Atlus's newest take on the Shin Megami Tensei series comes in the form of a hybrid tactical RPG with turn-based, party combat. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor for the DS summons a new life to Nintendo's portable system by bringing everything you've come to love about the SMT series without shorting you because it's on a handheld. The DS has been home to many half-baked spin-offs and bland tactical RPGs, but rest assured Devil Survivor is neither. I'm a longtime fan of tactical RPGs and a recent convert to the SMT series, and the time I've spent playing this innovative and mysterious title has left me wanting more.
"The DS has a library full of games that try something new, but Devil Survivor is one that works."
The most important thing to note about Devil Survivor is how it differs from a standard tactical RPG. A movement grid is still in place, but you no longer just move next to an enemy, bonk it with your hammer, and end your turn. You now have to move within attack range and engage the enemy team. This takes you into a turn-based battle where your team takes on up to three other enemy units. You select moves for your team, a target, and begin your turn. You can have a maximum of four teams in play with each team topping out at three, so you'll have at most twelve teammates to manage. Units on both sides sport the normal SMT series elemental strengths and weaknesses. You can exploit a weakness to deal more damage, gaining you either an extra turn or the cancellation of an upcoming enemy turn. Dia (cure), Zio (elec.), Agi (fire), and many other staple spells are here, so veterans of SMT games should feel right at home. For those not as familiar with the spell names, handy affinity symbols show the spell type and a description is listed at the bottom of the screen, so no worries about being too confused.
Character and team development is very robust. Human characters that are part of the storyline will each gain levels and learn new spells and skills, but have the option of "cracking" skills from enemy units. The cracking option appears at the start of combat and players are given a chance at learning an enemy skill in combat. If the player defeats the assigned enemy, he can learn the specified skill. If another player defeats that enemy instead, nothing happens. Demon party members are also quite diverse, as you can purchase and fuse a wide variety of them. The demon auction is the main way of acquiring new demons. You'll have to bid against AI opponents in order to obtain the demon you want to use. Demons of the same type will vary in stats and abilities, so the better quality ones will be more sought after. Demon fusion is also available, and you can quickly improve your party by pairing some of the weaker demons together to create a new demon type. A great feature when fusing demons is the ability to select which skills are inherited from the parent demons. It's a wonderful addition that I would love to have had during Persona 3 & 4.
I don't want to give away much of the story, but the game takes place in a sectioned off area of Tokyo where a demon invasion is beginning. Players will select different areas of the town to explore and characters to interact with to learn more about what's going on and how many days they have left to survive. The story is dark with some light-hearted characters, much like Persona, though without the social link aspect. You do have lots of character dialogue choices to make, which I'm sure will affect the outcome in some way.
Being able to save frequently is a bonus, even though there is only one save slot. Suspend saves used during combat act has a makeshift second save file, as it does not get deleted when restored. Like most SMT games, Devil Survivor is not a walk in the park, but it has been very manageable for me so far. Free battles are offered up as well, so players can level grind, crack new skills, and earn money to purchase more demons, but you shouldn't have to do this very often, at least I've not had to for the first ten hours.
Devil Survivor is fun, offering a robust and strategic combat system, loads of original features, and an engaging story. Those who are not fans of tactical RPGs might still be a little hesitant to try this one, but it does break new ground in a way that might win the subgenre some new converts. While Mistwalker's ASH offered a similar style of combat, the fact that we're not likely to see it leaves Devil Survivor in a class of its own. The DS has a library full of games that try something new, but Devil Survivor is one that works.