I am not as familiar with the Shin Megami Tensei series as I should be. Probably like many American gamers, my experience with this series of Japanese role playing games began with the phenomenally compelling Persona series, so I come at the most recent iteration of the Devil Summoner branch of the series with fairly fresh eyes.
As I understand, Shin Megami Tensei is a series of games notable both for their different approaches to the genre through a set of sub-series of games featuring highly varied settings and atmosphere. The similarity of these sub-series lies then in their similar thematic interests in religion and morality. Devil Summoner 2 is quite unique for the series with its interesting setting in a 1920s Japan that derives its attitudes from the conventions of film noir and hard boiled detective fiction, while still taking the interests of the series seriously by generating interesting moral quandaries and questions about the legitimacy of religion and spirituality in the modern era.
As a Persona fan, I was looking forward to the game because of the interesting take that I had seen in this other iteration of the series on the JRPG genre. What is intriguing about Persona is the way that fairly traditional RPG conventions like dungeon delving, turn- and menu-based combat systems, and character progression are overlaid onto a kind of social simulation, the experience of playing as a high school student who is attempting to develop social and romantic relationships while saving the world. In the Persona games, these two seemingly different styles of gameplay are intriguingly integrated by making success at school and in the player’s social life also help to develop the combat prowess and summoning abilities of the protagonist during his nightly plunge into dungeons teeming with monsters.
Devil Summoner 2 likewise concerns itself with relationships and considers how to integrate the odd social life of a Devil Summoner, a being with the ability to tame and manipulate supernatural creatures to do his bidding, with his trade, protecting Japan from invading paranormal forces. In this case, the relationship issues become a direct part of combat by fusing with the battle system itself. In combat, the Devil Summoner Raidou has the option of both battling the devils that he encounters or negotiating with them. Like Persona, these social opportunities are facilitated by conversation trees with these devils that Raidou must navigate by choosing the best options to impress, flatter, frighten, or seduce these devils. Unlike Persona though, the long term commitment to fostering complex relationship does not exist. Negotiations with devils are (perhaps as one might imagine with such seemingly venal creatures) very much situations dealt with in the now. Raidou has a brief span of time with which to capture the attention of these creatures and his use of them will likely be a transient experience as well, since as he advances in levels, his need to utilize more powerful creatures increases also.
Since Raidou also dabbles in occult science and can fuse devils with one another (another feature reminiscent of the Persona games) in order to produce more potent varieties, the process of cajoling devils into his service, using their abilities in combat while building their loyalty to you, and then quickly turning that loyalty and the powers that it provides into raw material for newer, stronger demons becomes a central processing feature of the game. It also leads to some of the central ethical questions that the game poses as Raidou is using spiritual forces seemingly to a positive end—to protect his nation’s interests – at the seeming expense of treating another being that represents spiritual principles (the very ones that may underlie his political responsibilities) as a commodity to be consumed for the sake of a greater good. Indeed through its gameplay, Devil Summoner 2 seems to represent a strange drama about the relationship between religion and the political world, exposing gaps that may exist between ethical systems and the political causes that they intend to inform. If supernatural powers and the ethical systems that they represent are often used as a foundation for real world decision making, why are these powers that are so varied in form (the “devils” of Devil Summoner 2 can resemble angels, legendary heroes, ancient deities, or even Satan himself) used to the same end? And if they are so valuable as emblems, why are they used as commodities that can be transferred and transformed at whim for mere practical purposes?
The complexity of the image of how spiritual symbols are utilized becomes the basis for a morality system that determines to a large extent the direction of the game’s plot line. Raidou becomes embroiled in a complex plot that initially seems to be a simple case for a detective agency to solve. That case, concerning a young woman who is being sacrificed as a gift to a group of monsters responsible for the fortune of a small village near the capital, ends up raising the same questions posed by the devil summoning system about the morality of sacrifice and homage to principles as well as the practicality of political decision making. The player is left to grapple with these questions on his own by once again allowing him to express his feelings about preferring the lawful accountability of serving the greater good and its ordered and traditional values or recognizing the principles of chaos and the personal good that can be achieved by using and disposing of others to gain more and more power. Ultimately, Raidou’s conversational choices allow him to express his feelings about whether the events that occur around him that look like sacrifice for the greater good or the accumulation of power are reasonable solutions to dealing with the ill fortunes of the nation. These responses can suggest that the player’s evaluations of events characterize Raidou as lawful, neutral, or chaotic in his approach to interpreting the ethical qualities of the world that he seeks to protect, and thus as the hero of this story, determine whether the game’s ending will follow the path of one of these three attitudes about the world.
If the themes of morality and personal reflection seem complicated, they are matched with gameplay mechanics that similarly challenge the player to find new ways of forging devilish powers, developing the abilities of the Devil Summoner himself, and solving a string of side quests that often involve complex crafting and other solutions involving sleuthing. Unlike Persona whose limited school calendar restrains the player’s abilities to accomplish every goal and relationship in the game, Devil Summoner 2 tends overwhelm the player who is likely to get lost in its sprawling complexity. Fans of Shin Megami Tensei have obviously already developed the fortitude to grapple with the depth of gameplay and thematic interests of such a game. More casual players may find that while the game generates some early intriguing concepts and ideas that seeing the whole experience through may result in tedium as they repeatedly are asked to confront the same questions and deal with them in all too similar ways.