Devil Survivor's aggressive AI turns laziness into a fatal character flaw.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor OverclockedPublisher: Atlus
Format: Nintendo 3DS
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: 2011-08-23
"This is a stupid game."
Four times. Four times, I said those words as I turned off my 3DS in anger. Four times, I thought I was ready to give in and switch to the "Casual" difficulty setting that constantly entices the player in the options screen. Four times, I thought I would need to give Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked a few days of rest before I'd be ready to come back to it.
Four times, I was back within the hour.
The problem is not that Devil Survivor Overclocked is actually a "stupid" game. The problem is that it is an exceptionally smart one. That I was using the word "stupid" like a petulant second grader uses it as a synonym for frustrating and difficult is no comment on its quality. It is simply a game that does not make concessions to those who play it. It presents a rule system to the player, and it forces that player to meticulously examine the many possibilities offered by that rule system, finding the best way to vanquish the many evil demons (and the few very bad people) who populate its version of modern-day Tokyo.
Yes, it's an SRPG, and yes, the "S" stands for "strategy", so this shouldn't be a surprise, and yet, what Devil Survivor Overclocked points out is just how easy it is to do "strategy" wrong. The last SRPG I played with any sort of regularity was Record of Agarest War, in which "strategy" generally consists of figuring out exactly where to place the members of the player's team in order to get them to "link" with each other, and then leaving them there until the baddies got bored enough to attack the overpowered mass. In hindsight, this is not strategy; this is glorified pattern-matching, punctuated by pretty pictures and ridiculous dialogue. Sure, the combat is done in the all but standard familiar turn-based isometric board game style, but it's hardly strategy when every battle inspires the same plan of attack.
An emphasis on elemental attacks and passive skills gives Devil Survivor its flavor. Over the course of the game, the player will amass an impressive array of demons to use in battle, either purchased at auction or through fusion of two other demons. While the temptation exists to just keep fusing demons to create higher level demons, there's also an incentive to keeping a large number of lesser demons around: A variety of elemental strengths is necessary to best approach any given battle, particularly the more difficult ones. One of the most triumphant moments in the earlygoing is the ability to recruit the powerful ice-based Wendigo, who first appears as a boss enemy, onto your team; blowing through chumps with its "Brutal Hit" and "Berzerk" skills is a blast. Send your team of Wendigos up against a couple of Pyro Jacks, however, and you may as well have not even tried. Fire beats ice, after all.
This is SRPG 101, and only a basic taste of what can be expected; other abilities allow for greater freedom on the battle map, healing abilities during and between individual attack phases, and the ability to proffer multiple attacks on the same turn. Allowing for such a massive amount of freedom in the player's party makeup means that a different approach can be constructed for every major battle, with free battles--that is, battles that don't consume some of the game's all-important time--available to level up characters and practice various techniques and combinations. True success in the game means knowing its rules and quirks inside and out; the game's aggressive AI turns laziness into a fatal character flaw.
Such urgency and attention in the game's combat actually plays into its story, a long and convoluted tale that actually comes off as pretty interesting. Tokyo is without power and under lockdown, as demons have arrived to participate in a sort of Battle Royale for the "Throne of Bel". All the while, a select group of people fall into the possession of "COMP" machines (which happen to look exactly like 3DSes) that allow them to summon their own demons and see the "death clocks" of those around them -- that is, if a human has less than seven days to live, the death clock will display the number of days they have left.
Apparently, something massive is going to happen in seven days, as nearly everyone in Tokyo has a number above their head, with the vast majority starting at "7".
The protagonist's party quickly learns that the numbers are subject to change, given their escape from a major battle when their own death clocks read "0". Still, there's not much time to save Tokyo, and every major in-game action from talking to an NPC to fighting a story-based battle ticks half an hour off the game's clock. The player is forced to make choices -- whether to save NPCs or concentrate on escape, whether to pursue romantic interests or build more platonic friendships -- as time quickly passes. No matter what choices are made, there exists the constant stress of missing something important. It's a mechanic best served in bite-sized segments, as there's an almost suffocating feeling to the constant pressure. It also begs for repeated playthroughs, which the game helpfully encourages through the always welcome "New Game+" mode.
The only problem with all of this is that every bit of it, save for the COMPS that look like 3DSes, was true of the original Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Nintendo DS game. In that game, of course, the COMPs looked like DS Lites.
What Atlus has chosen to release here is not a new game, but the definitive version of an old one. The original Devil Survivor was released two solid years ago, and while the story, most of the visuals, and the gameplay hasn't changed a whit, it's as if Atlus put together a "wish list" of just about every criticism the first game received and added or fixed every single one. There is now an "easy" mode, for people more interested in the story than in getting batted around by baddies. There are three save slots, instead of one. There is a Pokédex-style "Demon Compendium", where you can buy demons you've already used as many times as you like, provided you have the cash to do so. The refined "New Game+" mode grants the player bonuses based on in-game achievements. There are a host of new (mostly higher-level) demons. There are brand new "epilogue" stages (at least one of which is shockingly difficult) that tack new content onto the endings that imply such a possibility. There's voice acting for almost all of the human dialogue.
Well, okay, nobody pined for voice acting. But it's actually surprisingly competent!
Very little of this content, apart from the "8th Day" epilogues, will entice the SRPG fanatics who got the most out of the original; playing the same 30-40 hour story over and over again to get the new bits might not even be an appealing proposition for that crowd. Still, what Overclocked represents is a quality "core-gamer" release on a platform with a sparse population of games. By making so many accessibility-oriented concessions without removing the ability to play it as originally intended, Atlus is offering a game that anyone looking for a long-term 3DS commitment can enjoy, whether they have the patience for the sort of brutality outlined at the top of this writeup or not. It's also a good way to put the franchise on gamer tongues in advance of the upcoming sequel.
In almost every way imaginable, then, Devil Survivor Overclocked is a smart game.