I’m a PC gamer at heart but there’s been one console that was able to snatch away my attention and replace the PC for a specific type of game in my life. Oh, I played The Two Thrones on the PS2 and Sands of Time on the Gamecube, but it’s the Nintendo DS, the fat white miracle of the last handheld generation that truly made a console player out of me. I think it was the first time in my life I didn’t say ‘I want to play that console game’ but ‘I’d like to own one of those consoles.’
If I’d never liked the Nintendo DS, though, I’d still want to own one, because it’s the platform that holds one of my favourite games of all time. Open up your clamshell lids and peer at a surprisingly large pair of screens as we talk about Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor.
In The Beginning
Devil Survivor stood out, if you found it. Like the Real Time Strategy genre, the tactical RPG isn’t a game type that’s been over-endowed with public attention. Furthermore, while Devil Survivor is from a well-established franchise family, that franchise isn’t quite as prominent in the English-speaking market as it is in Japan. While it’s given rise to some cult-classic JRPGs, the use of the word cult right there tells you how mainstream they are. We’re talking about a game franchise that has spawned extensive essays regarding the sexual orientation and gender identity of major characters; for most folk, that means ‘very visible, if you’re already looking.’
Devil Survivor is a game from the fold of the sprawling Shin Megami Tensei franchise, a multi-platform concept space that’s been producing games since the Super Nintendo and shows no signs of slowing. These games have been slow, methodical turn-based first-person perspective dungeon crawlers, perky friendship-and-romance based RPGs, and tense serial killer dramas, and the common threads that hold these games together is mostly about the tone and ideas of the world. Yes, whether it’s charming school-age adventures exploring your neighbourhood, or delving into the new virtual reality arcade machine, if it’s a Shin Megami Tensei game, you can expect the story to feature ideas like destiny, knowing one’s own moment of death, the intersection of personal technology and historical magic, religious and mythological incongruity, and figures from religions alongside creatures like Nyarlathotep. If God appears or exists in this universe, he is almost certainly passive or outrightly evil.
The Shin Megami Tensei franchise is enormous; even in my attempts to grapple with it I’ve only scratched the surface. Many of the games were never translated, and those that were came to English in that period of time when translations had to make sacrifices in budget and storage space. Recognising how unapproachable their game series was, the developers started the Persona series – same universe, but more easily accessed game. The problem that came from that is that while Persona required less background and was a more approachable type of game, it was still ridiculously hard, a problem complicated further by its bad translation. When you’re talking about a story that deals with gender, identity, and the prophet of the Elder Gods taking on the form of a reincarnated Hitler (really), you lose the opportunity for linguistic ambiguity when you have to use gendered pronouns (for example).
While the developers at ATLUS struggled to find their groove – and repair damage done by bad imports – they eventually hit on the structures of Persona 3 and 4. These games were pretty much just JRPGs, plus excruciatingly elaborate mechanics to drive people who were only tangentially interested away. Still, they were successful, and with their success came more opportunities for expansion.
There were Shin Megami Tensei games on the DS, but the DS was always going to be a great place for games that were big on ideas and low on technical demand. You couldn’t make the DS render seven kajillion types of explosions, or use skeletal animation to do the heavy lifting of customisable characters, but if you wanted to create a game that used still images to represent almost a thousand characters and expressions, and was full of text-based fighting, the DS was perfect. Into this gaming landscape came Devil Survivor, a tactical RPG adventure game, hitting a genre that was at that point heavily loaded with games trying as hard as they could to be Final Fantasy Tactics. Devil Survivor burst onto that scene with its modern aesthetic, its mish-mash of mythological cultures, and an uncompromising difficulty curve. While other games in that genre had become tutorial-heavy and prone to hand-holding, grind and slog, Devil Survivor instead had anti-grinding measures, an enormous wide-open character building toolset, and a dizzyingly deep combat system.
Whatsoever Thy Hand Findeth To Do
The play experience for Devil Survivor is that of a fairly standard tactical RPG; you have a small number of units – characters – on a grid-based map, and they can move around to be close to people, and engage those people in little one-on-one tiffs. Or rather, three-on-three tiffs, between the character and their two subordinate demons, and the enemy of one-to-three demons, demon summoners, thugs, gangsters, and – you know, let me start again.
You play a nameable teen protagonist travelling from school with two of his (probably) friends, Atsuro and Yuzu, when a natural disaster happens and, in true Tokyo fashion, everyone reacts to it in a very orderly fashion, expecting The Authorities to fix it. What is assumed at first to be a earthquake is later revealed to be an explosion which is then revealed to be some sort of poison gas release, and around the point the army blockades everyone in and you’re being followed around by fairies and cats, you might think something weird is going on. The players retrieve NDS-shaped digital devices that let them control and manipulate demons, receive e-mails, and also crucially shows them a number floating over one another’s heads. That number tells them in how many days they will die. Then, as night falls, they receive an email from a system called Laplace, that tells them where they will be when they die.
You know, for kids!
The story, with its strange totemic tie-ins to the handheld system it’s on, unfolds from there with a strange maturity I’d not have expected. Characters encounter supernatural forces with a very reasonable set of emotional reactions. The mythological characters, typically, aren’t actually very concerned about the specific, transient events around them – they’re almost all quite apathetic to human experience, and happy to just appear, serve, earn some currency, then be fused and turned into other, more effective demons if – Oh right. Hang on, let me start again.
See, the game is like Pokemon, if Pokemon weren’t ‘caught’ as much as they were formed in laboratories from the chemical synthesis of other pokemon, in a semi-predictable way that allowed for the inheritance of traits from one another. You know how in Pokemon there’s breeding chains, where you can raise thing X to get a move, then pass that move onto its child Y, then pass that move on to child Z, and somehow at the end of it all, you’re left with a level 60 Bidoof that never left daycare after it learned Amnesia? Think something along those lines, as the core mechanic for the whole game. There’s a limited pool of moves, and there are inferior/lesser versions of most moves, meaning that as you level up your demons, their moves become less effective. You solve this by fusing them into newer, higher level demons – which add other abilities to the pool. This level of complexity is multiplied when you find that some of those abilities affect the whole team, and therefore, you might want to replicate them for the team’s human member – wait, I should explain that.
You can steal enemy’s abilities for use on your human characters, which lets you customise the way they play. Complicating this, though, is that you have to declare, at the beginning of the combat, which character will defeat the enemy with the power you want to steal. This adds a puzzle dimension to the experience, where you try to plan a path through your enemies for people to take, in order to steal abilities they will use in that fight, without exposing themselves to undue harm from other enemies they’re not very capable of resisting. This is all while fulfilling the mission objectives, which can, in some cases, involve chasing down people, defending other people, stopping someone from doing something they’ll regret, or even in one case not killing someone who is trying very, very hard to kill you.
There’s a lot of stuff going on in Devil Survivor.
Train Up A Child
It’s very hard for me to explain just why I sank into Devil Survivor so thoroughly.
I think it’s important to establish that these past few years I have lost most of my snooty feelings about game completion that I once had. While once I had aims of Catching ‘Em All, and Defeating All The Optional Bosses and Collecting All The Triple Techs, as I’ve grown older and my games pile has grown larger, I’ve become more interested in just enjoying the bits of a game I like. When a game gives me the opportunity to indulge that – like, for example, Far Cry 3’s pirate outposts – I will do the thing I enjoy, and when the game stops being enjoyable, I take very little convincing to throw the whole thing out the window.
I have restarted and replayed Devil Survivor about nine times.
I still haven’t seen all the endings.
I’m not sure what it is that makes me feel so comfortable slipping into the shoes of the protagonist. I remember feeling a surprising sense of smugness as I was allowed give him the nickname ‘Lucky Star.’ That’s a sort of character affect that I just don’t do normally. If a game gives me the opportunity to name a character without any real avenue of self-expression, I’ll pick a name that’s functional, and that’s usually the end of it. Very rarely I’ll name a save for myself, but in say, Legend of Zelda games, the protagonist’s name is Link. Duh.
Was it the pixel art? The really charming little pixelly avatars holding up their hands? Maybe it was just the rage against the heavens aesthetic. Or how about how this game presented the bad ending – ‘run away from all of this terrifying shit’ – as entirely reasonable and acceptable as a response to the game’s dreadful themes? Maybe the variety of character designs and the surprising diversity of characters? Or perhaps it was the way I felt powerful, running around with demons doing my bidding as I punched bad guys in the face? Or maybe what made it work so well for me was that as a turn-based, strategic game with discrete elements and no forced time elements, It perfectly suited the portable NDS console?
There’s a lot a game can do better than Devil Survivor does it, but I can’t think of many games that did all the things it did as well as it.
This is a game of monstrous mechanical depth and fascinating complexity. Arranged around, and composing part of that, however, is a morally complex story that touches on themes of fate, destiny, obligation, and the just nature of god. You can ally with a rogue demon, a cult’s Jesus figure, a bartender with the power of lightning, corrupt police, a beautiful musician with a demon-summoning sound-board, a magical girl cosplayer and a badass super-soldier. This is a game that lets you ride Cerberus to punching a Norse god to death with a phone strap.
Hack the heavens.
Survive the storm.
You can buy Devil Survivor on the 3DS e-Shop. Until August 4th, it’s only fifteen dollars, which is definitely a price worth paying for a game I love this much. The version you can buy there is the 3DS expanded edition, known as Overclocked. I can’t speak to any of the changes between these games. Still, they’d have to mess something up pretty majorly for it to not be the game I love.
Buy it if:
- You like tactical RPGs in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics. This is one of the best of its genre.
- You’re interested in a kid’s game that involves mature storytelling devices and themes.
- You want to experience interesting storytelling using very limited interfaces and tools.
Avoid it if:
- You’re very sensitive to religious themes.
- Character deaths and horror concepts disturb you greatly.
- Talk of suicidal ideation is upsetting to you