After rising in popularity with Persona 3, Atlus have gained a large number of new fans who enjoy the more mature style of story telling and strategic turn based gameplay of their games. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon may not be turn based, but it still has the same dark storyline and strategic battle system that has become a staple of the SMT series. It also has one of the longest titles I have seen for a game, but that really doesn’t say anything about the quality of the title, just that it should be abbreviated at all times.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon (DS2) lets you control a player-named devil summoner who has the title of Raidou Kuzunoha the 14th. He is tasked with protecting the capital (of Japan presumably) from all kinds of danger. He does so under the cover of a detective agency, but you are truly doing it at the behest of the Yatagarasu, a shadowy organization of devil summoners of which you are a member. Accompanying you in this endeavor are: Gouto (one of the previous Raidou’s, who is for some unexplained reason in the form of a cat), Tae (a strong willed reporter from a local newspaper), and Narumi (your boss at the detective agency).
The story for DS2 takes place in the 1930s but is most heavily influenced by 1920s Japan. This means that there are many references to Western culture and Narumi especially seems quite enamored with Western cuisine (coffee and toast). Your detective agency is found by a mysterious young woman who gives you a picture of a man named Dahn and asks you to locate him. This case is of course much more than meets the eye and before too long you find yourself working to try and save the capital, and perhaps the world.
Like all games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, the story to DS2 is very dark. Murders occur right in front of you with blood spattering out, each time you slash an enemy there is blood, and you will come across many disturbing revelations throughout your investigation. The story is probably the best thing that DS2 has going for it, which is especially reassuring considering the genre it is in. Every person you come across seems to have reasons behind what they do, and no one thinks of themselves as the bad guy. Many times in the game you will be asked which side of the conflict is doing the right thing, and it could easily swing either way. I always love stories that do not try and show a good versus evil plot but instead just show people in conflict. Sure they disagree, but deep down they are still all people who think they are doing the right thing.
The story also has a philosophical touch to it, which was quite surprising, and a few times I was asked a philosophical question which forced me to pause for a couple of minutes and think about what the correct answer would be for me in that situation, which is far longer than I have ever pondered a moral question given to me in a game without consequences looming over me. My only issue with the story is that it takes a while to get going. This makes sense since the story at first revolves around a simple missing person case, so you are not going to be tossed into the underlying conflicts and deeper issues right from the get go, but it means that you’ll have to slog through a much more mundane story for a good amount of time before getting to the really god stuff.
Most of your time playing DS2 is split between doing detective work and fighting demons. The detective work is done by running around and talking to people, trying to get leads on who to go to next and sometimes using your demon's special abilities to read the minds of your interviewees or transform into another person’s likeness. This legwork helps to make you feel like an actual detective, but it can sometimes get tedious or become next to impossible to figure out who in all of the capital you are supposed to speak to next. Once you figure out where to go to, however, the revelations you find are almost always interesting, which helps to make it feel worth the effort.
In certain areas of the capital or the surrounding areas you will be attacked by demons and are forced to defend yourself. These encounters are random and you won’t see your assailant coming, but a meter that turns from blue to red as the random encounter approaches gives you an idea of when the demons will attack, even if you don’t know exactly what will be attacking you. Unlike in the last Devil Summoner title, battles only occur in certain areas, so you usually won’t have to worry about them while running around asking questions.
The battle system in DS2 is a far cry from the normal SMT fare of turn based strategy. Once a random encounter is initiated you will go through an almost seamless transition to a circular area where you and two demons will face off against however many demons have attacked you. You are then allowed to run around during the real time battle. Dodging is done with the X button and blocking is done with L1. These are both extremely important as some enemies will be able to kill you in only a few hits if you aren’t careful. The L2 button calls your demons to your side and makes you invulnerable to attack, though obviously they themselves cannot attack while in this state. L2 is extremely useful for having your demons dodge an impending attack while you do the same with the X button.
Regular attacks with your sword are done with the Circle button, which is usually how you will want to do your damage. Your demons will be automatically set to do regular attacks against the opponents as well. Heavy attacks are done with the Triangle button and differ from an ephemeral spear, axe, or sword attack, depending on the sword you have equipped. However, heavy attacks are not free, instead they cost a small amount of magnetite (the “mana” of DS2). Magnetite is also used up when you order your demons to use one of their special abilities, such as Agi or Bufu. Magnetite is slightly different from the mana in most games because magnetite is extremely difficult to get. It doesn’t come back automatically and there are no items you can use to replenish it. The only way to get back magnetite is to either rest at the detective agency or find your enemy's weakness. Like in all SMT games it is extremely important to find the elemental weaknesses of your enemies, and in DDS2 hitting an enemy with a spell they are weak to will stun them for around 5-10 seconds (depending on the power of the spell), during which time all of your attacks will be critical and the damage you do will replenish your magnetite a small amount. If you don’t have a demon that can take advantage of the weaknesses of your enemies you can also press the Square button to stun an enemy with your pistol, but this is not nearly as effective.
The rarity of magnetite makes for a very interesting battle system since you really don't want to get hit and waste magnetite healing yourself. This means that you will constantly be trying to dodge enemy spells and keep your demons out of harm’s way when an enemy is attacking. This is not as necessary if you know the weakness of your enemies because you then have a ready source of magnetite to get it back. Boss fights are especially hectic since they usually do large amounts of damage with their spells and have one or two undodgeable spells that you have to remember to block instead of dodge. Some boss fights can take upwards of 10 minutes, but you soon learn the rhythm of your enemy’s attacks. You also learn that it is almost always best to play the game defensively. If you aren’t sure it is safe to attack then it is probably best if you just hang back until you are certain. Far too many boss fights have ended in failure and copious amounts of swearing because I got too antsy and decided to battle more aggressively in order to try and finish the fight sooner.
I really love how this battle system plays out. Instead of the normal fare of Action RPG's where you stand there and take every hit that comes your way just like a standard turn based game, in DS2 you are constantly trying to keep from taking damage so that you don't waste precious magnetite. This makes every battle you engage in more hectic and important than they are in most other RPG's, since you can easily die if you let your guard down for too long. The addition of demons means that you have to watch out for not only yourself, but also the welfare of the two demons you are employing as well. Enemy weaknesses add a strategic element to the gameplay, which makes boss fights even more hectic as you try and get in an Agi between enemy attacks without getting hit yourself. My only complaint about the gameplay is that the detective sections can be confusing at points and long enough that they begin to get dull.
New Demons to assist you in battle are obtained by fusing two demons you already have to make a new one, or negotiating with demons you are fighting against for them to join you. Negotiating with your enemies for them to join you plays out a lot like SMT: Nocturne. The demon will ask you a couple of random questions and depending on if you tell them what they want to hear the conversation will go well or poorly. If you talk them up well enough you’ll be given the option to either ask them to be your demon, ask them for an item, or ask them to let you leave the battle. After you make your request the demon will ask for a couple of things in return before deciding whether or not to do you the favor, ranging from taking a bit of your life to asking for money or items. Demons can only accompany you if they are of equal or lower level than the main character, so it is important to check on this before negotiating to avoid wasting resources. My only issue with the negotiation system is that the mood of the demon is fairly random, so even negotiating with two Pyro Jacks can be completely different, but usually you can get a handle on what type of answers the demon wants. Your demons can also help you during these negotiations by using special abilities, but these can hurt if they are used against the wrong type of demon (don’t try to use the “sweet talk” ability of one male demon on another male demon, apparently the demon world has not yet come across homosexuality), so you have to be careful.
The visual presentation of DS2 is fairly disconcerting at first. Everyone has this creepy doll-like quality to them and apparently everyone in the 1930s in Japan wore heavy mascara. Once you get used to this aesthetic style it actually works extremely well alongside the dark nature of the game itself. There are not a lot of cut scenes but the ones that are there work well. There are no technical issues as far as glitches and bugs go but there were a number of noticeable framerate drops during battle, and the graphics are also not technically impressive in any way. There have been much nicer looking games in this genre for the Playstation 2 and some of them even come from the same SMT series.
As is always the case in SMT games, the music in DS2 is quite good. It usually settles on Jazz tunes that fit perfectly with the atmosphere, with some more Metal-like songs during fights. Sadly DS2 contains absolutely nothing in the way of voice acting. This was a rather large let down for me since good voice acting would really help to make the storyline even more fantastic. There are sound effects, and some of these are voices such as laughing or grunting, but there is nothing that could truly be called voice acting.
My first play through of DS2 took me around 42 hours, which is around the norm for a JRPG these days. It is important to note that my save file only says 39 hours played, and that is because this title can be exceptionally hard at times and I guess that I spent at least 3 hours in attempts at certain bosses that obviously were not counted on the save file. DS2 goes above and beyond the norm with its replay value. The ending changes and more demons become available depending on how you answer all of the philosophical questions throughout the game, as well as a more obvious set of choices near the end. There is also a “new game +” feature and many more demons to catch and fuse than you will probably have time to do in your first play through. There are also some side missions available as Case Files from the detective agency, but only some of them have a story behind them. When it is all said and done you get quite the bang for your buck with this title and who can say no to their very own Jack Frost dressed up as Raidou?
DS2 is the type of game that could have been a true masterpiece if some more money and effort had been put into it. The story is a fantastically dark detective tale that is constantly surprising you, the gameplay is extremely fast and nerve wracking (in a good way), and the replay value is exceptional for a JRPG. Unfortunately the total lack of voice acting, technically unimpressive graphics, and the occasional framerate hiccup bring this down to simply a great title. I highly suggest the title to any JRPG fan, with a warning that it can take a while before the game really grabs you.