Friday, September 5, 2014

Impressions #13: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha Vs. King Abaddon

As many of the people who know me are aware, I am what one might consider to be an “ATLUS-faithful”. ATLUS is one of my favorite developers because of how they shamelessly stick to the things that make old-school JRPGs charming, while reinventing the other aspects as they see fit. I make no secret of the fact that Persona 4 is in close competition as one of my all-time favorite games (following behind Dark Cloud 2 and Wild Arms 3). Having said that, there are still many Shin Megami Tensei games that I have never played before. As a result, I have been trying to “catch up” on the games that I missed. This process is started by the game I will be talking about in this post: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha Vs. King Abaddon (RK2). This is the direct sequel to Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha Vs. The Soulless Army, a game I played a long time ago, back when it was released on the PS2. The game, and its predecessor, are unique for not only how they continue on the traditions of the SMT franchise, but also in how they defy other such traditions.

One of the biggest differences between RK2 and other SMT games is the difference in the overall tone. Shin Megami Tensei games tend to have very dark outlooks of the world and the themes they use. Devil Summoner is different in this regard. Instead of conforming to the bleakness of the franchise, the overall tone falls more into the realm of camp. It feels more at home being compared to an anime from the 70s than it does an SMT story. The premise of the game alone, being that a shadowy group of hillbilly ninjas is threatening the Capital of Japan by using specialized insects to steal people's luck and the player acts as a demon summoner/detective who is on the case, is a prime example of this. The game is fully aware of how absurd it is, and reveals in that absurdity.
The setting bolsters this uniqueness, taking place in 1930s-Japan. Very few games actually use this era in Japanese history as their backdrop, which makes Devil Summoner 2 even more interesting. Most SMT games take place in either the modern world or in a post-apocalyptic near-future, and most JRPGs take place in a classic fantasy. With this period, RK2 provides an interesting glimpse into Japanese history, when looking at how people interact with each other and the world around them. Not to say that it is completely historically accurate, as I sincerely doubt 1930s-Japan was plagued by demons and evil insects that steal luck. However, the fact that it takes advantage of an underused setting gives the Raidou Kuzunoha sub-franchise a look and feel all its own.
Another difference between RK2 and most other SMT games is the combat. Where most Shin Megami Tensei games are turn-based in their combat, Devil Summoner 2, like its predecessor, takes place in real time. Bringing two demons in battle, the protagonist comes equipped with a sword and gun. He can command his demons to use their skills, which consume his magical energies. If their attacks exploit a weakness, the enemy will be stunned. Further attacks on a foe in a stunned state will result in them releasing magical energy. In other words, if the player keeps exploiting weaknesses, they can use skills almost infinitely. The player can also guard attacks to reduce damage and hide demons from attacks to keep them alive. It is fairly intuitive system that never gets particularly difficult. As a consequence, there is no challenge to it. Once the player is aware of a enemies weakness, it is simply a matter of using the correct moves and then mashing the attack button. While it works, it is only interesting enough to keep players progressing through the story, which is the clear highlight.

Having said all of that, the game is still a Shin Megami Tensei game at its core. As is typical of games bearing that distinction, enlisting and summon mythical creatures from various religions and mythologies (SMT throws them all under the blanket term “demons”) to aid the protagonist. During a random encounter, players can choose to halt the battle in order to talk to the demons that they are fighting against. If the conversation goes well, they can begin negotiations with their enemy. When the player acquiesces to the demands set forth by the other party, they will join up with the protagonist and become part of the player party. New demons can also be acquired by fusing other demons in their employ. Should they register their creatures before they either fuse or dismiss them from service, then they can even pay to have them added back into the roster, with the stats they possessed at the time of registration.
These demons also serve as they way players progress through the game. Of course, their primary purpose is to help form the player's fighting party. Every demon has their own strengths and weaknesses. It is up to the player to switch in/out the ones which are best suited to the current situation. For example, a demon who excels at fire magic will generally be strong against demons with wings, but not against those with ice magic. However, this is not their only purpose mid-battle. Should the player choose to begin conversation and negotiation, their demons can help assist in the conversation. Each one has their own conversational skill, and those skills have different effects on different demons. Lastly, they are also used during exploration, as their abilities can either destroy certain obstacles in the field or get to locations the protagonist is unable to go to themselves. When playing the game, the player needs to consider all three avenues of usefulness when constructing their party. In some cases, it might be a good idea to keep a very low-level demon because they possess abilities, either in negotiations or in the field, which make them useful. The system is very interesting and requires a lot of thought from the player.

Although the monsters are clearly the star of the show most of the time, the protagonist is no less important. In classic SMT fashion, the player character is a bit of a blank slate, with a set backstory to help facilitate immersion in the story. The character in question is a high school student (although that fact rarely ever comes up) who has been training his whole life to live as a Devil Summoner. Though the player gives him a true name, he has attained the rank and title of Great Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha the XIVth, tasked with protecting the Capital from demonic and supernatural threats. As a cover, he works part-time at a detective agency, to give him a plausible reason to conduct his investigations into these threats.
What makes him a particularly intriging protagonist, and fairly in line with what players expect from a Shin Megami Tensei game, is that while his actions in the game plot do not change, the player is ultimately who decides what his motivations are. Throughout the game, players make dialog choices for the lead character. As these decisions are made, the game adjusts the protagonists alignment on a scale of Law and Chaos. No matter what, he is a good person trying to help the people. The real choice is between why he does it. Does he do what he does simply because he has accepted the responsibility of being Raidou Kuzunoha and all that title entails? Or is he simply using the mantel as a means to protect the people because that is what his true desire are, ready to abandon the role if it no longer suited that purpose? Or does the answer lie somewhere in the middle? The game does not judge either side of Law or Chaos particularly harshly, and shows the positives and negatives of both types of virtuousness. The characters who represent Law and Chaos in the narrative are readily aware of the advantages of the other side and the flaws they possess. It never feels heavy handed and is actually quite maturely handled.

Overall, while Devil Summoner 2 has flaws, it is a unique and interesting enough game that it feels like a breath of fresh air. I enjoyed it for most of my playthrough, only getting annoyed at the length of the final dungeon. For the price you get it on the PlayStation Network now, I would say it is easily worth the investment. Though it is different from standard SMT games in many ways, it used the more familiar elements to make franchise fans feel just as at home as they would be in other games. Newcomers to the franchise are best served by playing either this, its predecessor, or Persona 3/4 because they are by far more friendly to new players than other games in the franchise are. After that, they might want to consider jumping off into the more difficult ATLUS games.

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