HIGH A very faithful Shin Megami Tensei experience in a teeny package.
LOW Lacking the typically-excellent and usually-plentiful Atlus voice work.
WTF The AI gets another turn... why, again?
Another entry into the long-running and highly-respected Shin Megami Tensei series, Devil Survivor from Atlus brings the same kind of quality fans expect, condensed down into a much smaller package—the only real difference? Instead of being the expected role-playing game like its predecessors, the developers took a left turn into new territory and crafted a uniquely hybrid strategy RPG instead.
Set in an alternate version of Tokyo, the game begins by locking down the entire city after a mysterious incident. No one can leave, no one can enter, and within its confines, strange things are happening. Soon after events are set into motion, the game's protagonist realizes that magical numbers appearing above peoples' heads represent how many days they have left to live, and the quest to prevent those numbers from reaching zero begins. It's an interesting premise that might remind some of the recent Square-Enix DS title The World Ends With You but I daresay that Atlus's take is superior. Not only are the characters better-written and more likable, the mechanics of play are more satisfyingly cerebral and deeper, despite being a rather substantial break from the norms of both Shin Megami Tensei and SRPGs.
For example, although the player's party is visually represented as the usual gathering of young people, in battle, each character actually employs three distinct units—that character beside two demons. Doing the math, a group of four story characters actually means that the player will be managing at least twelve different active entities per battle, with the option to switch others in and out as the need arises. Having these micro-parties was something unexpected, but it works quite well.
Besides that new twist, the combat system itself is fairly unconventional as well. A hybrid of standard SRPG grid-based play and traditional first-person turn-taking (similar to Dragon Warrior or Phantasy Star) positioning each character on the board is still important, although the affinity-based system familiar to Atlus fans is also in full effect.
Hitting fire monsters with ice spells (and similar strategies) are the keys to victory, and players hoping to go the distance will have to realize that the game can't be played the same way that others like it are. All aspects of its design must be given equal consideration, and more than the usual amount of time will be spent before each battle making sure that each character's team is the best it can be. It's certainly a complex system, but there's no denying that the developers gave it the same sort of care and attention that would be found in any of the Persona or Shin Megami Tensei games. It seems almost absurd to say, but the quality of these games is so high that their "standard" is easily a couple notches better than a lot of the competition's best.
Although there is much to recommend Devil Survivor to players looking for the trademark Atlus experience on-the-go, it must be noted that the difficulty curve rises fairly quickly. Perhaps a little too quickly. It's true that the game cuts players a break in many areas (it's not too difficult to collect needed demons, and the way skills are inherited during stat-enhancing demon-fusing is quite lenient) but I ran into more than a few instances where the only real way for me to progress was to grind a few levels until my characters were tough enough to survive. I appreciate that the developers made sure that optional battles are constantly available for just such occasions, but I would've appreciated it even more if the grinding wasn't necessary in the first place.
Besides that issue, I noticed the game's AI sometimes cheated when it came to taking extra turns. Similar to the Press Turn system seen in other Shin Megami Tensei titles, extra goes are granted when a player (or the enemy) takes advantage of elemental weaknesses in the enemy. However, I witnessed multiple occasions when the AI was granted extra turns despite not doing anything to earn them. It's not game-breaking and not a major problem, but it did make me feel as though the combat system wasn't nailed down quite as tightly as it could've been. In a game of this sort, everything needs to be predictable and explicit. This element of randomness was quite unnerving.
Despite those minor rough patches, it's not hard to recommend Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor to anyone looking for an above-average SRPG experience, especially on the DS. The writing is strong, its unconventional take on the standard SRPG formula shows creativity, and there's just no denying the fact that this series keeps putting out top-quality game after top-quality game. Anyone looking to sink a few hours into their DS with a game that's actually worthy need look no further.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the DS. Approximately 18 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed at the time the review was written. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains fantasy violence, language, partial nudity and mild blood. Although this particular game has been rated appropriate for Teens, be aware that the series this game is related to is usually slanted more towards adults. That said, in the eighteen hours I spent with the game I didn't find anything particularly objectionable, and certainly nothing more explicit or offensive than what you would see on prime-time television. Keep the young ones away (it's probably too hard for them, anyway) but most older teens should be quite all right.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You will have no problems. All dialogue in the game is presented through text, and because it's turn-based (and also on a handheld) audio cues are a non-issue. It's totally accessible for anyone.