All right, look. Can I be honest with you guys for a second?
Sometimes I feel a little iffy about drawing comparisons to other games when I’m trying to illustrate a point. It’s an effective method, no question, but I’m worried about potential backlash. I mean, think about the last post -- when I brought up Gears of War and DmC, it definitely wasn’t in a positive light. I’ve always felt like I have to be wary about how I talk about those games and others; setting aside the fact that calling out those two is like making a joke about Twilight, I’m certain that the games have their fans. People like them, even if I don’t. And I have to respect their wishes as well as their opinions. And I’m going to as best I can.
I just thought that I’d give that little preface. Because now I want to talk about Watch Dogs. And those of you who like the game MIGHT want to skip the next few paragraphs.
I don’t have any problems thinking of Watch Dogs as one of the WORST games I’ve ever played. It is, in my eyes, a spectacular failure in every way imaginable -- a dull, confused mess of a game devoid of ambition or vision, and tries to jam in elements from other, better games without understanding how they work or why they were good in the first place. The gameplay is a mess, the story is dead on arrival, and it squanders all its goodwill in the time it takes to reach the end of this sentence.
But the reason why I bring up Watch Dogs is because it’s emblematic of the exact problem I’ve had with so many other games in the past -- and only goes to prove the case of Devil Survivor 2. Ubisoft’s latest was brimming with promise, and had a chance to intelligently explore its themes -- among them, the perils of a wired world and a projection of the future we could be heading for. That’s not going to happen in a game where some of the most harrowing things you do are make things explode and plaster “U MAD, BRO” on freeway signs. Certainly not in a game where the inciting incident is a revenge fantasy/IMMA PROTECT MUH FAMILY bit ripped straight out of the RoboCop reboot…itself ripped from any number of other stories.
I don’t understand how you make a game that cost at least sixty eight million dollars for an eighth-generation console, yet somehow manage to make it feel smaller and definitely dumber than a years-old DS game. I just don’t. Wait. Actually, I do. It’s because in this day and age, it’s not enough to just build some shambling chimera from the pieces of other games (even though Watch Dogs has already become a top-seller, but copies sold don’t always equate to satisfied customers). It’s about measures. You measure by design, and judge based on the complexity of the concepts therein. And on top of that, you measure by execution, i.e. how well a game manages to explore its mechanics -- story-wise, gameplay-wise, whatever -- for your entertainment.
So will Watch Dogs be a financial success? Undoubtedly. It’s already left its mark on sales charts, so I doubt we’ll be seeing the last of Aiden Pearce, The Most Boring Man in the World. Will it have earned a moral victory, or an emotional one? Will it have earned loyalty that matches the hype surrounding it? We’ll see. But whether it does or not, that doesn’t matter as much to me as you think it would. Oh, sure, I think we gamers can do a HELL of a lot better than throwing money at such gormless products, but to compensate, we have games like Devil Survivor 2 that can show everyone how it’s done.
And I guess it’s up to me to show you why…while pointing out its faults.
And also, SPOILERS. INFINITY SPOILERS.
One of the things I couldn’t help but praise in the last post was DeSu2’s forward-thinking. The underlying question was “how do you rebuild the world?” And it’s a valid question -- one that I wish more games would tackle instead of fading to black with little more than flimsy promises of hope and better days once the big baddie’s buried. Mind you, this wasn’t just something tacked on in the last hours of the game; this is an overarching element of Desu2’s story that, while not the key element at the outset, is still one that weaves its way through the entire game.
The choices therein are as much a slew of interesting story routes as they are a judge of character. Given the choice, would you support a world of absolute equality, where everyone supports one another but there’s no drive to excel or improve yourself? Would you support a world based on merit, where the strongest and wisest are given their rightful chance to rule, but at the cost of using a pile of bodies to build your ladder to the top? Would you forgo the chance to remake the world (even for the better) just so you can bring back the status quo? Would you kill a god regardless of the consequences? And even beyond all those options, would you fight -- and even kill -- a friend just for the chance to realize your vision of a better tomorrow?
There are difficult questions being asked here, without a doubt. Now, admittedly, I think that the issues at hand (meritocracy vs. egalitarianism) are incredibly simplified versions of their usual selves, or at least what Wikipedia might suggest. There are probably a lot more societal and political issues here, and plenty more beyond that. But even so, it’s not a deal-breaker; after all, the new world is going to be created by a supreme administrator that looks like a fusion between a giant ice pick and a dreidel and has no qualms about brainwashing humanity to suit your needs.
Likewise, the people proposing these ideas -- JPs chief Yamato and ace detective Ronaldo -- are repeatedly called out for being too extreme and too stubborn for their own good. It’s only natural that they oversimplify things and assume that their ideals will fix the world’s problems. (It’s worth noting that in Yamato’s route, he willingly admits that it doesn’t matter if he’s the one ruling in his merit-based world; all that matters is that the best man for the job takes the throne…though in his ending, he’s the one with his own towering skyscraper, and he stands triumphant while flanked by his comrades.)
As it should be, the deciding factor for whose world ends up being built -- note that I didn’t say “who’s right” -- is the main character. Or rather, the player; it’s through the efforts of said main character (who for the purposes of this post I’ll start referring to as Hibiki Kuze, in “honor” of the decidedly-awful DeSu2 anime) that the game not only gets its ending, but a couple of its strongest weapons. Unfortunately, it also comes with what I believe to be one of the game’s biggest faults.
Hibiki’s presence, first and foremost, contributes to the idea of “leadership” that runs throughout the game. Whether you agree with Yamato/Ronaldo or not, there are others in the game that do, and for valid reasons. Maybe they wouldn’t if the status quo wasn’t in place, but the world has been wrecked almost beyond repair, and the implication (well before game’s end) is that beyond Japan’s borders, there isn’t even a world anymore.
In times of crisis, the people need strong leaders -- and there’s no one better for the job in this case than the man spearheading an organization designed specifically to counter the threat of demons and alien invaders. Well, except for the guy who’s doing his damnedest to gather food and medical supplies and offer his own counter-offense against demons and the organization that’s trying to hoard supplies. In any case, they’re men with vision, passion, intelligence, charisma, and most of all power.
And that’s where Hibiki comes in. See, in the DeSu games the stats of the main character are decided solely by you. Every level-up gives you one point to put into your strength, magic, vitality, or agility. In theory, this means that with enough patience (i.e. grinding), you can build a character that’s well-rounded, or even one without any weaknesses.
But I’m convinced that the best build for these games is one that maximizes two stats: magic and vitality. I find magic to be more useful in these games than physical attacks, because you gain easy access to elemental spells that’ll let you hit enemy weaknesses/earn extra turns, AND boosting your magic stat boosts your highly-critical MP.
Meanwhile, boosting your vitality stat boosts your HP and defense, and -- much like boosting the magic stat -- gives you access to some of the best offensive and defensive skills in the game. Think about it: one of the biggest dangers of using a mage in most RPGs is the fact that they can’t take a hit. That's part of that horrid thing they call "character balance".
If you remove that weakness, then you’re left with a character that can dish out huge damage, hit enemy weaknesses, and not only have the defense to shrug off most blows but also equip skills that further reduce damage from all but one or two attack types. Simply put, my Hibiki was nigh-unkillable. Except if he got turned to stone and then got attacked. Then he shattered like an egg.
The takeaway from all this is that, if you build a proper character and make use of the possibilities available, you’ll be able to make Hibiki into the most powerful member of the entire cast. You’re ensuring that the potential he has is fulfilled, and justifying his ability as a frontline fighter. But it’s not just strength that makes him the main character; thanks to the player’s guiding hand (assuming that you can pull off a win), Hibiki is a tactical genius that ensures victory after victory. Even if Yamato and Ronaldo are the visionaries, and even if they have talent in their own right, it’s Hibiki who’s got the leadership qualities needed to save the world.
And I mean that quite literally. See, there’s a catch to rebuilding the world via Polaris: the administrator will only do it if humanity’s will is unified. That is, those with the ability to even make it to his throne have to have a singular belief. If Yamato goes to the throne with aims of creating a meritocracy, but space-case Joe comes along and he wants equality, then it doesn’t work. Everyone present has to believe in a singular vision (the lack of which may what caused Polaris to start erasing the world in the first place). So, how do you get the best of the best to reconcile? How do you get them to forgo their own beliefs without slaughtering them outright?
Easy. You use Hibiki’s second great weapon: kindness.
One of the major additions to DeSu2 (though admittedly one ripped right out of Persona 3 and 4) is the Fate system. Basically, the more you talk to the cast outside of battles, the more bonuses you all receive. They’ll get elemental resistances, the ability to trade demons on the fly with Hibiki, and unlock more powerful demons for you to use, assuming you get strong enough demons to fuse into them. Really though, it’s incentivizing the player to actively seek out character development moments -- a dirty trick on Atlus’ part, but a smart move all the same. The option to get closer to your party members was there in DeSu1, but the sequel takes it up a notch.
Each character gets a mini-episode to get fleshed out and face a development-inducing dilemma. Joe has to deal with the pressure of facing his sick girlfriend in the wake of a collapsing world. Best bud Daichi learns to be a man, and learns that his inaction could easily lead to the death of the weak and helpless. But special mention has to go to Io, who not only learns to become more confident, but (if you’re with her at the right time) gets to find the corpses of her dead parents. And she’s just in time to see one of them die before her eyes, all while surrounded by rows of body bags.
Consider that just one of several kicks to the balls delivered by DeSu’s narrative.
But the key to advancing each character’s fate (from rank zero to rank five) is going out of your way to heal the wounds in their hearts and minds. The more kindness you show to your comrades, the stronger they -- and you, by extension -- become. If you get them to rank four, you’ve got comrades that’ll follow you even if you don’t align with their ideal of choice. And indeed, you’ll need them for the boss battles that follow; I’m convinced that I was only able to beat the game by exploiting an array of skill combinations and sending in my units to effectively cheat.
The Fate system is there for a reason, even beyond just aping the most recent Persona games. If you ignore your party members, then they become impossible to recruit no matter how much you beg. (Parting with them is a brief, but surprisingly sad affair.) But it goes beyond that. I’m pretty much convinced that if you don’t rank up at all, some of them will outright DIE. And while you’ll have a few strong party members to pick from no matter which path you take, by the time you’ve reached that point you’re probably got a go-to party you want re-assembled ASAP.
In any case, it’s Hibiki’s kindness as much as -- and likely more than -- his strength and intelligence that wins people to his cause. Remember, Yamato and Ronaldo are extremists; the former is damn near villainous in his pursuits, the latter is a verifiable terrorist, and both of them are destructively determined. It’s also worth noting that there’s an unmistakable hollowness to both their creeds; Yamato is in control of JPs precisely because his family and lineage put him there, i.e. the exact thing his meritocracy is partly trying to remove.
Meanwhile, Ronaldo is trying to create a world of equality, but incidentally he’s the leader because he’s the strongest and most capable of the bunch. Neither leader comes even close to being relatable…at least, compared to the kind, considerate, trustworthy kid roped into this mess like everyone else. You know, the same kid who has a first-hand account of what’s going on without any dilution via the lens of power, and goes well out of his way to form precious bonds with everyone. We should be thankful Hibiki didn’t try to install his own new world order.
In any case, the overarching message here is that even beyond societal ideologies, the key to making a better world (or just plain restoring it) is kindness. Being able to trust in one another and cooperate is a key element, regardless of what you believe in. Say what you will about society at large, but I think there’s merit to my words considering the amount of effort, manpower, and coordination it takes just to build a house. Hibiki’s presence lends an element of humanity to whatever side he chooses.
Hell, just being around Yamato probably works wonders for mellowing out the chief’s self-confessed coldness. Ultimately, that’s the developers’ end goal for showing how to rebuild the world -- an idealized and optimistic version, sure, but if nothing else it makes you want to believe and play along. It’s thanks to Hibiki’s efforts -- YOUR efforts -- that, no matter which ending you get, you’re bound to have a glimmer of hope sparkling before your eyes.
But for all my praise up to this point, there’s still a major issue I have with the presence of Hibiki -- and you can consider this a problem that extends to the Persona games and the original Devil Survivor. The thing is…well, Hibiki is pretty much a messiah.
I mean, really. That’s what he is. He’s almost immediately established to be one of the strongest demon tamers. He immediately earns the respect and trust of every character -- even Ronaldo, who at the outset is irrevocably an enemy. Damn near every girl shows some level of attraction towards him, whether you max out their Fate rank or not. Even beyond that, the fact that only Hibiki can sort out their emotional baggage (male or female) is kind of distressing.
You can shift his characterization to be a straight-laced and intelligent leader, a hot-blooded fighter, or a moron, which I approve of…but if you try and act intelligent, too often the game will give you answers to questions that, occasionally, you have no way of knowing the answer to. And yet the others will applaud you just as quickly. Actually, they’re quick to applaud you for pretty much waking up in the morning. There’s being kind and trustworthy, and then there’s being worshipped like a deity.
Now, I know that this isn’t exactly a universal problem; it’s more of a matter of preference. And indeed, there are theme-related reasons for making Hibiki out like this. And on top of that, the whole universe doesn’t revolve around him; he’s a silent observer most of the time, and the other characters are more eager to interact with each other instead of just you. But I can’t shake this feeling that the game’s narrative is warping around to accommodate you and Hibiki, making it so that it’s incredibly difficult to do something wrong.
It doesn’t matter what the other characters want; it’s all about what you want. And this feeds into making the Fate system a little insincere (again, a complaint that I could make against the Persona games). Are you helping Hinako rediscover her passion for dance because you genuinely care about her, and want to hear her story? Or are you just doing it so you can tick off numbers on a list, or get bonuses in battle? Do you even care about Jungo’s cat, or Fumi’s research, or Otome’s daughter? Or do you just want to build their trust so they’ll follow you down your path? I only ask because it could decide whether you're a hero or an asshole.
I’m willing to let it slide because these points aren’t game-breaking. Nor are they things that detract severely from the quality of the game. But they’re still things that should be considered, especially when the point of the game is to rely on and establish strong leaders. How are we supposed to fully understand and accept the elements here if there’s an inherent selfishness to the proceedings? How are we supposed to believe that we’re pulling together as a team when your actions are almost saintly?
Taken on a deeper level, DeSu2 runs the risk of undermining itself by way of its game-based, player-aggrandizing elements. What if I want to work a little bit harder to build bonds with comrades besides just being a yes man? What if I want my comrades to disagree with me? What if I want to struggle to find an answer to the problem, and not just have the best result handed to me?
What I’m getting at here is that (outside of the punishing gameplay, because Atlus secretly gets sexual thrill out of the pain it brings its players), you don’t really have to work for your happy ending. It’s just a matter of choosing the right option, or the option you want, from a handful of items. And in a game where there IS no right answer that’ll save the world absolutely, that’s a bit of a shame.
That’s not to say that DeSu2 is completely worse off for it. It isn’t. But there are faults. The gameplay straddles and occasionally crosses the line between fair and cheap. You have ZERO ability to plan for what happens in missions on your first playthrough, because some fights change the rules on you in the worst ways. And story-wise, one can't help but wonder how "deep and meaningful" these characters are, especially since some bank pretty hard on popular anime conventions (looking at you, Airi). But I can look past those flaws because of the overall package. And I can present to you, dear readers...
SEVERAL MORE UNSORTED POINTS AS TO WHY
DEVIL SURVIVOR 2 MAKES MY BRAIN STIFF IN THE TROUSERS
1) Makoto Sako Easily my favorite character by a long shot -- not just in the game, but one of my top 10 favorite game characters, period. She’s what you’d expect from a military official, in that she’s tough, competent, determined, and loyal -- BUT the game is eager to remind you that just because she’s part of JPs doesn’t mean she’s not human. She’s kindhearted, she’s considerate, she’s more than capable of getting flustered, she has her own dreams and opinions…and man, that pixilated smile of hers gets to me every time. I think I’m in love, guys. But you didn’t hear that from me.
Seriously, let’s just pretend I didn’t say a word about her being mai waifu. Not a word.
Story-wise, Makoto’s an important character because she lends a human aspect to an organization that could easily come off as self-serving and, well, evil. She helps prove that just because you’re on the side of order (relatively speaking) doesn’t mean that you’re automatically a villain; rather, you can use that order to make the world a better place. It certainly helps that Makoto’s one of the key damage dealers in the game, to the point where my version of her could single-handedly slay a dragon and outperform the average god. I guess she does some serious heavy lifting in between missions.
2) Jungo is pretty cool, too And then there’s this guy. Man, I love this guy.
He’s just this simple-minded chef who wants to be friends with everybody and loves the cat he finds…but he will absolutely wreck anything that crosses him. Make him one of your main combat units, and you’ve got a guy who can smash damn near everything in the entire game. Make him an enemy, and he WILL one-shot you for a critical hit that does two thousand points of damage…and by that point you’re lucky to have four hundred HP. Long story short, if you need something smashed, JUNGO SMASH.
Just don’t do what I did in my first playthrough and lollygag when it comes to finding more RAM for Fumi’s computer. If you do, Jungo WILL die. And that would suck. So don’t do it.
You’ll need him for guys like this.
3) The Septentriones are a good-ass idea I didn’t know what to make of the Septentriones when I first heard about them (and I still don’t; calling them alien invaders almost seems like a misnomer). But you know what? Strange as they may be, I get them. I get what the developers were going for.
There’s an element of “facing the unknown” that’s woven through the narrative thanks to the Septentriones. These are incomprehensible, irreconcilable creatures that have neither the desire nor the capacity to compromise. They’re beings created solely to destroy the planet, or at least have it sink into the void as part of Polaris’ task force.
Their power and their very presence are to be feared (and indeed, whenever they show up several characters have the requisite “Oh SHIT!” reaction). A huge part of the game -- pretty much every day of the story -- is dedicated to finding countermeasures against them…and said countermeasures get bigger and more destructive as time passes, to the point where the main cast is semi-responsible for the end of the world. They’re more than just bosses to be conquered; they’re a vital element to the game.
4) This game is more lighthearted than DeSu1 This is something that’s to be expected. Part of the pressure and stress on the cast of DeSu1 came from them being completely without creature comforts -- food, shelter, electricity and of course a safe place to sleep at night were all in short supply. In DeSu2, however, Yamato has accommodations prepared for the cast from the night of Day 1 onward. It contributes to the disparity between the demon tamers -- Japan’s newfound cream of the crop -- and the unlucky civilians/rioters fighting to survive.
So yes, you get a bit more downtime and ability to relax than the original game. And because everyone’s not stressed all the time, it creates more opportunities for events that wouldn’t be tonally consistent in a more serious game. So if you ever wanted to see a whiny Hindu deity get flung into the sky to be shot by another Hindu deity, then you’re in luck. Or maybe an event where an Osaka mascot murders demons to take their money? Or a sequence where Hibiki, Daichi, and Joe get the chance to peep on the girls during their physical exams (in an event called “Secret Garden”)? And that’s ignoring all the moment-to-moment jokes and conversations that’ll put a smile on your face.
5) It’s edutainment! I actually didn’t know about this until I started fiddling with the menus, but apparently you can find out more about the demons you summon/buy through an option in the compendium. That’s actually pretty interesting, because a lot of names might be familiar to you. Thor, Odin, Heimdall, and Fenrir all get expanded details (though it seems like the definition of “demon” has been broadened here), so Norse mythology lovers might get a kick out of that. I haven’t exactly gone through every description -- and can’t until I start a new file -- but from what I gather, pretty much every demon in the game is based on a supernatural creature/deity that exists in a real-world culture.
Take Hamsa, for example (otherwise known as MY SWORN MORTAL ENEMY). Just a pain-in-the-ass duck soldier, right? Nope. Have a gander at this:
“A holy white goose which serves as the steed of the Hindu god Brahma. During winter, geese migrate over India. These majestic white figures flying through the sky became symbolic of Brahmin dignity as they tried to reach Brahma, the god of knowledge. This may be how Hamsa came to be seen as Brahma`s steed.”
See? It’s actually a goose.
6) Go buy this. Just...go buy this. Really. What the hell else can I say?
I will gladly admit that this game isn’t perfect. I know that it’s got some flaws. I know that it’s hard. I know that it’s not the most visually impressive, ergo why I’ve been using pictures from the F-tier anime tie-in. I know it has a distinct Japanese flair (which I still can’t believe is a problem for some people, but whatever). But a good product has the right elements to overcome its flaws, or at the very least make you ignore them. And to that end, Devil Survivor 2 succeeds. IN SPADES.
This is a game that’ll make you think long after you’ve put it down. Even if you clear the game, there’s still plenty of content you’ve likely missed out on. The sheer number of combinations available encourages freedom and experimentation. The challenges on parade here will put you to the test, and push you well beyond your limits. The characters who you’ll meet will stick with you, and drive you to do everything to help and protect them -- because rest assured, if you drag your feet in certain sequences, they WILL die.
A lot of people will tell you that the JRPG is dead, or that they’re all too clichéd and obsolete to be worth anything, or that they’re all incredibly infantile when you get down to it. That, or just an offhand remark about schoolgirls. But don’t you even think about making a mistake on this one: Devil Survivor 2 is a fantastic game. Seek it out and get your hands on it, no matter who or what stands in your way. When there are games out there as good as this, don’t EVER settle for less.
Get in there. See if you have what it takes to survive.
Wow, that’s a corny line to end on. Play me out, Japanese Spider-Man!
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Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.
I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.
You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and a web serial novel, too. Maybe my stuff here and there will be the start of things to come. Hopefully good things, but things all the same.