Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon (Devil Summoner 2) Ė whew! Ė is the latest release in the byzantine Megami Tensei series. Having dabbled in the universe once or twice during the 32-bit era with the Persona series, and trying a few of the subsequent releases, I am less endeared to and learned of the universe than many a gamer. As a newcomer, though, I can assure those looking at Devil Summoner 2 with a raised eyebrow and a hint of hesitation that they have nothing to fear from jumping in two deep into a series that belongs to a 22-year-old franchise.
As Raidou Kuzunoha the 14th, it is your job to protect the Capital of Japan. You go about your task in the same way as all demon hunter-trapper detectives in an ahistorical TaishŰ Era Japan: with a blade, pistol, and a lot of demonsÖa whole lot of demons. The Yatagarasu, an organization that seeks the protection and prosperity of Japan, tasks Raidou Ė you can name him whatever you like and will be referred to by both names Ė with gaining information about and preparing to stop a malevolent force. Assisting you is long-time friend and mentor, Gouto, the reincarnated feline version of Raidou Kuzunoha the First. Also lending a hand is Shouhei Narumi, head of the Narumi Detective Agency, who takes you on as an apprentice in sleuthing and offers a base of operations for Raidou and Gouto.
Iím pretty sure that at this point youíre confused, wondering why bother starting the series now, or both. Well as luck would have it, no previous experience with any of the Megami Tensei games is required, including Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army. Instead of fumbling your way around, characters give you a chance to deny knowing or remembering them, which leads to conversations that offer quick explanations as to who they are and how they know you. I really appreciated the option of being able to quickly catch up with people, and gladly took whatever mild chiding they offered in exchange to get on with the demon wooing.
As the game begins, a government officialís daughter shows up at the Narumi Agency and asks for help in tracking down a gentleman. This is your first case, and it sets the stage for a lengthy quest that begins to unfold as you find out that the citizenryís luck is out of balance and that there are shadowy figures out to stop your investigation. Gathering clues involves (a lot of) walking around to find one of the few loitering non-playable characters that are willing to chat you up, then hearing them out and, if possible, use a little demon magic to get around any stonewalling. In the midst of the backtracking and chatting up the locals, side quests open up that in the form of case files that can weave into the main quest and necessitate frequent visits to the Dark Realm.
The Dark Realm is where the demons reside. Items can be found here, or earned as rewards for quests involving a visit here, that help further the investigations. Demons are also roaming about, unseen until you run into a spot where combat is initiated; demons are also in the normal realm, but they are often yours and help your investigation by offering the ability to transform and read minds. A few of the random encounters are with pro-you demons, which quickly join your ranks, but the majority will require some persuading to join you. By negotiating with a demon, you can anger them, entice them to your side, or receive an item but not their talents. Your demons also help to woo others to your cause by telling jokes, complimenting, scolding, or even seducing Ė sometimes they jump in to lend a hand without warning. Itís certainly a unique system, and one that lends itself to such interesting situations as a demon noticing a friend in your presence and dropping off a gift before heading out. Iím sure the developers could have included an easier way to compel compliance, but this approach has a quirky sentiment about it that I really enjoy.
The demons that bound themselves to you are yours to command. Their powers can be used while navigating or during combat. The spells do anything from removing obstacles from a path to sending bolts of lightning streaking towards an enemy, and the demonsí uses can be further honed by paying attention to an enemyís weaknesses. Everything from ghost dogs in the form of dragons to poltergeists are roaming about, and all not only level up with you but also have loyalty ratings: the greater your overall loyalty rating, the higher your status as a demon summoner. Knowing which demons to have on hand, keeping in mind abilities and level, is crucial. In the Gouma-den, accessed at save points, the slightly mad Victor can heal, summon, and also fuse demons. Fusion involves taking two demons and forming them into a new one; itís a little tricky at first, but itís an interesting addition, and designed so that you can shore up any party weaknesses. The demons are pretty fun to have around, though the frequency of combat means that their banter does get a bit old.
Combat takes place primarily within the Dark Realm. The encounters are unbelievably frequent, about every four feet. Barring that the enemy didnít get the jump on you, which often lands for significant damage, you will either summon whatever demons are needed or use those already summoned and command as to what attack should be used and on whom. Raidou is equipped with an upgradeable blade and a six-shot pistol, the former for damage and the latter, with its never-ending ammo, for stunning. Raidou can also block attacks for less damage, or dodge them for no damage. Combat is in real-time and can get pretty hectic, but the battles can be paused at any time to issue an order or use an item Ė or just for a break. The combat was satisfying throughout with the wild character design lending to weird match-ups, and the ability to string attacks kept battles interesting: a cold strike, followed up by a few pistol rounds to stun the enemy, and then finishing them with a heavy sword attack.
The judicious use of MAG (magnetite) is key to winning. As the gameís magic system, it is drained whenever you summon demons, have them perform a special attack, or you use a heavy attack with your sword. The fast, weak sword attack, shots from the pistol, and demon strikes are freebies and drain nothing. MAG can be siphoned off of enemies by defeating them in combat or, if they are strong enough, pummeling them after a friendly demon hits them with a special ability. During negotiations, some demons will require items, money, and even MAG before they join. MAG is so pervasive that regular monitoring is required, but it works well by adding a needed strategic element to the use of demons.
When not in the Dark Realm, you track down clues and suspects in the regular world. Set in a wonderfully designed 1930s Japan based on a 1920s motif, the handful of towns and locations really add something special to the game. While Devil Summoner 2ís graphics arenít technically impressive, the art direction is fantastic. From the architecture to the design of the demons and townsfolk, the world is one that I wanted to explore and learn more about. Unfortunately, the game uses a cinematic camera that makes for rigid and shifting controls - think early Resident Evil - so that you end up turning around when going to a new screen because the perspective change shifted what was forward to backward. While the set views make for some impressive shots, it can also distort your view so that you canít always get your bearings. This style of camera and control is old hat to most of you, and the benefits for the developers are obvious, but it can still make for some frustrating moments.
The camera and controls are more of a minor nuisance; the main issue I have is the balance between the real world and the Dark Realm. As much as I love the idea of being a detective in 1930s Japan, the cases are painfully linear and the set trigger conversations and objects means that investigating involves going from point A to point B and talking to the four or five characters that speak. The non-playable characters simply restate their set conversation bits until you find the one that triggers progression, then you repeat. Despite this, and even with the aid of casefiles and Narumiís guidance, sometimes the game is too vague about what to do next. I would expect to hit a few deadends had the game been more open, but with such a set approach it ends up hampering the experience. A few attempts are made in the overall case about what people to focus on, to get you to feel as if youíre in the trenches by asking for bits about your experience, which are great but few and far between. Now Iím aware that the game isnít supposed to be a gumshoe simulator, but this would have been a much more unique experience had this aspect been more fully realized.
Once you get enough grunt work in the realm world, youíre then relentlessly hammered with combat in the Dark Realm. Every five or six feet is an encounter, and the retreat option, what I thought might save me from having to spending 10 minutes to cross a hall, simply engages a countdown timer to fight through until a possible escape at the end. Navigation becomes fatiguing after youíre involved in encounter after encounter. The negotiations and random happenings from your own demons help to spice things up, and of course the combat is entertaining, but sometimes I just want to get to that door or save point without a small army in my way. Neither portion is bad, mind you, itís just that the whole would have been greater served had the experience been better balanced.