WARNING FOR MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE GAME. (and a little bit from Devil Survivor 1)
You don’t need to have played the other Shin Megami Tensei games, or even the other Persona games to enjoy Persona 3 or 4. It’s hard to say if the lax application of continuity is unique to the Persona series, the SMT games, or Atlus in general, but what’s important is that the games stand up on their own merits. SMT Nocturne/Lucifers call, Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2, Persona 3, Persona 4, Catherine, Devil Survivor 1, and of course Devil Survivor 2 are all games that are not only enjoyable in their own right, but in my opinion are games that NO GAMER, regardless of tastes, should go without. In the worst-case scenario, you can pick pretty much any one of those games and be satisfied.
And for the moment, I will personally recommend Devil Survivor 2 right now.
I remember first hearing about the spinoff franchise a few years back, and immediately finding myself intrigued. Granted, there were only a few magazine scans to go by, so I couldn’t form too strong of an opinion — and when it comes to gameplay, I would rather see or play a game for myself instead of have an article describe it to me. So for the most part, I was willing to give Devil Survivor 1 a ride; I’d been well-treated by P3 and P4, and I needed a boost to my DS (and 3ds, with DeSu Overclocked) library. So when the reviews started coming in — not as many as I would have hoped, — with good news, I was sold. And I was rewarded justly.
Let’s talk about the gameplay first, because in general the two Devil Survivor games are largely identical in that regard. You can think of it as a fusion of Fire Emblem and Earthbound; you bring four party members with you on a mission, navigate a map of varying size and shape, and engage with demons (and humans!) on a regular basis. Where things get interesting is the actual fighting; once you move a character within range of an enemy, you enter a sort of turn-based battle mode — your human character and two helper demons flanking him/her, versus up to three demons or another human/demon team. Thing is, instead of a full-fledged battle, you only have one guaranteed turn to do some serious damage — and after that, the skirmish ends and you’re back at the map. The key word here is guaranteed; by landing critical hits, hitting an enemy’s elemental weaknesses, or just having a high agility stat, you can give your individual team members one “Extra Turn” to finish off a target.
It’s a quick but strategic battle system, in the sense that you have to pick your targets carefully; you can hit enemy weaknesses, but your enemies can do the same to your demons, which not only deals extra damage but also has a chance of removing your Extra Turns (though you can do the same to them). It’s not a hard system to grasp, but it is one that demands a sound tactical mind…primarily because the Devil Survivor games are INCREDIBLY hard. You can shift the odds in your favor by equipping passive abilities and fusing demons to create more powerful allies — in other words, you have to abuse the system for maximum results. I’m convinced that the only way to beat these games is to create a quartet of game-breakers; you can only bring four humans with you to a map, and it’s outright expected of the game to not only pit you against double that number of enemies, but have reinforcements step in at any moment. Enemies have skill combinations that make them nearly invincible, capable of dealing high damage, and after a skirmish can heal themselves back up to full health…sometimes with all three of those abilities at once. Bosses can pick you off from a distance before you even get in range, and it’s common for them to have hyper-broken abilities as well. Special mention has to go to one late-game boss in DS1 with INFINITE attack range.
The difficulty of the game is, by default, several notches higher than most games this generation — and as far as I know, there’s no way to lower it. But even if there was, I wouldn’t recommend it; just because Devil Survivor is HARD doesn’t mean that it’s BAD. The entire point of the game is to survive, and overcome the struggles in both a gameplay and story aspect; offering anything less than unerring pressure would be a detriment to both. And of course, the games are hardly unbeatable; they occupy a space that challenges, but rarely annoys (though DS2, admittedly, takes it too far a few times). Overall, I would call the gameplay for this spinoff series a success.
But where the games excel is — you guessed it — in its story.
Now, in order to explain why the Devil Survivor games have good stories, for starters, the world actually feels like one that’s lived in, because there are actually other characters besides the main cast. Granted the main cast is pretty large — especially in DeSu2 — but the presence of extras is one that lends credibility to the whole “the world is coming to an end” angle, because it’s through their fear and panic that we players know that things are getting bad. Of course, the games have a nasty habit of reusing and re-coloring assets, but keep in mind that they’re DS games (and games I suspect weren’t properly funded until the second, given how much music gets recycled in the first game).
If you’ll let me borrow a phrase from the Zero Punctuation lexicon, what’s important to note about the DeSu games isn’t that “humanity is fucked”, and certainly not “pre-fucked” from the moment you turn on the game. Things start out normal and degrade over the course of about a week (barring some backstory shenanigans that make the game’s events possible). What this means is that we have some twenty hours of game time to see things go from A-OK to OH MY GOD DEMONS EVERYWHERE YO and appreciate the difference between the two states. Let me put it this way: in Gears of War, humanity is already in a bad spot, and the planet is essentially wrecked; the COGs are just trying to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. That’s not necessarily a bad trait to give your setting, but there are problems; the effectiveness and malleability of your setting are capped. Where do you go from “the world is wrecked”? Gears’ answer is “Well obviously, you just wreck the world even more!” It’s a possible answer, but it’s not automatically the best; it’s an artificial way to raise the tension, considering that outside of a few instances the world is pretty much just a backdrop for firefights. My basic argument is this: how are we supposed to care about a world that’s already destroyed and get only occasional glimpses at life in this war-torn world?
Not so with DeSu. The degradation that takes place over the week is almost palpable. People — office workers, gang members, and even cops — start abusing the summoning app just to survive. Food and medicine run low, demanding skirmishes in the middle of a street. Power outages beget civilians gathering into shelters and parks, which beget mass demon attacks…and of course, more riots. The SDF quarantines a hefty part of Tokyo, and will go so far as to shoot anyone who tries to escape (and one of the bigger reveals of DeSu1 is figuring out just what role the government plays in all this…and how much they knew before the outbreak). In the original game, there’s a cult running amok trying to enact a divine trial, there’s a competition between archdemons to become the king of all God’s unholy creatures, and before game’s end the sky rips wide open. And throughout all of this, you get to see people from all walks of life react to — and collapse because of — the disaster.
It’s not just NPCs that are reacting to the disasters you face; it’s your party members, too. Some of them are just one event away from crumbling (and some of them leap over the line, to the point of committing suicide or enacting some very messy vigilante justice). Characters start to question their world and themselves, with past mistakes and decisions rearing their ugly heads in the face of adversity and certain death. Oppression tracks these people no matter where they turn, either from external sources, internal struggles, divides between one party member and the next, and good ol’ fashioned horrific hellspawn from realms unimaginable. I don’t know about you, but I prefer a cast that reacts to things — the world or otherwise — instead of a cast that…well, doesn’t.
Okay, that’s enough of that. So what’s the story behind DeSu2? It’s fairly simple, actually. You’re a high school student hot off preparing for exams, and heading home with your buddy Daichi by your side. As you head for the subway, you run into the school idol, Io. Just as Daichi tries to get in close to Io, you all get mail on your cell phones — apparently, from the Nicaea site you’ve all heard rumors about. Lo and behold, it does just what a “dead face delivery site” is supposed to do: it shows a clip of the three of you dying brutal deaths. And in the same subway station you’ve just entered. Thankfully, the three of you manage to avert grisly fates, but only for a moment; you’re attacked by demons, and while you handle them with relative ease, that’s the worst of your problems. You head topside to find Tokyo in absolute ruins, with communications almost immediately cut off. What unfolds is a multi-day struggle to survive, dealing with rioters, the mysterious organization JPs (rhymes with “chips”), and of course the Septentriones — extremely powerful creatures that are more or less incomprehensible genocidal aliens.
Now, at this point I have to answer a question that I’ve had in mind since I first played DeSu2: did anyone learn anything from what happened in DeSu1? Outside of a few differences here and there, the opening hour or so of DeSu2 is identical to DeSu1. Even beyond that, the setup is remarkably similar. Demons start turning Japan into a disaster zone. You use a demon summoning app to fight back against demons and humans alike. Shit gets real. What worried me the most is that there are absolutely ZERO references to DeSu1 at all. None. They share similar ideas and plenty of demons, but it’s as if the original game never happened. And I thought to myself for the longest time, “Why?” It was a question that I needed to have answered, because otherwise it meant that nobody was paying attention during the near-cataclysmic “Tokyo Lockdown” of the first game. But hey, even if the DeSu2 hold the title of “2” doesn’t mean it have to be a direct sequel, but still, wouldn’t it hurt to mention atleast SOMEONE from the first game. Let’s just move on…
Those Septentriones I mentioned earlier? They’re in the employ of the world’s administrator, Polaris — and having believed that humanity has lost its will to live, Polaris decides to erase everything. You’re going up against the guy who makes and maintains the world; in fact, one ending suggests that by killing Polaris, the damage done to the world can never, ever be repaired. What’s left of humanity is all you’ll ever get…and you’ll just have to deal with it. Rebuild society and all that.
By the way, that “damage done to the world”? It’s not just demons and alien-type things smashing buildings. Polaris has been erasing the world by having it sucked into a spreading black nothingness nicknamed “The Void”. Kill him, and The Void goes away…to be replaced by nothing but a sprawling ocean.
And The Void has pretty much sucked up everything but a small section of Japan.
…Remember not too long ago when I said that a key part of JRPGs is eventually tracking down and killing a god? That’s probably not too good of an idea in this case.
But you know what? Honestly? I actually think that’s one of the best things I could have hoped for. See, when I was thinking about this post I was going to mention that the first ending I got — the “Liberator” route with Daichi, I believe it’s called — was kind of a cop-out. It’s the quintessential third option, where a small portion of the cast branches off to find a new path; that is, they don’t want to resort to extremes to create a new world, and certainly not by way of demonic urban warfare. So they opt to march up to Polaris’ throne and take out the administrator (who, much like the Septentriones, looks like a geometric nightmare creature) on the grounds that a world free from the control of some inhuman administrator trumps anything else. Speaking on a long-term level, it might work. Somewhere along the line, humanity might gain enough strength and wisdom to rebuild a world forcibly left as 99.9999% water. But in the short-term, it’s a remarkably shitty idea — not only is there a currently-capped amount of resources and supplies, but the ending heavily implies that there’s now no god of sorts to protect you from danger…so if there’s anything out there even nastier (i.e. a key enemy in a potential DeSu3), they’d better hope that the last remnants of society are up to the task.
It’s a harrowing ending — bittersweet and not necessarily heralding the end of humanity, but the implications are there. Still, the reason that I considered calling it a cop-out is because, in many ways, that’s what it is. The route is the “third option”, a medium between extremes. It’s something there that I think appeals to the player sensibilities — it’s the most peaceable path (relatively speaking), and one that upholds peace and the status quo instead of drastically changing the world. And maybe that’s its biggest problem. DeSu2 being a video game, taking a third option is as simple as picking your endgame route from a menu. It’s all too easy to assume that it’s a right, not a privilege. But in a real-world context, what if there WASN’T a third option?
What if, in spite of good intentions and a desire to avoid hurting the feelings of friends (or worse), opting for a different path wasn’t just difficult, but outright foolhardy? Daichi and his supporters end up getting called out for being so naïve and childish — and while the oldest member of the cast is a hoary twenty-six, there’s some semblance of a point in there. Even if there was a third option, Daichi’s “let’s not fight, let’s just be friends, and let’s turn everything back to normal” drive comes off as simple-minded and dangerous by the time he proposes it…doubly so because it’s a course sorely lacking in vision, and Daichi himself can’t define it beyond cowardly mutterings. Given that they only have two or three days max by that point to save the world, it’s understandable that a good two-thirds of the cast writes him off.
So what are the other two options? Well…the simplest way to put it is that they’re extreme.
In the blue corner, representing order, we have Ronaldo Kuriki. He’s a detective, and a passionate one at that; ignoring the fact that most of his assets have him expressing some sort of indignation, he’s the one most likely to start shouting about fighting in the name of justice (in an “aw, bless your heart” sort of way). But make no mistake, he’s serious about his goals; in the face of adversity and a country being completely dismantled by demons and invaders, he starts pulling together dislocated peoples and forming a sort of allied force. His ultimate goal (once he finds out Polaris exists)? To have the administrator remake the world in his image — that is, to create a world of equality, where everyone works together and supports one another without question. Simply put — in the game’s terms, at least — it’s egalitarianism.
Common decency suggests that if players don’t choose Daichi’s route, Ronaldo’s is the next in line. But what’s important to note is that for all his good intentions, Ronaldo is…well, he’s more or less a terrorist. The people he brings to his side? They’re rioters — and many if not all of them are rioters thanks to Ronaldo’s orders. He’ll gladly break into government offices and steal data, willingly killing anyone that gets in his way. He has good intentions, but it’s likely that none of them would have been sparked if not for his own quest for vengeance; he’s out for blood, and the very idea of compromise has never occurred to him. So he’s not exactly a good guy…nor is his ending 100% ideal.
And in the red corner (ironically) representing chaos, we have Yamato Hotsuin. Yamato is probably one of the most complex characters I’ve encountered in a while — he’s the head of the secret government agency JPs in spite of being only seventeen. He’s not only a genius, but also the heir to a clan that can harness the supreme energy known as the Dragon Stream. But no matter his status, his goal is clear: to use his resources and his organization, one well-versed in demon summoning, to rebuild Japan. Except Yamato has no intention of restoring the status quo; he’s out to create a new Japan, one where the strongest and wisest will rule and be rewarded, while the weak will suffer. He wants a meritocracy, and he’ll do anything to get it.
It’s easy to label Yamato as extreme, but in the end that’s probably the best description of both his actions and his goals. If not for his commands and his JPs peons, it’s likely that a lot of the game’s conflicts wouldn’t have happened. They’re hoarding food and medical supplies for themselves, acting under the impression that they deserve it more than the average citizen. They’re not above using force to suppress rioters — “rioters” taking on a VERY loose definition in several instances — and using flimsy justifications at most moments. Also, for a group that one would think would be the best Japan has to offer, more often than not JPs agents aren’t much more durable than the common redshirt. And really, do I need to say anything about the nastiness behind a meritocracy?
What’s important to remember is that neither Yamato’s meritocracy nor Ronaldo’s egalitarianism are treated as absolute right answers. Supporters of each ideal (i.e. your party members) will poke holes in both…and they’ll do so even if they’re on the side they want to be on. Take Joe, for example. It’s established almost immediately after meeting him that he’s a scatterbrained fool, someone who Yamato only tolerates because he’s a solid demon tamer. Over the course of the story, though, Joe reveals a certain savvy that makes him wiser than he appears, if only slightly so. More importantly, it’s highly probable that Joe was working alongside Ronaldo, gathering and stealing supplies to give to hospitals — no doubt the same hospital where his sick girlfriend resides. No small wonder, then, that Joe decides to partner up with Ronaldo when the party splinters; Joe knows he’ll be the first to get the axe in Yamato’s new world, and he’s seen the good work Ronaldo’s done with his own eyes. But it’s Joe of all people who wonders the loudest if Ronaldo’s world is any good, either — and I can see why that wouldn’t work. (The fact that the real world has yet to adopt an utterly-equal society is a hint in its own right.) There are holes that your party members point out, no matter which side they’re on.
But I’d argue that that’s not the point. DeSu2 is asking you a series of questions. One of them is obvious: “Do you think this new world of Yamato’s/Ronaldo’s/Daichi’s could work?” And the other one is “How do you rebuild a broken world?”
The second question is one that I want fiction to answer more readily. Look, we’ve all seen something related to zombies at this point in our lives, and we all know that the real danger (and draw) of the stories is the degradation of society. Humanity is the real monster, we live for chaos, et cetera, et cetera. Part of the appeal is seeing everything we’ve built either torn down or abandoned — and while it’s not exclusive to zombie fiction, it IS an incredibly commonplace idea throughout fiction, but in my eyes, that’s not enough. Not anymore. Gears of War 3 ended with the Locusts and immulsion completely erased; Anya consuls a grieving Marcus and tells him that there’s still hope left…this, in spite of their planet Sera being utterly wrecked. So you’d expect for them to start showing how they’d rebuild their shattered world, right? Nope. Not even an epilogue; it just fades to black with no justification of the hope Anya suggests. If you couple that with the fact that the upcoming Gears of War Judgment is a PREQUEL, it becomes incredibly obvious that the franchise is comfortable with wading in the “humanity is fucked” end of the pool. You could make the same argument about DmC; it was all too eager to tell us that the world was in sorry shape, but when it came time for genuine reform, all we got was a shot of a smoldering city before — you guessed it — fading to black.
Even DeSu1 was all too eager to show how society went from all right to all ruined…the key difference being that putting an end to the disaster was intertwined with creating a safer or better world by game’s end. But DeSu2 manages to take it a step further, letting it be more than just a rehash of DeSu1 as well as carving its own niche. Putting an end to the havoc is a big part of the story, as expected, but “saving the world” in this case means more than beating the bad guy. In fact, in a lot of ways the struggle to decide how the world will be rebuilt is more important than beating the bad guys. And rightly so.
Now, let’s be real here. There’s no right answer to the question of whether a merit system, equality, or restoring the status quo should reign supreme (and other options, I bet; there are more endings than just those three). That’s part of the point. You, the player, have the chance to decide for yourself what “the right answer” will be. There are faults with each system, but there are positives and benefits as well; even if it takes you a playthrough or two to realize that, you may end up seeing things Yamato’s way after seeing the game through to the end with Ronaldo.
Although, to be honest, I think there IS an answer to be had. Not an immediately obvious one, of course, but a subtle one. The true answer may very well lie in two qualities — those belonging to a single person…or rather, the proxy of a single person.
What are they? Well, I’ll be sure to explain in full…next time. He-Ho! For now!