This latest update to the Shin Megami Tensei RPG series from Atlus offers up a fresh dish of pet collecting madness. Having not personally played any previous games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, I will be reviewing this game with an untainted perspective and only with comparison to the current generation of RPG's. Upon first discovering this game, I was immediately drawn to the art style and game setting. It is set in what could be described as 19th century Japan with demons. The player assumes the role of a wet-behind-the-ears devil summoner named Raidou Kuzunoha who begins his career with training in the art of demon summoning. This training takes place in a grand hallway where you learn the simple yet elegant controls. After completing these lessons, you are employed at a local detective agency run by an investigator named Narumi. The story starts out fairly slowly and I wasnâ€™t instantly gripped by intrigue but it gets better.
The real meat of this game lies in the use of a variety of demons. The demons really make this game enjoyable; it manages to tap the same collecting mentality that makes Pokemon so great. Provided the moon is just right and you use the correct weakening attacks, you can acquire the demons that you encounter in combat as pets. Once a demon is acquired, you can level it up alongside your character and summon it whenever necessary.
Demons are not limited to the battle field, in fact they are essential to many of the puzzles throughout the game. For combat, each type of demon has a specific set of elemental attacks. For non-combat tasks, the demons have special abilities such as mind reading that can be used to gain information and solve puzzles in the story. You can also take control of your demons separately from the main character to unlock secrets and to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Capturing monsters that you encounter is all well and good, but the best part of the demon system is that you can play the role of genetic scientist to combine your demons into new and exciting beasts. Combining demons results in new and unique pets with new abilities. This game element is where some of the Devil Summoner's replay value really shines through.
Let's move on to the technical aspects of this game that unfortunately fall somewhat short of my expectations. The number one problem I have is the pre-rendered backgrounds. They feel dated at this late stage in the PS2's lifetime. The main drawback to having pre-rendered backgrounds is the resulting fixed camera angles ala Resident Evil. This works fine for Resident Evil because it can provide shock value in certain situations. But even Resident Evil moved away from fixed camera angles for the 4th installment in its series. Sure, the backgrounds looks pretty in most places and they are well done. But the fact remains that the camera jumps around making gameplay unnecessarily disorienting. There is a map to help you navigate but switching to the map is a pain when you just want to see which way youâ€™re facing. It should be noted that was mostly necessary after the camera switched places completely at a seemingly random point on the street. The characters arenâ€™t bad but could use more detail. The overall style, as I mentioned before, is beautiful. The art direction is top notch but execution falls a bit short. Also worth mentioning are mentioning are the well designed demons and ornate spell effects in combat.
Combat is fast and exciting with Raidou using both a sword and a gun that has swappable elemental bullets. Swapping among the variety of bullets can give you an advantage over certain enemies. The combat is all real-time but it takes place in small arenas to which you and your enemies are teleported. The demons are controlled via a simple control menu with options relevant to each particular demon. I typically dislike the use of AI-controlled teammates but the AI for the demons is very useful and reacts very well to commands. You can easily swap between demons during combat when the time is right. I will say, the boss fights and random encounters in Devil Summoner are quite fun.
Random encounters are, however, not without issue. With the exception of shops, they happen everywhere you go. Not only are they everywhere, but they are also very frequent sometimes to the point of being frustrating. Adding to the frustration of being forced to fight all the time is the fact that money is quite controlled in this game. In other words, all the money you make in-game is spoken for by necessities. The more damage you take or mana your demons use to stay alive, the more you have to spend to get them healed or to buy healing items. If a demon dies, there is no "inn" to cheaply resurrect monsters. Instead you must use a resurrection item on it before it can be healed. What isnâ€™t fun is the fact that these resurrection items are costly enough to take a chunk out of your income.
Devil Summoner is a very enjoyable game if you give it a chance and if you are patient with the random encounters. That being said, it is up against some very stiff competition from the likes of Final Fantasy XII and Valkyrie Profile II. Still, it is a good value and a good time for the pet lover in all of us. Collecting pets and playing around with merging them is just plain old fun. The setting and character designs are all great and were at times what kept me playing even if the story was a bit slow to get going.