The last few years have been very good ones for role-playing game (RPG) fans, and doubly so for those who can appreciate deviations from the standard "save the world" formula. Clearly falling into this category, the Shin Megami Tensei series of games has always showcased a decidedly non-Western view of religion, usually featuring a pantheon of "demons" as its most populous characters. Only recently finding its niche in the United States despite being one of the most popular and long-running names in Japan, the superb Nocturne and its peerless predecessor Persona 2: Eternal Punishment are now joined by Atlus's latest localization, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army. Although it clearly takes the series in several brand-new directions, there's no doubt that Devil Summoner is a worthy addition to the series and excellent in its own right.
Set in the 1930's during Japan's Taisho era of transition to industrialization, Devil Summoner tells the story of Raidou Kuzunoha. The 14th in a long line of venerable summoners, he's assigned to the Narumi detective agency for the purposes of ensuring peace. Soon after, a case concerning a young girl wanting to be killed falls into his lap, and the adventure begins. Starting small, the sequence of events starts with puzzling out a simple curse and soon snowballs into a nationwide conspiracy sending Raidou on the hunt for clues everywhere from Yakuza-controlled bathhouses to the narrow corridors between worlds.
What makes Raidou so perfectly tailored to unravel the mystery is his ability to capture and control demons encountered in his travels. Unlike the other games in the Shin Megami Tensei line, Devil Summoner features real-time combat. Wielding a sharp sword and a sidearm shooting enchanted bullets, the game's fights take place on a single screen after a random battle is triggered. Dodging and blocking are important, and when Raidou strikes a demon with a weapon that takes advantage of elemental "weak" points (using fire shells on an ice demon, and so on) he can forcibly recruit any enemy as long as his experience level is equal to or greater than the demon's.
Although real-time combat is new territory, there's no doubt whatsoever that Devil Summoner is an RPG completely mindful of its heritage. Instead of sending players after new weapons or more impressive sword combos, the complexity of these battles comes from the demons themselves. Bringing the proper "teammate" into battle is the key strategy to winning, and acquiring more and more demons becomes a crucial part of gameplay. Vaguely like a darker, more serious sort of Pokémon, the urge to "catch 'em all" must be heeded in order to advance through each of Devil Summoner's twelve distinct episodes.
Perhaps as a conscious decision towards making this real-time combat more palatable, the difficulty level in Devil Summoner is the easiest the series has ever seen. For games famous for being extremely harsh and punishing to unprepared players, the enemies and bosses Raidou encounters are infinitely less lethal than initially expected. Don't get me wrong, because I'm certainly not complaining—I can still vividly recall the heartless spankings delivered unto me by Persona 2 and Nocturne, and as someone who's not a videogame masochist in any sense, this was probably the greatest gift that R&D1 could have given me.
Another area where Devil Summoner breaks new ground is in the balance and focus of the demons themselves. Featuring a much smaller pantheon, wrangling these otherworldly creatures is less confusing and more manageable than in the past. There are several very explicit tutorials that shed much-needed light on the basics of practical demonkeeping, and the developers have made giant concessions towards players by requiring less leveling-up than ever. It's a huge relief to be able to get the most out of each demon after earning only one or two levels, whereas grinding for experience points was usually taken to an unpleasant extreme in the past. It might not seem like an important thing to mention, but when faced with over eighty potential demon choices (each with their own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses) this rebalancing saves huge amounts of time and effort.
As someone who's spent time with every Shin Megami Tensei title brought to the states, I absolutely fell in love with the fact that Devil Summoner is clearly aimed at a less hardcore audience. However, though it's much more open and playable than ever, there's still more room for improvement.
The main focus of my criticism is that the game hangs on to too many of the idiosyncrasies that are common to the series, giving it a somewhat dated and cumbersome feeling. For example, with so much demon management necessary, it would have made far more sense to allow me to do this at will rather than making me return over and over to one specific location. It's difficult to keep spells and abilities straight since they aren't apparent from their names, and simply traveling can be a tedious process too. Navigating maps with specific avenues of travel and trying to figure out which roads lead where when exploring might have been par for the course on the PlayStation, but it comes off as antiquated here. It may sound a little strange to say about a game that tries so many new things, but there are still several areas in need of an update.
Although longtime devotees of the Shin Megami Tensei series may cry foul due to Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army's efforts to make itself accessible to newcomers, I can only applaud it. Though it's been streamlined, simplified, made easier, or even completely changed in parts, it retains all the elements making these games what they are—and the fact is, there is such a thing as being too hardcore. In my eyes, anything that can help Shin Megami Tensei gather a larger audience stateside is a positive thing.