Podcast weekend

Devil Survivor: JRPG defibrillator


We who complain about modern JRPGs have a long list of grievances. We remember the days when games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII defined the cutting edge of both production values and intelligent game design. We've stuck by the genre through years of creative stagnation and formulaic iteration, celebrating occasional outbursts of originality (Persona 3, The World Ends With You) and wincing through bloated over-promised duds like Blue Dragon.

Balance is the monster most modern RPGs can't slay. How to design a game that holds true to the genre's core gameplay elements while not sinking under their weight? How to add new features without adding needless complexity? How to make a reliable, well-worn set of mechanics feel fresh and inspired?

When a game comes along that manages to strike these tricky balances and breathe vitality into the genre, we hardy JRPG defenders ought to grab our trumpets and blow them loudly. Well, folks, listen up...

Such a game has arrived and chances are you know nothing about it - Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor from our old friends at Atlus, the developer who has done more than any other to produce smart, polished JRPGs that extend and blur the margins of the genre while holding steadfast to its core elements. As I've noted here before, Atlus is the Republic Pictures of the game industry: a small player specializing in quality genre fare on a modest budget. If you've played an Atlus game, chances are you've come to recognize the Atlus signature: challenging, stylish, anime-inspired RPGs with slick presentations, clever interfaces, and careful attention to detail.

Devil Survivor succeeds because it does three things remarkably well: 1) it combines the best features from other genres; 2) it streamlines gameplay without oversimplifying; 3) it presents an adult story in which player choice feel genuinely meaningful. Longtime RPG players will appreciate the way Devil Survivor honors the genre by insisting on a thoughtful and strategic approach to resource management and tactics. But in keeping with Atlus' balanced design, newcomers will find many of the traditional RPG corners rounded, with less grind, micromanagement, and repetition.

Most successful games these days are hybrids of various genres, and Devil Survivor is no exception. It fuses elements of traditional (Dragon Quest) and turn-based tactical (Tactics Ogre) RPGs with monster collection (Pokemon) and time-locked adventure (Majora's Mask), all mixed together with a series of ideological paths and choices that have become a regular feature of Shin Megami Tensei games. Each of these elements feels polished and refined, rather than tacked-on, introduced to enhance gameplay and enrich the player's experience. In Devil Survivor no design element feels superfluous. Everything belongs and fits together beautifully.

Devil Survivor has the best battle system I've seen in any RPG, and I've played a few RPGs. After strategically positioning your teams from a top-down perspective, the view swings into 1st-person mode with your enemies lined up before you. You can attack the leader's minions, which may yield more points but exposes you to more risk; or you may choose to focus on the leader, who will likely be a savvy fighter.

All your team's special abilities come into play here, including the acquisition and fusion choices you made beforehand to maximize the powers of your demons. This combination of collecting (via demon auctions) pre-planning, creative alchemy, field positioning, and in-battle tactics results in a pitch-perfect system that never ceases to be fun and challenging. It also proves that innovation can sometimes be trumped by refinement and balance. Devil Survivor's battle system doesn't break new ground; it simply elevates a familiar system by recombining and perfecting its core elements.

Devil Survivor feels clever and new in large part because of its streamlined user-interface, a computer that functions as your primary conduit to the world. Gone (thank you, Atlus!) is a cumbersome overworld, travel and map navigation, dungeons, and random battles. The game is set in a nightmarish vision of Tokyo, overrun with violence, fear and paranoia. The mechanical drudgery of movement, so long a ball and chain for JRPGs, is replaced here with a system that prioritizes the people of each district and the special problems they face.

You should know three other things about Devil Survivor: 1) You must make choices, and those choices will sometimes cost lives. The game does an amazing job of making that matter. 2) Your choices will open some doors and close others. Once closed, they will never reopen unless you replay the game. 3) You have only one save file, so you must carefully consider how you wish to progress. The consequences of your actions may not be apparent to you until later in the game, so the old save/reset/retry ploy won't work here.

I have more to say about Devil Summoner's narrative and the frightening world it depicts. I'll return to those in my next post.

Note: Japanese trailer.