Phew what a mouthful of a title, I think for ease of writing, I’m just going to call this game Devil Survivor from now in this review. I just want to preface by saying this is the only Megami Tensei game I’ve ever played, and I know it’s absolutely huge in Japan, but to be honest, I had never heard of it before its DS release. Therefore my review of this game is going to be solely concentrated on this game in its own right – not how it compares to the other games in the series or how it compares to future titles in the series. Without further ado then, what is Devil Survivor? Well, it’s a turn-based strategy game with RPG elements where you control demons that you collect and summon. The game is set in modern-day Tokyo during a demonic attack which results in a lock-down placed on the city. You, along with your friends, must survive the quarantine by summoning friendly monsters to fight the more aggressive ones, and by figuring out a way to lift the lock-down.
The other main plot point is as the protagonist, you start seeing people’s death clocks: these ominous numbers which hover above a person telling you how many days left they have to live. With this preying on your mind, you discover that no one survives for longer than 7 days, lending a sense of urgency to the game. As the story unfolds further, you meet more people, both friends and foe, and start to interact with them in ways that can change the ending. By the end, it begins to focus on a wider conflict between angels and demons, and all the choices you made throughout the game become pertinent here.
Ooh yes, choices! Yes, a lot of games put in choices arbitrarily that don’t affect anything. Not so in Devil Survivor, as you’ll find that there are multiple endings which all depend on your choices throughout the game. The game itself is fairly non-linear, with the ability to explore and talk to different NPCs each day; there are of course certain events which will move the story forward, but between those, there’s a lot of free reign to do what you want. It’s during these segments where you’ll make choices that can affect the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but not every ending is good and many of them are bittersweet; you choices do feel very impactful and the differences between each ending are huge.
I would rate the story in this game to be, at least, on par with The World Ends With You (link to my review here). There are certainly a lot of similarities given the modern settings and the conflicts between higher spiritual forces. But Devil Survivor has its own unique take and in many ways, it’s a lot darker than TWEWY. It also feels like a more intellectual affair, as the dialogues can be quite drawn out and utilities a whole host of literary and biblical references. There’s also a grander sense of scale here, as the protagonist and his friends aren’t just out to save themselves but also to try and save as many people as they can who are confined in the quarantine zone. Personally, I think the story is excellent, though it can get convoluted and slightly pretentious in places. Particularly towards the end, the story starts to rely on its Biblical references a bit too much, rather than establishing its own mythos the way TWEWY does. Still, it’s an excellent, meaty affair with plenty of suspense and tension.
The characters are very well written, especially given the very transient nature of the game where you often only encounter people for brief periods of time. Furthermore, a lot of the characters you meet become playable for a few battles, and we learn of their story through a mix of cutscenes, dialogues and through actual gameplay. The secondary characters, in particular, are really strongly fleshed out. From the singer who believes her song caused the outbreak to the teacher who wants revenge on a demon for killing her loved one, they are all interesting and varied and provide ample backstory to the whole conflict.
It is these secondary characters that really make the world feel alive, and their reactions to the quarantine are fascinatingly complex. I think there’s a recent vogue for post-apocalyptic stories and survivors, and perhaps you’re thinking this game just doesn’t bring anything new to the table. On the contrary, I argue that setting the game in the midst of the crisis and not actually post-apocalypse presents a much different picture and lots of unique storytelling elements. Plus, the fact that these people are in a confined area, knowing the rest of the world outside is fine, brings a whole other element to the emotions they’re feeling; they aren’t just surviving, they’re trying to escape and live, and with the protagonist’s death clock ability, he knows that everyone will die in just 7 days.
Enough about the story then, how is the gameplay? I have to admit, although I love playing tactical strategy games, I’m awful at them in general. Disgaea, for example, was way too complex for me. Luckily then, Devil Survivor is not too difficult in terms of complexity but still offers a myriad of challenges. Each map is set out in a unique way, with certain obstacles preventing you from taking certain paths. There are also lots of objectives to accomplish, for example, making it so that the aggressive demons don’t hurt a few survivors that you’re trying to rescue. For a turn based strategy, there’s all the stuff you’d expect in terms of limited moves per turn, limited actions per turn and each demon having special abilities of their own to use. What’s interesting is that there’s a kind of squad based system, where a leader (a story character) is on the field and flanked by several demons; you have control of the whole squad’s action, but further to that, each individual member can also do a limited set of actions. In my opinion, the battle system is fun, but expect to be spending a long time on each individual battle as there are a lot of things you can do in your turns.
Outside of battle, there’s plenty to do regarding improving your squad and adding demons to your arsenal. There’s a very addictive mechanic where you can win new demons on a sort of auction house system. You can also fuse demons to combine their abilities. In my opinion, the demon system is incredibly strong and it adds a whole new layer of addictiveness to the game: think Pokemon levels of addictiveness. Plus, the demons are all exceptionally cool and I constantly found myself wanting to add more to my selection because they all look so damn awesome. There’s so much variety in movesets and stats, and the ability to customise demons adds to that variety as well. Overall, it’s a very solid gameplay mechanic with highly addictive elements and I think this is a big reason why this game is so good.
The art style is very nice, it’s quite typically anime-esque but it’s heavily stylised towards the kind of demonic-look which fits the theme of the game. The dialogues are all accompanied by animated character portraits and they’re fairly well done. In battles, the art is fairly nice though I don’t think it’s anything spectacular – it’s like a more detailed version of Pokemon really. Where the art really shines though is in the demon designs which all look very unique and interesting; like I said, a huge part of the appeal of this game in its demon repertoire and they’ve clearly spent a lot of time designing remarkable demons for you to control and fight against.
To conclude, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is an epic game with strong tactical RPG elements and a very unique and inspired story. It’s definitely one of the biggest RPG offerings on the DS, and there’s even a remastered version on the 3DS called Devil Survivor: Overclocked which is worth checking out. The strengths of this game lie in the highly developed sub-stories of the secondary characters, the beautiful demon system and the complex and intellectual themes developed throughout the story and its use of literary references. The only negatives I would say is that combat can feel a bit repetitive, though the varied objectives help alleviate that, and the art assets in the game are a bit lacking in places (especially in sound…no voice acting whatsoever!). But the pros far outweigh the cons, and overall, this is a stunning RPG offering for the DS and is definitely one of the most engaging and addictive games of this genre that I’ve ever played.