Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Devil Survivor: Overclocked - Review

Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus/Ghostlight
Platforms: 3DS

Choose easy mode, ok? Look, I don’t care if you’ve played plenty of other Shin Megami Tensei games, just choose the darn easy mode and be done with it. I’ll explain why later, and it’s not for the reasons you’re thinking.

Devil Survivor: Overclocked is a rerelease of the original Devil Survivor, which was released on the Nintendo DS back in 2009. This remake boasts full-voice acting, something which the original game lacked entirely, not to mention additional post-endgame scenarios for several (numerous) endings. This isn’t necessarily a lazy cash-grab update, and it’s clear that Atlus gave a damn about giving the new cut of the game some love and care, rather than simply slapping it onto a new system.

Devil Survivor operates along the typical Shin Megami Tensei lines: target weaknesses, protect yourself using resistances. Most RPGs have this kind of mechanic, with robot enemies being weak to water/thunder, ice monsters susceptible to fire and so on. For Devil Survivor though, like with other SMT games, focusing on your opponents’ weaknesses is mandatory; bonus turns and money are doled out to players who fight successfully, whilst those that fail to adapt are usually shown a game over screen before too long.

Where Devil Survivor deviates somewhat from the traditional SMT formula is in its approach to combat. Rather than being a typical RPG, with enemies and characters lined up against each other, the game takes a strategy RPG approach. Characters move across a grid, with different units capable of moving greater or lesser distances. Units themselves meanwhile, are comprised of a human character and two demon partners. With up to four human characters on your team at any one time, this can amount to 12 characters being managed in a single battle, making for one of the more complex SMT games in recent memory.

Likewise, the story seems par the course to start with; demons, angels, apocalyptic outcomes, teens saving the world, before becoming more interesting with a few added complications. The game starts out with Tokyo becoming quarantined, and it’s soon down to you and your friends to find a way out of the blockade. It’s a fun, addictive little story and the bite-sized chunks of character dialogue fit perfectly with a portable game like this. It’s the kind you can boot up, push the story along, engage in a battle or two, and then put down again, almost like tuning into a popular TV show.

What’s even more impressive however is the commitment to player choice. Devil Survivor has numerous endings, with your choices made throughout the game determining your available outcomes at the conclusion. Many SMT have done something similar, but Devil Survivor almost goes to visual novel lengths of adaptive story-telling. Sure, peel back the cover and look at a guide and you’ll find that your choices weren’t quite as “free” as you once thought, but, considering everything else that’s going on, it’s fascinating that Atlus achieve this much.

The moral choices your character goes through aren’t all locked into the childish good/bad binary that ruins many games either. Without spoiling the plot, the angels in the game advocate absolute control, to the point of being fascist. Likewise, taking the “dark” path actually has your character adopt a “might is right” policy, punishing the weak for the sin of not being strong.

Where Atlus gets you to ask bigger questions is when you’re pitted against these ideologies. You can fight to protect the weak from Kaido, a local gang member who quickly adopts violence as his method of solving problems, but aren’t you just proving his point when you take him on with your demons?

It’s not as if Atlus provide any easy answers either. One of the “neutral” options (there’s several) is to flee from everything, avoiding conflict between the different political beliefs altogether. It’s impressive then, that the game “punishes” you with one of the worst endings for this approach, deftly avoiding the banal “they’re both as bad as each other” intellectual laziness that’s espoused in many a game’s story, most notably Bioshock Infinite.

All this gushing about the game’s story doesn’t mean that the actual gameplay isn’t up to snuff. Combat remains fun and tactical, and the fusion system remains one of the most enthralling mechanics in any RPG to date. It’s easy to get sucked in min-maxing your squad with the best abilities, and, given the tactical-RPG elements that Devil Survivor uses, you’re likely to get absorbed into this aspect even more.

Where things do become a little undone however, are in the difficulty. Not in the obvious sense, like all SMT games, Devil Survivor offers a robust challenge without resorting to cheap gimmicks or excessive handholding. No, where the game does become unstuck is in its approach to grinding.

You see, on the one hand the game actively opposes it, punishing excessive levelling with an experience penalty. Yet, macca, the game’s currency, is needed to fuse demons…and you get that from grinding. You see the problem.

Keeping up a full team of four players and eight demons is damn near impossible without frequent random battles. And the amount of macca you receive seems too slim by the end of the game. It’s a shame that the game should falter in this regard and it’d be easy to fix too, just add in greater amounts of money from fights. This, fortunately, is what the easy mode does without changing the rest of the game’s difficulty significantly.

Devil Survivor: Overclocked is the definitive edition of a very good RPG, that unfortunately succumbs, somewhat, to some slight design flaws. The voice acting can be a little suspect and it does suffer from some fairly awkward difficulty spikes. It’s a terrible place for newcomers to start with the series, who’d be better served checking out the Persona games or Digital Devil Saga first, but, for series veterans, this is a game that rewards its players with a deep combat system and a smart, well written, not to mention well translated, story. 


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