The Shin Megami Tensei series and its spin-offs are not always linked, but they do have one thing in common: demons. Devil Survivor is the first of the series to come to the Nintendo DS, and it appears to be yet another engaging and captivating role-playing game by Atlus. Set in the bustling city of Tokyo, Devil Survivor combines several elements from the role-playing and text-based adventure genre to create a strategy RPG adventure hybrid. This works out well, in case you're wondering, and it's easy to get into because you need to know only the very basics of SRPGs to jump right in.
You play as the quiet 17-year-old whose genius programmer cousin, Naoya, hands off three "COMPs"--communication tools that basically looks like a DS--to you and your friends, Atsuro and Yuzu. Atsuro hacks into these COMPs, but to his surprise, he summons three vicious demons that are ready to rip you all to shreds. Luckily, with your DS lookalike, you are able to defeat the creatures and tame them. With a feisty demon at your service, you and your friends investigate the city and all of the strange events that have been happening. The story isn't hard to follow, but it's very bizarre, like most SMT games and their spin-offs. Your COMP receives mysterious e-mails that predict the future, as well as cryptic messages from Naoya. There's some kind of demon invasion going on, and it seems that only COMP holders have the power to stop it. There's also a countdown number by everyone's head to indicate how many days they have left to live.
The story unfolds like a text adventure in which you spend a good amount of time sifting through dialogue, but once in a while, you'll get the chance to choose what you want to say. Your decisions throughout the game will affect the ending, so there's replay value here if you want to see how many different ways it can pan out. Exploring Tokyo is just a matter of selecting which district you want to go to via the COMP menu, and locations that will move the story forward are marked with a timer. There are free battles to fight in case you want to level your characters a bit, but it doesn't seem like you ever have to worry about being jumped because even upcoming battles are marked.
Devil Survivor's battle system is an intriguing one. Once a fight begins, you'll have to determine where you want to place your characters on the grid, like in a SRPG. You and your friends Atsuro and Yuzu can each have up to two demons cohorts, so when you're setting your characters down, you're actually determining where to put a team of three. Once you move next to an enemy and initiate an attack (get attacked), you switch to a first-person turn-based system and get one shot before the round is over. Extra turns are given to those who attack first, but you can lose this advantage if the battle doesn't go well. For example, if you exploit the enemy's weakness and it attacked you first, it could lose its extra turn. Your enemies also come in groups of three, and if you take out the ringleader in the middle, that fight is over; the same goes for you.
The first demons that you encountered formed a pact when they were defeated, but this isn't always the case. To acquire more help, there is an interesting feature called the demon auction, in which you can bid on demons that are available. An e-mail sent to you in-game explains how this auction will save you from having to form pacts with the devils yourself. Other bidders can bid against you, so you have five seconds to try to win it. If more than one person is interested, you go into a final bid in which you have one more chance to win. We didn't get a chance to experiment with this in our play time, but you can also fuse demons together to create a more powerful beast to accompany you in battle.
There's always a sense of style when it comes to the SMT games, and Devil Survivor is no exception. The character designs have a sleek look, but if you're familiar with Suzuhito Yasuda's manga or Kazuma Kaneko's previous SMT games, then you can see where the influence is coming from. Takami Asano's soundtrack is also very good, with metal-influenced tracks to keep the vibe edgy and sinister.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor looks set to be an excellent addition to the franchise and was clearly, judging from the story, designed specifically for the DS. The narrative starts off strong and sucks you in early on, so we're eager to find out how these young teens plan to fend off hoards of demons and save Tokyo. Look for our full review when Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is released on June 23.