Monday, August 16, 2010

PS2 Look - Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2

Before I go any further I must point out that I did not finish this game. Here the line is drawn because what it comes down to is one question: "Is it me or the game that is at fault?". Unfortunately there are potentially limitless factors as to why I can not continue with a game. Maybe it's a problem with the game where it's too poorly designed or just outright boring, or in my case it's the hundreds of millions of things that could happen -- like death for example, and no I'm not posting this review from beyond the grave -- which would cause me to quit playing.

To start with let's look at the game itself. Devil Summoner 2 follows Raidou, a Devil Summoner who always gets called when demons become involved in matters of the world. He's the silent-type however so an ally in the form of a black cat named Gouto does all of the talking. They work with a detective agency headed by a guy named Narumi. The story involves a mysterious woman, cults, ancient villages on the outskirts, and predictably a lot of things go very wrong. It's up to the player to make things right...or not? As with other games in the SMT franchises, decisions the player makes can shift their allegiance to Good, Neutral, or Evil which affects the ending.

A common theme with the Shin Megami Tensei series is that there are a great many demons and that the player will interact with them in ways that don't involve killing them outright. In Nocturne for example these demons could be recruited to join the player's party and assist in battle. The Persona series has demons giving their cards in order to create Personas, which are the backbone of each party member's ability. For Devil Summoner 2 the system is closer to Nocturne as the player must negotiate with demons to recruit them, so they can offer their services in both battle, exploration, and even investigation.

The world of Devil Summoner is set in the 1920s where apparently all women were called dames, running around aimlessly can waste shoe leather, and it's generally pretty excusable to be suspicious about every little thing. To find out information the player can talk to townspeople and even use demons for arts of persuasion as well as mind-reading. These demons can also be used to blow up special walls, turn the player into different characters, and all matter of other fun things. Each class of demon has their own abilities so it's important to keep a wide variety of them on hand to figure out every little puzzle.

Where there isn't mystery there's likely to be combat. Devil Summoner 2 features actual real-time combat similar to..well.. okay it's not Bayonetta but it's serviceable and quite fun. Raidou is equipped with a sword and a gun as well as the ability to block and perform dodge rolls. Both weapons are pretty self-explanatory but on their own it just isn't enough. The key strategy is in the demons that the player summons. These demons work on their own attacking and using a predetermined skill (if one is set) or the player can issue commands for them to perform. There's only so much MP to go around however and if it's empty the player is all but helpless in battle.

To counter this the player must use these skills to attack the enemy's weakness. This other trademark of the SMT series emphasizes abusing enemy weaknesses to dominate the battle while avoiding the possibility of the enemy responding in kind. When an enemy is weak they are stunned and give up a ton of MP when hit with a physical attack. At this rate the player can continue to expend MP as they replenish it almost instantly. Not everything is weak to something however so it's not as easy as it sounds. In order to survive the player must rely on their natural action-game skills, learn enemy movements, and work with whatever situation they're put into. There are a number of interesting aspects that give the combat in this game a unique quality. As mentioned earlier it's quite possible for the player's demons to have weaknesses. The trick here is that the player can "hide" their demons from battle and only bring them out to use skills. The enemy can't exploit the weaknesses of those they can't touch so with some clever maneuvering the player can cover all fields and the only way they can fail is if their demons aren't up to the task and they just can't work around the active-style of play . Though seriously if you can pick up something as simple as Secret of Mana this is hardly a jump in terms of intensity, everything does hit much harder though. The battle system is easily the best part of this game which is good because in dungeons random encounters are very constant.

The third facet of this game is in demon-building. It's not enough to merely recruit a demon and have it gain some levels. The art of demon-fusion is imperative to success as it allows the player to build much stronger demons than any they may find wandering around. By building loyalty through battle the demons unlock special skills and through some unique techniques and maybe the light of the moon some ridiculously powerful abilities can be unlocked. It's tough work and can become a grind but it is definitely the most addictive aspect of the game as there are over a hundred demons to team up with.

That's about the extent of the game really. There's the story to follow and all but the pattern usually goes something like a mix of investigation and exploration, then it transitions into a mix of exploration, fighting, and fusion. Still it's great at what it does though ultimately it falls on me to explain why I don't consider it worth finishing. Now first off let me say that I put quite a bit of effort into this game as I'm somewhere around half-way through it with over thirty hours logged. All I can really say is that I just couldn't get into the story or characters. They all have their motives which are handled well and expressed clearly but there's nothing there that makes me want to say "Okay I have to protect him!" or "I have to stop her!". I'm just sort of along for the ride and waiting for the next dungeon to enter so I can look forward to fighting and putting some new demons to work.

There's another aspect of this game that tests my patience and it's luck. One of the elements of the story involves luck and this stat affects the player in a number of ways. The unlucky tend to take a lot of unavoidable damage, never receive any cool bonuses, and generally just get pushed around a lot. Luck is gained through building up the stat through levels as well as capturing luck locusts (which require cages and the appropriate bait). Luck is constantly lost however as sometimes the enemy will get the first strike and there's a chance they'll knock a huge chunk of luck away (as well as break the luck-filled cages). In essence I'm being punished for fighting. It's one of the aspects I enjoy the most out of the game and yet after a certain point I have to seek out a healer just because it gets so frustrating losing 3/4ths of my health every time the enemy gets a first strike (which is entirely too often).

To further add to the annoyance factor some enemies will chance a surrender if the fight isn't going their way. Unfortunately this usually turns into the enemy getting some free damage because whether I let them go or continue fighting is irrelevant as they'll call me an idiot either way and score a free hit. These decisions actually extend to the negotiation process as well since whatever answers I come up with seem to be based more on how lucky I am than my ability to say the right thing. At least there's a way around that since demons have their own conversation abilities that make the process trivial for the most part. Still every time I start up the game I can expect to lose all of my luck and eventually become frustrated with even the most random of battles.

Ultimately the biggest strike against this game is that I have the freedom to play something that offers constant rewards for my good luck. This is perhaps the biggest argument that can be made when a game has little more to compel me to play than the promise of better stuff. The seemingly petty issues involving luck suddenly become so much more when there's really nothing else to look forward to. As good as the battle system is it rarely reaches levels that actually take real advantage of it or at least enough to balance the ratio of the easy random encounters. Even the demon-recruitment loses its appeal when so many of the demons share the same qualities, skills, and even voices and mannerisms. It's an incredibly minor thing but the stat-limits on demons means that I can't be Raidou the Devil Summoning Pimp and only be backed by the finest demonic-ass. I guess I could actually but I'd be at a serious disadvantage to Raidou, the Devil Summoner who only rolls with Lucifer and God. To further add to the limiting aspects while the sword can be forged to become more powerful there's nothing in the way of different types of weapons aside from possibly a different special attack or some additional skills. Again it's a minor thing but when I can look to another game that scratches that particular itch why continue?

So in the end Devil Summoner 2 really isn't bad at all and while it catered to my interests and taste for awhile it did little to keep me playing in lieu of other games which better at appealing to the sort of things I get into when playing a game. Fans of the first game obviously shouldn't miss this and SMT fans in general will find a lot to like here. So I guess all I can really say here is that isn't the game, it's me.

Game Rating - 3.5 out of 5 stars
There isn't much if any flaws as far as I can tell. Then again I only got so far so maybe there's something further on that truly sets the game on another level or throws out a twist or game design aspect that's so terrible it completely ruins the game. So I guess the best I can do is play it safe.

My Rating - 2.5 out of 5 stars
Yeah I really can't say I loved this game. I appreciate what it brings to the table and all but it's probably something I could have just as easily ignored this one entirely and been pretty well off. At least I'd have had some additional hours to play other games. While I don't believe directly comparing one game to another does either game any favors comparing one game to something nebulous like "other games" seems suitable, at least in regards to this game. Maybe it was just bad luck that this game got into the hands of the wrong person.

Well at least I got a pretty sweet plushie. I'll definitely be holding onto it.

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