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March 27, 2012

Persona? More Like Bro-Sona! (Part 4)

I didn’t think it was possible, but somehow, Devil Survivor 2 kicked my ass even harder than the original.

It never reached Sin and Punishment 2 levels of difficulty (though I’d argue nothing ever will).  But for what it’s worth, it was ridiculously hard.  While I managed to clear it -- and as I understand it, cleared a path that no one on their first run should go through -- I feel as if the difficulty sometimes went from “challenging” to “cheap.”  It’s a delicate balance, and while I absolutely love DeSu2, I think that it goes way off the deep end a few times too many.  Take the new enemy type, Hamsa.

Imagine if you will a super-fast enemy.  One that can clear a huge distance in two or three moves.  One that, merely by being a part of a demon team, gives the same bonus to its comrades.  Now imagine that same enemy being able to strike your characters long before they can even wind up for a swing.  And imagine that enemy healing up demons you just brought within an inch of their lives, thereby giving them a second chance to wallop you…this, in a game where killing enemies as quickly as possible is ABSOLUTELY VITAL.  And they do it all while staring at you with this braindead expression.  Mocking you.  Taunting you.  Saying “Hey dude, you brought this demon down to 1 HP?  Too bad, bro!  I JUST HEALED HIM UP TO FULL!  SUCK THAT DOWN!”

Those ducks.  Those ducks.  Those damn ducks.  Those ducks.  Those ducks.  Those damn ducks.

…Anyway, this post is about another bro.  

Daichi Shijima (Devil Survivor 2)
Broccupation: Universal Peacemaker and Designated Outhouse of All Living Creatures

The first bro to master the art of perpetual dramatic wind.

Daichi, Daichi, Daichi.  Where do I begin?

Well, the story proper might help.  It starts off with the protag -- a mute, blue-eyed MC, just like last time -- finishing up a study session with his pal Daichi.  As the two of you shove off for the day, you meet up with student body heartthrob Io in the subway.  And then all three of you receive emails on your phones saying you’re going to die, there’s an earthquake, demons start running amok, and Japan is invaded by aliens straight outta Pythagoras’ worst nightmares.  So year, you’re gonna be busy over the next eight days. 

One of the things that bug me about DeSu2 is that as far as I can tell, it does nothing to address the events of DeSu1.  Nothing.  No matter which ending you got, Japan (and the world) at the end of that seven day-period is in a poor state of affairs.  There are demons everywhere, the sky’s pretty much ripped open, death and destruction are commonplace, and people have started abusing the summoning program installed in Nintendo DSes COMPs for personal gain and survival.  And none of that is even addressed in the sequel.  In fact, everything looks perfectly normal.  I have a theory why the continuity went this way (more on that later), but I suppose it’s inconsequential in the end.  Japan ends up getting wrecked anyway and disaster strikes like a bowling pin covered in explosives hitting bowling pins made out of Molotov cocktails.  Your normal lives are ruined, and the only way to save the day is to use technologically-updated black arts supplied by a mysterious benefactor.  And of course, you start with a mute hero, a guy, and a girl.

But here’s where the similarities start to thin.  See, a lot of people waved their Tempered Swords of Complaint at DeSu1 for the girl of the group, Yuzu.  “All she ever does is complain!” people argued.  “Yuzu seriously needs to stop crying!” people argued.  “Tch.  She’s such a girl!” people argued.  “She’s improbably buxom!” people…well, it’s hard to argue on that point.  It certainly didn’t help that, out of the first four party members available to you, Yuzu inexplicably moves one less space than the others.  (It sounds minor, but trust me, those spaces add up).  To some, she was a pretty lousy character.  I argue for the contrary; honestly, how many of you out there WOULDN’T be seconds away from a breakdown if your world was overrun by demons?  She brings up a lot of complaints, I’ll admit, but bear in mind this is a normal teenage girl, not a warrior.  If the goal was to create honest, believable characters, Yuzu was a necessary evil.  Not everyone can be as badass as Atsuro.  (Though DeSu2’s Jungo comes pretty close.)

I wonder why.

In DeSu2, the roles are reversed.  Last time it was the boy who was a boss and the girl who always whined; this time, it’s the girl who’s a boss and the boy who does his fair share of bellyaching and then some.  Daichi’s your average Joe.  In the same vein as Junpei, he’s a guy that’s not the best at academics, happy to have his driver’s license, is eager to see the girls in a state of undress, and is decidedly freaked-out when he has to go up against geometric creatures hell-bent on erasing reality.  Daichi’s sprites are almost constantly in a state of shock and fear (as opposed to the MC, who remains stoic in the face of adversity).  He’s quick to remind you that “this is crazy” or “he doesn’t want to fight” or “let’s get out of here” or something equally yellow-bellied.

Unlike Yuzu, however, Daichi gets hammered -- repeatedly -- for being anything less than a stoic, no-nonsense warrior with a gun sword and does flip-de-loops.   Kidnapped and tied up.  Nearly frozen to death.  Forced to participate in experiments that regularly end in explosions.  Consistently told to shut up and/or stop being stupid by the other cast members (including, if you so desire, his best friend the MC).  It’s as if his sole reason for living is to fulfill his duty of being crapped upon by every living being in the universe -- and then the game would play it for laughs.

But like Yuzu before him, Daichi fills a necessary role.  If we look to a character to provide tonal consistency, then you can count on Daichi to inject a bit of fun in every third cutscene.DeSu2 is a lot more lighthearted than the last game -- not to the point of farce, but breaking up moments of “good lord the world is ending” with moments of “ha ha Daichi just got dragged across an amphitheater.”   It’s a difficult balance to strike, but for the most part it works.

So expressive.  Too bad you're unloved by God.

Moreover, Daichi’s general aptitude at sucking makes him perfect on two levels.  The first is that because he’s not too good at all this fighting with demons business (and by extension, Pokémon), he’s always looking for a way out.  It’s a clash with his fundamental goodness; fighting solves more than a handful of problems in the game, but Daichi wants to help people without the consequence of having to burn them alive.  Luckily he finds some semblance of a happy medium -- he puts his driving skills to good use, shipping food around to disaster victims throughout the story, and offering to explore Nagoya on a mission from his newly-met superiors in JP’s (pronounced “jips,” much to my surprise).  Considering…well, recent events in Japan, Daichi helps to prove that you don’t have to be a warrior to be a hero; all you need is an earnest desire to help people.

The second level is that because he doesn’t want to fight (again, sucking), he tries to convince others to take a more peaceable route…and inadvertently becomes a middle man that can help bring a new era of peace for the ravaged world.  At a certain point in the game, it’s made VERY obvious that the planet’s breaking down, not just Japan; under pressure, the dozen or so characters you’ve come to admire and cooperate with begin to dissent.  There’s a way to fix this destruction, but there’s a catch: you have to choose who to follow and support in his world-rebuilding efforts.  On one hand, you can choose to support JP’s chief Yamato, who’ll use this final option to create an unshakeable meritocracy…knowing that you’ll be supporting the same guy who hoarded food and supplies from disaster victims so his organization could live in comfort.  On the other hand, you can support the detective Ronaldo, a justice-lover who’ll create an egalitarian world where everyone helps one another…knowing that you’ll be supporting a man who’s effectively resorted to terrorism throughout the game.  Regardless of your choice, your friends have their own opinions and will split off as they see fit -- some side with Yamato, others with Ronaldo.  Inevitably, this means that both camps will come into direct conflict with one another, as if trying to spark a Royal Rumble.

Well, that’s not quite true; as it turns out, Daichi -- indecisive and reluctant to fight as always -- offers a third path for players to take.  He doesn’t have a solution.  He doesn’t have a plan to remake the world.  He doesn’t want to install some sort of unflinching, unquestionable zeitgeist; he just wants things to go back to normal, and for the fighting to be over.  It’s not much of a plan, but it’s an alternative to “kill my fellow man because he doesn’t agree with me, in spite of us both being assaulted by aliens.”  Luckily the MC -- i.e. you -- can intervene and give Daichi and his little band of peacemakers some direction.  In my case, I advocated bringing the warring factions together so we could search for a better solution…a solution that involved killing the universal administrator so that we’d never have to endure another planet-rending trial.

Abstract art?  That's it.  Planet's doomed.

You’d think Daichi would call it quits at that point, right?  Clearly you don’t know Daichi.  He may be a screw-up at every turn (regularly tumbling off Dead Man’s Curve, Dead Man’s Turn, and Conveniently Gentle Bend), but he’s got your back.  In the first few hours of the game, Daichi plows a truck into alien exploding ice cream.  While he does run in a completely opposite direction from the group at one point in the story, he doesn’t do anything of the sort afterward.  Stat-wise, he’s got low magic aptitude and okay vitality, but he’s got high agility and specializes in attack power -- and with the game giving buffs to physical attacks compared to DeSu1, he’s surprisingly competent if you take him into a fight.  He’s not as strong as resident badass Jungo or JP’s super-badass (and my favorite character) Makoto, but he’ll do -- and his speed gives him a slight advantage over both of them.

Daichi doesn’t want to fight, but he will if he has to; just like the MC, he’s lost something thanks to this chaos.  His home is in ruins and his old life is stated, rather directly, to be over.  If he doesn’t man up and use the demon summoning app now installed in his Nintendo DS COMP cell phone, he’ll never survive.  He’s reluctant to fight, but little by little he starts to realize the seriousness of his situation.  In one poignant scene, Makoto tells Daichi that he’s been chosen to go on a mission.  There’s nobody else available; it’s him or nothing, and the other JP’s members on-site could use his help.  Daichi, as usual, reacts with fear and a resounding “no way” and suggests that the MC go in his place.  Makoto quickly shoots that idea down, saying that the MC’s going to be called somewhere else -- but before the details get pounded out, she gets a call saying that the matter’s been resolved.  “Resolved” in this case meaning a near-wipeout by enemy forces and now they need medical aid.  Daichi suspects that if he’d just gotten a move-on, those people wouldn’t have gotten hurt; Makoto doesn’t agree, but she doesn’t deny it either, and heads off to handle the situation.  It’s a brief but telling scene that shows what Daichi -- and the story -- is all about.  Is he a whiny, put-upon screw-up overshadowed by people who are far more dedicated to demonic guerilla warfare?  Yes.  Is he a bad character?  No.  Is he a fighter?  No.  Is he someone who’s relatable, and offers a glimpse at what the average person would be like in such a conflict?  Yes, give or take a few adrenaline junkies out there.  Is he a good guy who’ll stick by his friends and do what he can to lend a hand?  Yes.

A canon threat to humanity's survival.

Daichi occupies a very strange place in comparison to guys like Junpei, Yosuke, and Atsuro.  He’s not nearly as badass.  He’s He doesn’t have any cool traits.  You could argue that even on his story path, he’s not the leader; he’s just a stooge to the far-superior MC.  And that’s all fine.  Daichi doesn’t have to be some ultimate warrior to succeed as a character -- at a base level he’s likable, relatable, and overall interesting.  He has his issues, his depth, and his role in the story (depending on your dialogue choices, it can be the MC who’s an idiot, and Daichi is…well, less of an idiot).  He’s got your back.  And more importantly, you’ve got his; how much he evolves, or even survives, depends largely on your actions.  You could give him the shaft if you want…but really, are you going to?  Are you going to leave a peacemaker like him to die?

Of course not.  Know why?  Because he’s counting on you.  He makes your choices matter.  You can rely on him, and he can rely on you.

He’s a loser, but he’s full of surprises -- and he’s all too eager to show you.  Because Daichi’s your bro.


Well, that’s it.  This look at the Shin Megami Tensei bros has finally come to an end.  What’s next?  I suppose I’ll take a look at the general story if DeSu2 in earnest -- because believe you me, I have a lot to say.

Stick around for a while, yeah?  Cross-Up’s got plenty more content for ya.  It’ll save you the trouble of killing countless trolling ducks.

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