clip_image002

Ventures into the realm of Japanese Shinto religion are few and far between, but are mostly portrayed in a bizarre and often scary way. One of the earlier examples in video games comes from the Shin Megami Tensei series, which in turn is based off the Digital Devil Saga novels. The series somehow became a cult phenomenon in its native country because of the odd blend of the future and the occult. Spawning more spinoffs than any game series to date with the possible exception of the Capcom’s Megaman, there are many different styles of the same core idea. Arguably the most commercially successful of these is the only one to really penetrate the western shores; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona. But it is easy to forget that there are other games from the same series to have been lovingly translated. One such example tries to take the idea of the core series and turn it on its head. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner – Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army (herein known as simply “Devil Summoner – Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army” ) brings back the series to a 1920s Japan and places you in a detective agency. The setting is a bit like a Japanese version of a HP Lovecraft short story. Will sanity be reduced due to a really messed up story or some poor development decisions?

Things start with a trial by fire. In order to earn the title of Raidou Kuzunoha the 14th, you need to complete the task set for you by a disembodied voice. After earning the title, you are tasked with the defence of Tokio, and are employed by a detective agency that specializes with occult activity. Your first case doesn’t go particularly well however as the client gets kidnapped by men with weird helmets and big swords. By the end of the first chapter, it becomes apparent that there is something really big going on and that it will take the rest of the game to explain it. For me, this wouldn’t have been the direction I would have liked to have seen, simply because having an entire case take the entire game to solve doesn’t allow much room for mystery. This is essentially the first instance where the game has no idea of the pace at which the game is progressing. What’s even more baffling is that some of the twelve chapters are incredibly short when compared to others. The second chapter took hours and hours to get through, whereas the following one took mere minutes, providing you didn’t get lost. There is also a sense that while the 1920s feel is right, there is a notion that the game isn’t taking itself seriously. When the game name-bombs historical figures such as Grigori Rasputin and throws them into the role of a psychopathic devil summoned who is hell bent on destroying a Japanese city, this is where all reality gets thrown out of the window. Not that unrealistic elements aren’t welcome in a games plot. It is just that the story loses what credibility it has at that point due to the unusual pace of gameplay combined with a plot that is hard to follow.

smtdsrkvtsa2

While the story is a little hard to follow; the setting and overall look of the game is indeed a good effort. The cars and trams might look a little too modern in comparison to actual reality, but the busy streets give the game a uniquely urban feel for an RPG. The music is not quite as polished. It isn’t that the tracks aren’t good, because they really are catchy. The problem comes from setting. Everything in the normal world is a little on the Jazzy side, which would be absolutely brilliant if the battles didn’t rely on rock/metal influences. This is an odd complaint for me, but the shift between the two styles makes no sense.

There is a real sense that the game doesn’t know its own encounter rate a little on the extreme side. There have been occasions when I would walk three steps and another battle happens. This really slows down the game to a crawl. A couple of advantages you do have are that you have the ability to detect when you are next going to have a random battle, and that you can increase or decrease the rate at which you fight. The indicator does sometimes go blue in some areas, which means you won’t have any random battles here. It is a good touch to know when the random encounters are going to happen, but would be even better if the game kept to a fair pace. As for the battles themselves, they take place in a small area. Providing that Raidou has enough MAG, he can summon demons that he has confined to glorified test tubes. While his demons have many abilities depending on their species, Raidou himself is limited to running around, slashing and item duties. If he should die, it is game over. This would be fine if the game didn’t decide that certain random encounters would start off with him being surrounded by monsters. It’s bad enough having zombies with hats all around you performing nose dives in an effort to flatten you; having Gorgon-like demons spam you with a charm spell that immobilizes you from the get go is just ridiculously unbalanced. At least running away from many enemies is far simpler than running away from just one or two. Bosses crop up on occasion and are fought in a fairly standard fashion, whilst posing a challenge.

smtdsrkvtsa1

The action all takes place in the streets and districts of Tokio; so while you are in towns that would normally be completely safe, you would be fighting demons that manage to pass through the dimensions. There are occasions where you warp or pass through into this other dimension, which usually brings upon it the Shikimi no Kage. These are walls that can only be harmed by the element named in its type and all other elements do nothing. It is an interesting concept that relies on you to manage your party efficiently enough to have all the different elements needed to kill it, as well as being well stocked on bullets. There are examples of clever yet infuriating dungeon design, such as the labyrinth where entering it at different points enables new paths to be traversed. If it wasn’t for the unforgiving random battle rate, this wouldn’t be anywhere near as frustrating. One of the better implemented techniques used is the monster abilities that aren’t battle related. The type of monster and its nature is used to get important information or to get across an obstacle. One early example is when attempting to find a diary using a monsters world ability that highlights important objects. There is a somewhat familiarity between this and the Pokémon games in practice, but I’d actually say this is better executed. You also have segments where monsters have to go off on their own to investigate areas that are out of your reach. The downside to this is that battles are fought with just that monster and more often than not it will be pinned by a flurry of attacks. Monsters are a little more rigid in their movement and thus harder to control.

All these random encounters do however serve a very useful purpose. As you rise in the ranks, you gain the ability to handle stronger demons and indeed a wider variety. In turn, your monsters not only rank up and gain new abilities, but they also give you items and become more loyal to you. Loyalty is very important because once the loyalty is at the maximum, you can use it as your heart desires. Need a stronger monster? Fuse two of them together creating a new and hefty variety. Want to improve your weapon? Fuse a monster with it and imbue your weapon with magical powers! Feel that your monster needs a new ability? Sacrifice one so that it learns said ability. All of these actions are done in what can only be described as Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory for the demonically challenged. The level of customization and sheer range of monsters is perhaps the biggest perk and the reason it works is that while the encounter rate is so high, the actual battles themselves are a breeze.

Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army is in short a bit of a loose cannon. There are elements that work really well, such as the visual style and Overworld investigation segments, with actual monster interaction with items and puzzles being of a particular highlight. The levelling system is balanced with a great level of customization for party members and while the music is a little odd in terms of style choice, it is well composed. But the other side of the coin shows the abnormally high battle encounter rate and an obscure plot that fails to make one either care for it, or even make sense of what is happening at the time. I suppose the fact that the games overall name is stupidly long should have served as a warning sign.

Advertisements