If you're not a hardcore RPG fan, you might not be familiar with Shin Megami Tensei series of games. I suppose the best casual description would be to compare them to the Shadow Hearts games, only SMT predates that series by well over a decade. However, like Shadow Hearts, the SMT titles are focused on the occult, set in modern times, and have some fairly heavy thematic issues at work in the narrative.
What really sets the two series apart is SMT's reliance on capturing demons to aid you in battle. Offshoot titles like the Persona games were one part Pokemon-esque collectathons and one part extreme dungeon crawling. Unlike Pokemon, the demon collecting in Persona involved using conversational gambits to convince demons to join your cause. Choose the wrong ones and you wound up fighting.
Lastly, the games have always been renowned for their high level of difficulty. Unlike most RPGs, wherein any problematic encounter can be bested through some level grinding, SMT is more about strategy than the amount of experience you've accrued. Playing strengths to weaknesses is always the key to winning in SMT, and those who don't learn to strategize in this way will most likely never see the end of the first dungeon. These games are long, challenging, and full of weirdness...which is why a lot of RPG fans love them so much.
And now that we've gotten all that out of the way, let's take a look at Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army...that's a mouthful.
As far as SMT games go, Devil Summoner is a pretty radical departure from the norm. While previous games in the series have been turn-based affairs, Devil Summoner opts for a more action-RPG approach. I wasn't entirely convinced I was going to like this going into the game, but at the two hour mark, I can say that it's surprisingly effective. Would I have preferred turn-based? Sure...but I can live with this.
The story of the game finds players taking control of Raidou Kuzunoha, the 14th Devil Summoner. Devil Summoners are like these modern day warriors who can control demons and use their powers for good. Raidou lives in Japan in the 1930s and works at a detective agency. Naturally, he finds himself embroiled in an occult conspiracy and must use his powers to unravel the mystery of what's going on and why demons are threatening to cross over from the dark realm into the normal world.
The game is broken down into episodes. I'm not sure how many there are in total, but in two hours of gameplay I managed to finish the first one. During the course of the episode I fought several bosses, explored an area of the dark world, wandered through a dungeon. In short, there was a lot to do. The story is engaging thus far, and filled with quirky Japanese weirdness (you have a talking cat as your assistant, you work for a detective who calls girls "birds" like he's some sort of British hippy, and so on), but it's all pretty cool.
Graphically, the game isn't going to knock anyone's socks off. It's serviceable in the visual department (like most of the SMT games, it's not really about the graphics anyway), but mostly Raidou runs through a bunch of static pre-rendered backgrounds. Cutscenes are decent, although they often look hazy and there's very little in the way of texturing. I suppose this all adds to the quirky Japanese anime style, but I'd have liked a little more from the game's visuals.
Gameplay, which is the category with the biggest departure from the standard SMT game, is solid. Raidou will wander around an area and the screen will transition like a traditional random encounter, only the battle that ensues is more like a Tales game than Persona.
Raidou is armed with a sword and a pistol. The pistol can be loaded with elemental bullets. Choosing the right one (which is whatever the demon you're fighting is weak to) will cause the demon to become incapacitated for a few seconds. Hitting the enemy while incapacitated lands critical blows, making fights much faster and far more manageable.
Demons met in battle can be captured, provided they're the same level as Raidou or lower, and that there's not a full moon. When in battle, Raidou can summon a demon to aid him in combat. The demon fights on its own, but there are a list of commands that Raidou can issue that the demon will follow. Using the right demon is another way to exploit the enemy's weakness and kill them faster. Trust me when I tell you that doing this is essential. I actually died several times in the first two hours of the game as I tried to just muscle my way through things--and these weren't bosses, they were just random encounters. While the game mechanics might be different from the standard SMT game, this is still a challenging title and it will kick your ass if you're not paying attention.
Fighting causes Raidou and the demon he uses in battle to gain experience and level up. Stronger demons get more attacks and can learn combo moves they execute with Raidou. Using a demon in battle also increases their loyalty to the young Devil Summoner, meaning when they level up they'll occasionally give him gifts or heal allies, or things of that nature.
Naturally, these demons can also be used for other purposes. The Gouma Den allows players to tinker with their pets by fusing two together to make a third demon and some other things. This system looks almost dauntingly deep, but at the two hour mark I hadn't really had a reason to play around with it. From the looks of things, though, players will be spending a lot of time at the Gouma Den as the game progresses, experimenting to get demons with just the right sets of skills.
Finally, a bit about the sound. The music in SMT is sort of what you'd expect--some weird jazz that fits the mood of the early game events almost perfectly. My only complaint so far is that the game has had no voice acting whatsoever. I understand that these games thrive on their old school vibe, but no voice acting at all seems so antiquated in this day and age.
Honestly, if you're new to the whole Shin Megami Tensei scene, Devil Summoner makes a very solid entry point. It has all the trademarks of the series (a wild story, demon collecting, brutal combat, and dungeon crawling), but the more action-oriented battle system makes it a little less difficult than the turn-based titles in the series. Plus, it moves a bit faster than the traditional games (meaning it most likely won't take 100 hours to see the end credits. People I've talked to have said this one can be completed--sidequests and all--in around 30 hours).
The Final Verdict: Buy, Rent, or Skip
If you're at all into the SMT series, buying this is a no brainer. If you've never played an SMT game and have always been curious as to what they were like, then a rental may be the better way to go.
However, since I've been a long time fan of these games, this is a buy. It's quirky, it's hard as nails, and it's a refreshing break from the RPG norm (in that I'm not part of a band of kids with amnesia trying to save the medieval world). A lot can change from the two hour point of a game until the end credits, but at this point, I'm pleased with what Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army has to offer.