The original Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor - a game in the grand tradition of titles cleverly acronym'd to reference Nintendo's dual-screened handheld - represented a new take on Atlus' long-running Shin Megami Tensei games, combining the series' modern setting and demon-taming mechanics with tactical, strategy-RPG gameplay. It was, in a sense, the original 'SMT x Fire Emblem'. That game was brought to the 3DS as an enhanced port in Devil Survivor Overclocked, and now Atlus has given the same treatment to its stellar sequel with Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker. We're very happy for this apocalyptic adventure to have another day in the sun - Devil Summoner 2 is a deep, endlessly stylish experience that's well worth playing for any SMT or SRPG fan.
Taking place in modern-day Japan, Devil Survivor 2 opens with the high school student protagonist and his friends taking part in the latest schoolyard trend: signing up to a mysterious website called 'Nicaea', a self-proclaimed "dead face delivery site" which promises to create fake 'death videos' showing friends being killed. As you might expect, things don't go as smoothly as planned; the videos quickly turn from pranks to predictions, and the students find themselves caught up in a demon-fuelled disaster devouring Tokyo, Japan, and possibly the world. Networks are down and communication is erratic, but a Nicaea-branded app that lets users summon and control demons installs itself on our heroes' cell phones, and they set out to use their new power to try and save all of humanity. Add in a steady stream of new friends, foes, and entanglements with a shadowy organization whose position on the moral spectrum isn't quite clear, and you're in for a wild ride as you race to save the world.
The absorbing, fast-paced narrative is one of Devil Survivor 2's best assets, and though it's certainly dark (and occasionally disturbing), it tempers its sense of impending global dread with lots of lighthearted moments of everyday friendship. It's also full of surprises; with a large cast of characters and plenty of plot twists and moral choices to make, there's always something exciting to keep you playing and guessing right to the end.
Devil Survivor 2 unfolds through the menu-based hub of the protagonist's cell phone, where you can choose between several different activities at any given moment, including Battles, Free Battles and Events. Battles and Events both take up 30 minutes of in-game time apiece, and you'll want to keep a constant eye on the clock - you've got seven days to save the world, and there won't be time to do and see everything, so you'll have to prioritize as you go. Free Battles offer the chance to grab some experience and Macca - the demon summoning currency of choice - without committing to the clock, but they're the exception rather than the rule. The time limits give everything an infectious sense of urgency - never more so than when you receive a new death video from Nicaea, and planning out the day suddenly becomes a matter of life and death.
Story Events play out through fully-voiced talking heads cutscenes on the bottom screen, with frequent dialogue choices that affect both your relationships and the outcome of the story. The localization is top-notch, and though archetypes abound, the characters are all likeable and well-drawn - even the protagonist has personality, with some of the cheekiest (optional) dialogue choices in MegaTen MC memory.
On the battlefield, Devil Summoner 2 turns into a grid-based, tactical affair, where you'll lead up to four teams - each composed of a human leader and two demons apiece - over isometric maps to complete your missions. Engaging an enemy team shifts the perspective to a first-person view for three-on-three bouts of traditional turn-based combat. While within these battles the game plays quite closely to Shin Megami Tensei IV - you'll have physical attacks, stronger techniques that use HP, and magical skills that drain MP at your disposal - overall, it feels more like Fire Emblem running wild on the streets of Shibuya, with an SRPG frame that's put to great use in making each mission a deeply strategic fight.
You can move, attack or use skills once each per turn, though not all actions are created equal; the more you do in a turn, the longer you'll have to wait for your next go. The unique features of each map have a huge impact on how you play as well, from escape panels and choke points to terrain that changes as you progress. Missions can last anywhere from a few minutes to the better part of an hour, and they're not limited to simple battles royal either - depending on the victory conditions at hand, you'll have to defend territory, escort civilians and protect fellow summoners, try to talk down aggressors, or reach key points of the map before your foes.
The individual skirmishes you'll fight along the way are more straightforward, but even here there's plenty of strategy to play with, particularly in the hunt for Extra Turns. Like Shin Megami Tensei IV's Press-Turn system or Persona's 'One More' mechanic, the transparently-named Extra Turn setup grants an additional action based on agility, hitting weaknesses, landing critical hits, and using certain skills. Of course, enemies can take advantage of Extra Turns as well, so making sure your party's elemental affinities play to your foes' strengths and weaknesses is a big part of putting a team together.
To do that, you'll need a lot of demons, and that's where the Demon Auction comes in. A bit like eBay for exorcists, the Demon Auction lets you bid against up to three other demon tamers for the services of some of the land's finest demons. Once the clock starts ticking, you'll have just a few seconds to input your bid, read the mood indicators to give you an idea of how high or low other bidders are likely to go, and decide on your final price before the hammer drops. When the dust settles the highest bidder wins. It's a fun mechanic that lies somewhere in-between the skill-based demon negotiation of mainline SMT titles and the randomized demon drops of Persona 3 and 4, and while we were routinely overpaying for demons in the beginning, cutting it close and squeaking out wins by a few Macca became a dependable thrill as we improved. Special promotions, multiple tiers of auctions, VIP listings, and a pricey (but reliable) 'buy-it-now' feature round out the auction house as your one-stop shop for paranormal purchases.
After the Demon Auction app and a quick trigger-finger, your best resource for acquiring new demons is the ones you've already got - once you've assembled a decent collection, you can set to synthesizing new ones with Demon Fusion. A complex web of fusion rules lets you combine your stock into more powerful monsters, and new creations can inherit skills from their ancestors, making it surprisingly easy to lose literal hours to fine-tuned demon crafting. It helps that the demons themselves are so varied and interesting; while it's simple enough to keep fusing for the highest level demon you can find, we had a lot of fun trying to make the more appealing - but potentially less powerful - monsters into fearsome fighters through careful fusion. And no matter your preferences in demon design, you'll find plenty to love here - the monster menagerie includes all the usual suspects from the Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series, so you'll find gods and goddesses from a myriad of traditions, mythological figures from around the world, and creatures of all kinds all popping out of your cell phone before long.
In stark contrast to these talented demons, the humans in your party won't start with any skills of their own. Instead of learning skills as you level up, or inheriting them from your demons as in Shin Megami Tensei IV, here you'll expand your repertoire through Skill Cracking. Before a battle begins, you can pick one skill for each character to 'Crack' by targeting an enemy with that skill - if the character you've picked defeats that enemy, you'll unlock that skill in a collective bank, and can assign it to anyone in the party. The catch is that Skill Cracking is a very specific art; if there are four Lilims on the field, each with the charm spell 'Sexy Gaze', you'll have to make sure to take out the exact one you targeted if you want the skill - fortunately, there's a handy reminder of your set Skill Cracks visible on the top screen. Skill Cracking is a great mechanic that adds another layer to the battle strategy; how you set your Skill Cracks can drastically change the way you approach enemies, position your teams, and prioritize during a mission. It's also makes earning your skills incredibly satisfying; Skill Crack skirmishes can be hard fought, and we still remember the demons we wrested some of our more useful skills from.
Of course, it's not all Skill Cracking and demon slaying - in the apocalyptic world of Devil Survivor 2, it's important to make time for friends, and that's where Fate comes in. Like the Social Links of Persona 3 and 4, the Fate system keeps a record of the bonds you form with your party members, which increase as you spend time together, choose certain dialogue options, and witness story events. Higher Fate Ranks bring new bonuses for that character, from improved resistances and stat boosts to new demons and the ability to team up with the protagonist for Skill Cracks. As with Persona's Social Links, Fate Ranks represent a smart synergy of story and gameplay; friendship and trust can literally make or break your battles, and since you'll need to choose which events to do within the time constraints given - it's nearly impossible to max out everyone's Fate levels on a single playthrough without a guide - managing your in-game social schedule is a big part of the fun.
The battle bonuses you'll earn from these Fate Ranks will be very welcome, too; carrying its SMT pedigree with pride, Devil Survivor 2 is a tough game. Part of the challenge comes from the battles themselves - even early on, enemies dish out lots of damage and can sponge up your attacks, so preying on elemental weaknesses is key. You can switch between two difficulty levels - 'Blessed' and 'Apocalyptic' - at any time, though a good deal of the difficulty comes not from demons, but from fluid mission objectives that can make it hard to plan ahead as effectively as you might like. Early on we fought a battle where we'd exhausted all our resources making it to the promised escape point, only to have the victory conditions change when an unexpected boss popped up to block the way. Changing objectives keep things exciting, to be sure, but it also introduces a potentially frustrating element of trial-and-error; it's difficult to know ahead of time when you can go all-out and when you'll need to hold back to prepare for a long fight, and with no items to help with MP recovery, it's much harder to come back from the brink.
And while the battles are certainly demanding, the toughest part of the game might just be time management. Devil Survivor 2 is a constant balancing act, and you'll want to see and do as much as you can, but you'll have to pay close attention to events to stay on top of it all. If a party member's set to meet their demise at 14:00, for instance, you'll have to keep an eye on the clock yourself; there's no blinking indicator to remind you to save them, and if you show up late, they're very likely to bite the perma-dust. Thankfully, while switching to 'Blessed' won't help you with scheduling, multiple save files will - there are five slots open for recording your progress, so it's easy to set up save-game safety nets if you're so inclined.
Most importantly, no matter how many times you lose a battle, miss an event, or save-scum your way out of oblivion, Devil Survivor 2 is always enjoyable. The battles are exciting and dynamic, the characters are memorable and endearing, and the story is thrilling to the last. But if you played the DS original back in 2012, you'll already know all that - so what's worth checking out in this Record Breaker re-release?
The headlining feature here is an all new scenario taking place after the events of the main game, in which you'll have three days to take on a new enemy, the 'Triangulum'. It's a substantive slice of story and gameplay - a full-length adventure in and of itself - and a real treat for players looking to spend a bit more time with their old friends. Without spoiling anything, there are plenty of fan-pleasing moments and variations on previous themes, and it feels like playing a satisfying 'part two' of the original game - the writing is just as clever, the battles are just as fun, and the new conflict and character fit in perfectly with the previous world. The Triangulum half of the game is also accessible right from the start, so you won't have to replay the game to jump right in, and if it's been a while since you last finished off the Septentriones, there's a recap to bring you back to speed.
New content isn't the only thing added for Devil Survivor 2's 3DS début. The translation's had a touch-up, every event is now both fully voiced and skippable (excellent for replays and reloading save files), and there's a suite of connectivity features that take advantage of the new hardware, with StreetPass functionality giving your demons random stat boosts and skills, and new demons and skills planned for distribution over SpotPass.
Elsewhere, Record Breaker's DS origins are more transparent, particularly in its steadfast focus on the bottom screen. Battles, story events and cutscenes all unfold on the tinier touchscreen, and miss out on both real estate and the 3D effect as a result. The arrangement made perfect sense on the original console, but there's a reason 3DS games tend to keep your attention up top; here the larger, stereoscopically-enhanced screen is more or less wasted on stat displays, maps, and secondary menus. It doesn't make the game any less fun, and you do get used to it as you play, but it still seems like a missed opportunity; the recent eShop update of Inazuma Eleven smartly swapped its screen focus in the transition to the 3DS, and felt like a much more significant upgrade as a result.
Bottom-screen bias aside, however, Devil Survivor 2 is a beautifully presented game that coats its DS-era graphics in a slick, cerulean-shaded style. The modern Shin Megami Tensei aesthetic looks great from the isometric viewpoint, the Fire Emblem: Awakening-style sprites are cute and surprisingly expressive, and the character portraits and demon designs are excellent. There are also plenty of subtle references to other Shin Megami Tensei titles - particularly Soul Hackers - from the protagonist's GUMP-like cell phone to Finnegan, Six, and Carol J showing up as bidders in Demon Auctions.
The interface is impressive as well; from one-off set pieces like signing up for Nicaea to the app-style Demon Auctions and in-game email, there's a brilliant attention to detail that makes it feel like you're really running the show from your mobile. Admittedly, the list-based area selection misses out on immersion compared to other MegaTen movement methods; some sort of free-roam - even if only as an on-map marker - would make the world feel much more cohesive, but in its absence the story scenes do a good job setting up environmental context between battles.
The main soundtrack, composed by Kenji Ito, takes after mainline MegaTen more than Persona, with futuristic techno, fast-paced electric guitar riffs, and pensive piano all given equal time to shine. The massively catchy main menu music sounds straight out of Soul Hackers, with its electronic loops and gently falling synth stings, but the backing track in battle is less memorable - it's pleasant enough that it can repeat for long stretches without grating, but in a series known for bold battle themes, it's disappointingly generic-sounding. SMT-standard sound effects provide an audio link to the rest of the franchise, and the voice acting is expressive and very well done, up to Atlus' usually high standards and adding a ton of personality to the proceedings.
With fun, strategic battles, a roller-coaster narrative that never lets up, and a fantastic sense of upbeat, apocalyptic style, Devil Survivor 2 is a full-on blast from start to finish. If you missed out on the original release, you're in for a treat, and if you've already played the DS cart to death the Triangulum scenario adds another immediately accessible full-length adventure to the experience - more than enough reason to return. Whether you're a longtime MegaTen fan or just enjoy deep, strategic RPGs, you'll have a great time with Record Breaker, so summon up your courage and sign in to Nicaea; you won't regret it.