and that's something.

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