Preview: Devil Survivor

It has been a long time since I’ve been this excited about a portable RPG. Nothing against the massive numbers of others out there, but this is one that had me from the beginning, even when it was first teased in Famitsu magazine in Japan awhile back. As a big Shin Megami Tensei fan, I knew I would likely enjoy this game. But now that I’ve actually had time to enjoy some of the review code, I can say that it has exceeded my expectations.

Yes, Devil Survivor is a DS game, but don’t think of it as shrunk down, or as a lesser version of its console counterparts. It’s actually an evolved form of Shin Megami Tensei that introduces lots of new ideas and concepts that I think series fans will be excited about. It’s a fresh spin on what you already love, attached to a cool new story and setting.

I’ll do my best to be professional and contain my excitement in our preview.

Tokyo has been locked down after demons show up and take over the city. In seven days it will all be over. The Japanese government has everything closed off or shut down, locking everyone inside the Yamanote Line boundaries. The citizens inside are stuck with no way to leave or fight back. You and your friends are among the chaos, and it’s there that you decide to fight back and survive, armed only with the ability to take these demons and turn them against themselves.

The only thing that makes you and your friends different from the rest of the citizens trapped inside Tokyo are your COMPs. These are devices that look curiously like a Nintendo DS, and with them you are be able to see the future via email, guide your way through the city, make purchases, and even summon demons. Actually, everything from party organization to saving your game is done with your COMP. It becomes so vital to your existence that I find myself worrying about its battery life!

While your typical Shin Megami Tensei game follows the standard turn-based RPG battle system formula, Devil Survivor mixes it up a bit. When in a battle, you’ll actually move around a grid-style battlefield, just like a strategy role-playing game. All of the SRPG tactics are in play here, including tactics like trying to use terrain to your advantage. But when you actually go into battle, things switch to a more turn-based affair, with each of your on-map characters representing a mini-party. You and your human friends each command one of these mini-parties of 3, with the other two slots filled out by demons you’ve recruited.  

Battle screens

In these battles, you’ll face up to three other demons. You’ll pick commands from a menu, true to turn-based RPG style, and then they will execute according to turn order. Just like in other SMT games, the elemental affinities are in place, giving players that know enemy weaknesses the advantage. Successfully landing an elemental attack to a character with an elemental weakness earns you an extra turn. These extra turns become critical to coming out of the battles alive, so some pre-planning and strategy are definitely required.

Should you have trouble finding demons to battle alongside you, you could always go to a Demon Auction. New to the Shin Megami Tensei series, this auction lets you bid on and buy various demons. You’ll actually get into bidding wars with other demon collectors, so good timing and a hefty pocket book are necessary. Your character’s level determines what types of demons they can bid on. Of course, these demons can then be fused with others to create new ones, true to the series games. This new feature has already proved to be used and pretty fun. I’ve already paid too much for a few demons.

Non-battle game play takes place in, of course, Tokyo, where you’ll wander around, trying to talk to people and uncover more details on the demon attack, doing your best to stay alive. The visual presentation and setting are very hip, with plenty of Tokyo’s key landmarks and areas represented. You’ll meet with your friends in Shibuya, do battle in Shinjuku, stroll the shopping district of Omotesando, spotting famous landmarks in the background all the while. The character and demon art is also very good. Even though your characters are represented by little sprites on a grid, conversations and story parts are decorated with larger anime-style headshots, all of which look great.

Left: Demon Auction. Right: Yuzu being a wimp.

Most exciting to me is the story, which, even at only a few hours so far has already drawn me in completely. The end of everyone in town comes in seven days, and you’re immeiately sent scrambling to change that. Because of this, time management plays a major role in Devil Survivor. We don’t want to spoil the story, but we will say that you do seem to know what will happen in the future through mysterious emails that come to your COMPs. With those, your character actually has the ability to change fate. It’s up to you to decide where to go and what to do, but if you’re not thinking of survival, you’re probably not going to live to see another day.

Devil Survivor is really fresh, making it a stand-out in the sea of other portable RPGs available now. It’s also quite a bit darker in tone, and has a difficulty level that is more on par with what seasoned gamers would expect. For that alone, it seems it would be worth recommending. But it’s the hybrid battle system and involving, branching storyline that are the real winners here. How rare is it that making a series portable actually improves it?

Look for our full review of Devil Survivor in late June.

Dale North