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February 27, 2013

Let’s discuss (more of) Devil Survivor 2.


You know, it seems like every time someone brings up Atlus on the internet, it’s shortly followed by praise, adoration, or gushing.  Or alternatively -- or simultaneously -- declaring Atlus as the greatest gaming company around…whether that’s in regards to JRPGs, or just games in general.  It’s a little worrying to know that there’s so much fervor for one company; an outsider looking in might think of Atlus fans as some sort of cult-gathered, near-murderous zealots.  Or worse -- fanboys.

If nothing else -- if you learn nothing, or take away nothing else from these posts -- then you have to learn that Atlus’ love is unquestionably deserved.  What The House of Jack Frost lacks in resources or raw graphical power, they make up for with overwhelming style, enthralling stories, and gameplay that’ll make you want to take a sledgehammer to whatever system has the misfortune of loading up one of Atlus’ bosses.  (I still can’t believe I managed to clear Catherine.)  Just think about the amount of playtime you can get out of one of their titles.  How is it that a triple-A game might not last you through the weekend, but a game with a fraction of the budget can give you anywhere from fifteen to eighty hours of gameplay?  Similarly, how is it that a game designed to be a non-stop thrill ride from start to finish can barely be remembered a month after release, but a game infinitely more sedate has sequences, worlds, and even conversations I’ll remember for years to come?  I doubt any Persona 4 fans will forget the King’s Game anytime soon…among other things.


So yes, Atlus is more than deserving of praise.  From a technical perspective they’re not the most impressive, but the limits imposed in one area drove the developers to excel in others.  There’s a definitive creative vision in virtually every product they put out, one that has been and will continue to be appreciated by fans.  My biggest gripe?  No news on Persona 5…but then again, I’m more than willing to wait.

So consider that a PSA on why Atlus is amazing.  Now then, let’s get back on topic, yeah?

WARNING:
To move is to SPOILERS; and to be valiant is to MORE SPOILERS:
Therefore, if thou art SPOILED, thou runn’st away.
So yeah, there’ll be spoilers.


One of the things I couldn’t help but praise last time was DeSu2’s forward-thinking.  The underlying question was “how do you rebuild the world?”  And it’s a valid question -- one that I wish more games would tackle instead of fading to black with little more than flimsy promises of hope and better days once the big baddie’s buried.  Mind you, this wasn’t just something tacked on in the last hours of the game; this is an overarching element of Desu2’s story that, while not the key element at the outset, is still one that weaves its way through the entire game. 

The choices therein are as much a slew of interesting story routes as they are a judge of character.  Given the choice, would you support a world of absolute equality, where everyone supports one another but there’s no drive to excel or improve yourself?  Would you support a world based on merit, where the strongest and wisest are given their rightful chance to rule, but at the cost of using a pile of bodies to build your ladder to the top?  Would you forgo the chance to remake the world (even for the better) just so you can bring back the status quo?  Would you kill a god regardless of the consequences?  And even beyond all those options, would you fight -- and even kill -- a friend just for the chance to realize your vision of a better tomorrow?


There are difficult questions being asked here, without a doubt.  Now, admittedly, I think that the issues at hand (meritocracy vs. egalitarianism) are incredibly simplified versions of their usual selves, or at least what Wikipedia might suggest.  There are probably a lot more societal and political issues here, and plenty more beyond that.  But even so, it’s not a deal-breaker; after all, the new world is going to be created by a supreme administrator that looks like a fusion between a giant ice pick and a dreidel and has no qualms about brainwashing humanity to suit your needs.  Likewise, the people proposing these ideas -- JPs chief Yamato and riot-starting detective Ronaldo -- are repeatedly called out for being too extreme and too stubborn for their own good.  It’s only natural that they oversimplify things and assume that their ideals will fix the world’s problems.  (It’s worth noting that in Yamato’s route, he willingly admits that it doesn’t matter if he’s the one ruling in his merit-based world; all that matters is that the best man for the job takes the throne…though in his ending, he’s the one with his own towering skyscraper, and he stands triumphant while flanked by his comrades.)

As it should be, the deciding factor for whose world ends up being built -- note that I didn’t say “who’s right” -- is the main character.  Or rather, the player; it’s through the efforts of said main character (who for the purposes of this post I’ll start referring to as Hibiki Kuze, in honor of the DeSu 2 anime) that the game not only gets its ending, but a couple of its strongest weapons.  Unfortunately, it also comes with what I believe to be one of the game’s biggest faults.


Hibiki’s presence, first and foremost, contributes to the idea of “leadership” that runs throughout the game.  Whether you agree with Yamato/Ronaldo or not, there are others in the game that do, and for valid reasons.  Maybe they wouldn’t if the status quo wasn’t in place, but the world has been wrecked almost beyond repair, and the implication is that beyond Japan’s borders, there isn’t even a world anymore.  In times of crisis, the people need strong leaders -- and there’s no one better for the job in this case than the man spearheading an organization designed specifically to counter the threat of demons and alien invaders.  Well, except for the guy who’s doing his damnedest to gather food and medical supplies and offer his own counter-offense against demons and the organization that’s trying to hoard supplies.  In any case, they’re men with vision, passion, intelligence, charisma, and most of all power.

And that’s where Hibiki comes in.  See, in the DeSu games the stats of the main character are decided solely by you.  Every level-up gives you one point to put into your strength, magic, vitality, or agility.  In theory, this means that with enough patience (i.e. grinding), you can build a character that’s well-rounded, or even one without any weaknesses.  Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut I’m convinced that the best build for these games is one that maximizes two stats: magic and vitality.  I find magic to be more useful in these games than physical attacks, because you gain easy access to elemental spells that’ll let you hit enemy weaknesses/earn extra turns, AND boosting your magic stat boosts your highly-critical MP.  Meanwhile, boosting your vitality stat boosts your HP and defense, and -- much like boosting the magic stat -- gives you access to some of the best offensive and defensive skills in the game.  Think about it: one of the biggest dangers of using a mage in most RPGs is the fact that they can’t take a hit.  If you remove tat weakness, then you’re left with a character that can dish out huge damage, hit enemy weaknesses, and not only have the defense to shrug off most blows but also equip skills that further reduce damage from all but one or two attack types.  Simply put, my Hibiki was nigh-unkillable.  Except if he got turned to stone and then got attacked.  Then he shattered like an egg.


The takeaway from all this is that, if you build a proper character and make use of the possibilities available, you’ll be able to make Hibiki into the most powerful member of the entire cast.  You’re ensuring that the potential he has is fulfilled, and justifying his ability as a frontline fighter.  But it’s not just strength that makes him the main character; thanks to the player’s guiding hand (assuming that you can pull off a win), Hibiki is a tactical genius that ensures victory after victory.  Even if Yamato and Ronaldo are the visionaries, and even if they have talent in their own right, it’s Hibiki who’s got the leadership qualities needed to save the world.

And I mean that quite literally.  See, there’s a catch to rebuilding the world via Polaris: the administrator will only do it if humanity’s will is unified.  That is, those with the ability to even make it to his throne have to have a singular belief.  If Yamato goes to the throne with aims of creating a meritocracy, but Joe comes along and he wants equality, then it doesn’t work.  Everyone present has to believe in a singular vision (the lack of which may what caused Polaris to start erasing the world in the first place).  So, how do you get the best of the best to reconcile?  How do you get them to forgo their own beliefs without slaughtering them outright? 

Easy.  You use Hibiki’s second great weapon: kindness.


One of the major additions to DeSu2 (though admittedly one ripped right out of Persona 3 and 4) is the Fate system.  Basically, the more you talk to the cast outside of battles, the more bonuses you all receive.  They’ll get elemental resistances, the ability to trade demons on the fly with Hibiki, and unlock more powerful demons for you to use, assuming you get strong enough demons to fuse into them.  Really though, it’s incentivizing the player to actively seek out character development moments -- a dirty trick on Atlus’ part, but a smart move all the same.  The option to get closer to your party members was there in DeSu1, but the sequel takes it up a notch.  Each character gets a mini-episode to get fleshed out and face a development-inducing dilemma.  Joe has to deal with the pressure of facing his sick girlfriend in the wake of a collapsing world.  Daichi learns to be a man, and learns that his inaction could easily lead to the death of the weak and helpless.  But special mention has to go to Io, who not only learns to become more confident, but (if you’re with her at the right time) gets to find the corpses of her dead parents.  And she’s just in time to see one of them die before her eyes, all while surrounded by rows of body bags.  Consider that just one of several kicks to the balls delivered by DeSu’s narrative.

But the key to advancing each character’s fate (from rank zero to rank five) is going out of your way to heal the wounds in their hearts and minds.  The more kindness you show to your comrades, the stronger they -- and you, by extension -- become.  If you get them to rank four, you’ve got comrades that’ll follow you even if you don’t align with their ideal of choice.  Anything less and they become impossible to recruit.  I’m pretty much convinced that if you don’t rank up at all, some of them will outright DIE.  And while you’ll have a few strong party members to pick from no matter which path you take, by the time you’ve reached that point you’re probably got a go-to party you want re-assembled ASAP.


In any case, it’s Hibiki’s kindness as much as -- and likely more than -- his strength and intelligence that wins people to his cause.  Remember, Yamato and Ronaldo are extremists; the former is damn near villainous in his pursuits, the latter is a verifiable terrorist, and both of them are destructively determined.  It’s also worth noting that there’s an unmistakable hollowness to both their creeds; Yamato is in control of JPs precisely because his family and lineage put him there, i.e. the exact thing his meritocracy is partly trying to remove.  Meanwhile, Ronaldo is trying to create a world of equality, but incidentally he’s the leader because he’s the strongest and most capable of the bunch.  Neither leader comes even close to being relatable…at least, compared to the kind, considerate, trustworthy kid roped into this mess like everyone else.  You know, the same kid who’s been roped into the situation as everyone else, and has a first-hand account of what’s going on without any dilution via the lens of power, and goes well out of his way to form precious bonds with everyone.  We should be thankful Hibiki didn’t try to install his own new world order.

In any case, the overarching message here is that even beyond societal ideologies, the key to making a better world (or just plain restoring it) is kindness.  Being able to trust in one another and cooperate is a key element, regardless of what you believe in.  Say what you will about society at large, but I think there’s merit to my words considering the amount of effort and manpower it takes just to build a house.  Hibiki’s presence lends an element of humanity to whatever side he chooses; hell, just being around Yamato probably works wonders for mellowing out the chief’s self-confessed coldness.  Ultimately, that’s the developers’ end goal for showing how to rebuild the world -- an idealized and optimistic version, sure, but if nothing else it makes you want to believe and play along.  It’s thanks to Hibiki’s efforts -- YOUR efforts -- that, no matter which ending you get, you’re bound to have a glimmer of hope sparkling before your eyes.

But for all my praise up to this point, there’s still a major issue I have with the presence of Hibiki -- and you can consider this a problem that extends to the Persona games and the original Devil Survivor.  The thing is…well, Hibiki is pretty much a messiah.


I mean, really.  That’s what he is.  He’s almost immediately established to be one of the strongest demon tamers.  He immediately earns the respect and trust of every character -- even Ronaldo, who at the outset is irrevocably an enemy.  Damn near every girl shows some level of attraction towards him, whether you max out their Fate rank or not.  Even beyond that, the fact that only Hibiki can sort out their emotional baggage (male or female) is kind of distressing.  You can shift his characterization to be a straight-laced and intelligent leader, a hot-blooded fighter, or a moron, which I approve of…but if you try and act intelligent, too often the game will give you answers to questions that, occasionally, you have no way of knowing the answer to…and yet the others will applaud you just as quickly.  Actually, they’re quick to applaud you for pretty much waking up in the morning.  There’s being kind and trustworthy, and then there’s being worshipped like a deity.

Now, I know that this isn’t exactly a universal problem; it’s more of a matter of preference.  And indeed, there are theme-related reasons for making Hibiki out like this.  And on top of that, the whole universe doesn’t revolve around him; he’s a silent observer most of the time, and the other characters are more eager to interact with each other instead of just you.  But I can’t shake this feeling that the game’s narrative is warping around to accommodate you and Hibiki, making it so that it’s incredibly difficult to do something wrong.  It doesn’t matter what the other characters want; it’s all about what you want.  And this feeds into making the Fate system a little insincere (again, a complaint that I could make against the Persona games).  Are you helping Hinako rediscover her passion for dance because you genuinely care about her, and want to hear her story?  Or are you just doing it so you can tick off numbers on a list, or get bonuses in battle?  Do you even care about Jungo’s cat, or Fumi’s research, or Otome’s daughter?  Or do you just want to build their trust so they’ll follow you down your path?


I’m willing to let it slide because these points aren’t game-breaking.  Nor are they things that detract severely from the quality of the game.  But they’re still things that should be considered, especially when the point of the game is to rely on and establish strong leaders.   How are we supposed to fully understand and accept the elements here if there’s an inherent selfishness to the proceedings?  How are we supposed to believe that we’re pulling together as a team when your actions are borderline saintly?  Taken on a deeper level, DeSu2 runs the risk of undermining itself by way of its game-based, player-aggrandizing elements.  What if I want to work a little bit harder to build bonds with comrades besides just being a yes man?  What if I want my comrades to disagree with me?  What if I want to struggle to find an answer to the problem, and not just have the best result handed to me?  What I’m getting at here is that (outside of the punishing gameplay, because Atlus secretly gets sexual thrill out of the pain it brings its players), you don’t really have to work for your happy ending.  It’s just a matter of choosing the right option, or the option you want, from a handful of items.  And in a game where there IS no right answer that’ll save the world absolutely, that’s a bit of a shame.

That’s not to say that DeSu2 is completely worse off for it.  It isn’t.  But know this: in spite of all the praise I heap on the game, it’s not perfect.  There’s no such thing as a perfect game.  Nor is there a perfect movie, or a perfect book, or a perfect story, or a perfect anything.  And to that end, I present to you, in an unsorted list that’s by no means indicative of severity or quality…

WHY DEVIL SURVIVOR 2 IS SIMULTANEOUSLY
THE MOST AWESOME AND MOST INFURIATING GAME
CREATED IN THE PAST EIGHT-ISH YEARS OR SO

  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand…cue music!

1) Makoto Sako
Easily my favorite character by a long shot.  She’s what you’d expect from a military official, in that she’s tough, competent, determined, and loyal…BUT the game is eager to remind you that just because she’s part of JPs doesn’t mean she’s not human.  She’s kindhearted, she’s considerate, she’s more than capable of getting flustered, she has her own dreams and opinions…and man, that pixilated smile of hers gets to me every time.  I think I’m in love, guys.   But you didn’t hear that from me.


Story-wise, Makoto’s an important character because she lends a human aspect to an organization that could easily come off as self-serving and, well, evil.  She helps prove that just because you’re on the side of order (relatively speaking) doesn’t mean that you’re automatically a villain; rather, you can use that order to make the world a better place.  It certainly helps that Makoto’s one of the key damage dealers in the game, to the point where my version of her could single-handedly slay a dragon and outperform the average god.  I guess she does some serious heavy lifting in between missions.

2) Jungo is pretty cool, too
And then there’s this guy.  Man, I love this guy.

He’s just this simple-minded chef who wants to be friends with everybody and loves the cat he finds…but he will absolutely wreck anything that crosses him.  Make him one of your main combat units, and you’ve got a guy who can smash damn near everything in the entire game.  Make him an enemy, and he WILL one-shot you for a critical hit that does nearly two thousand damage…and by that point you’re lucky to have four hundred HP.  Long story short, if you need something smashed, JUNGO SMASH.


Just don’t do what I did in my first playthrough and lollygag when it comes to finding more RAM for Fumi’s computer.  If you do, Jungo WILL die.  And that would suck.  So don’t do it.

3) Keita and Airi are kind of…bleh
To be fair, not everyone in the cast is a winner.  Opinions may vary on who’s cool and who isn’t, but I personally don’t have much praise to give Keita and Airi.  They’re not terrible, mind you, and they do get their moments, but they’re probably the weakest of the bunch.  Keita is pretty damn surly from start to finish, and while he does soften up a bit if you boost your Fate rank with him, getting the most out of his character requires you to kill off Jungo.  And I ain’t havin’ that.

Airi, meanwhile…well, if you know what a tsundere is, you’ve pretty much got a good eighty percent of her character pegged.  She’s very emotional at times, and usually the first to fly off the handle.  Luckily, I think that the developers saw the accusations that would arise, and stemmed the tide beforehand -- that is, Airi is pretty much everyone’s whipping girl.  She gets very little respect, is often the butt of jokes, and even bursts into tears if people poke fun of her.  It also helps that there’s no dedicated romancing option in the game, so (as it should be) the focus is on fighting off demons and saving the world, not trying to win the affections of a violence-prone fifteen-year-old. 


4) Physical attack-based characters have been supremely buffed
In DeSu1, the viability of physical fighters was dubious at best.  Unless you had a very specific setup, they were more likely to do damage to themselves than to opponents; it didn’t help that there were fewer physical attack skills, half of which were nigh-useless by endgame.  I’d argue that it’s outright better to have a team of mages instead of a more balanced team.

Not so in DeSu2.  In fact, the proper skills on the proper characters can let you instantly win a number of skirmishes.  The redheaded dancer Hinako has a stat build that prioritizes strength and agility; if you give her the skill Multi-Strike, you can not only have her attack first, but have her attack every enemy with a good five to seven hard-hitting attacks at once.  Or if you give Keita the Assassinate skill, he’ll be able to bypass enemy defenses, instantly kill an enemy leader, and as a result immediately win a battle.  So yes, having some fighters on hand isn’t as bad an idea as the first game.

I still think a magic/vitality-based character is the build of choice, though.  The reason for that is…

5) It’s VERY easy to create broken characters with the right skill setup
Fumi HAS to be the best character in the game.  Sure, she can’t take a hit, and her physical attack power is pitiful, but she maxes out her magic stat way before anyone else -- which is to say she maxes out her magic stat, and no one else ever does.


Here’s my layout in my most recent playthrough.  Command-wise, give her Holy Dance, Shield All, and Samarecarm.  The last one will instantly revive fallen demons/party members with full HP, which is both something you’ll need and something Fumi can handle with her huge MP count.  Shield All works exactly how it sounds, blocking one hit for each member of the party.  Holy Dance is the only attack spell she needs, which can randomly hit an entire party two to five times -- or just do massive damage to a single target, using an element that can’t be resisted or defended against (outside of hidden stat bonuses).  For her passive skills, give her Mana Surge to give her an MP boost, Victory Cry to let her regain HP/MP after a fight, and Swift Step to give her the first turn in a fight.  And as an added bonus, set her leader skill to Magic Yang to cut the MP cost of skills in half.  What this means is that you not only have a unit that can do massive amounts of damage and almost always gets the first turn to either wreck an enemy team or completely nullify attacks (which can and often will result in Extra Turns that then allow you to use Holy Dance), but you can do all that with a dramatically reduced MP cost, to the point that you’re actually gaining more MP than you lost from one fight to the next.  Simply put, you can make Fumi a high-damage, nigh-invincible, infinite-MP healer who turns your party’s deaths into an inconvenience.

In spite of all that, it’s STILL not enough to make the game any easier.

6) Unfortunately, you pretty much HAVE to be broken to survive
I’m not kidding.  If you aren’t exploiting the system for all it’s worth, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Never mind that this is a game content with throwing infinitely-spawning enemies at you when the most you can have out at a time is a party of four.  There are enemies that can prevent you from healing, snipe you from long range, one-shot you, cut your accuracy in half, turn you to stone, halve your HP, ignore your defenses, heal themselves to full power even after you’ve left them with a modicum of HP, clear massive distances, reduce your movement range to one square, put on shields that will immediately reflect your physical or magical attacks (and come in teams that have both those skills equipped), and escape from battles and end a skirmish whenever they want…even if it’s your turn.  I hope there’s a special section of hell reserved for the developer who thought it was a good idea to let some enemies get two, three, or four turns in a row before any given party member even gets one.

7) Get ready to scream “WTF!” at the top of your lungs at any given moment
And likewise, get ready for some genuinely-infuriating moments throughout this game.  If you let bosses go unchecked, then they’ll be free to pick you apart from six spaces away, making full use of their ability to attack as many as three times in one turn.  And since they have the initiative, they’ll get an Extra Turn, and thus six damn attacks in one skirmish.  That’s not exactly a pleasant experience.


But where I had to cry foul was when I first tried to clear the game.  The big whompin’ final boss entered its ultimate form, with a certain mission stipulation at hand: if Hibiki died, it was an instant game over.  “Okay, that’s manageable,” I told myself.  “I just have to keep him healed up and out of danger.”  Except as soon as the final phase of the fight started, one section of the boss (with infinite attack range, natch) targeted Hibiki and killed him instantly.  And bear in mind that I didn’t even get a turn to prepare myself; no, as soon as the fight started, Hibiki got smacked, immediately resulting in a game over and forcing me to start the entire mission over again.  And it’s a long-ass mission, one that you can play for an hour or more and still lose.

Shortly thereafter I turned off my DS, slammed it shut, and went to bed.

8) Escort missions are pretty much gone
Thank Odin for that.  The escort/protection missions of DeSu1 were an absolute drag to play.  Considering how broken enemies can be in this game, you wouldn’t want to be a non-empowered survivor in the midst of all this…and yet, time and time again the original game tasked you with protecting an initially-suicidal rock singer.  I don’t think you know how many times I had to do those over, and I’d rather not try and count.

9) Unfortunately, there are still a few “stop that guy from escaping!” missions
In their place, however, we have missions that pit your team against rioters and such who’ll try to escape with stolen food, or alternatively the dragon-slaying fists of Makoto.  They’re more than doable, and not nearly as frustrating as the other game’s missions, but it seems like they add more tension than there needs to be.  Like while one of the rioters tries to make a getaway, there are punks that use Evil Bind to drop your movement range down to one. And in some cases you start out pretty far behind the escapee, so unless you have Devil Speed to catch up quickly you’re likely out of luck.  Hell, I think in one mission the rioters get to move before you do.  How is that even remotely fair?


10) The Septentriones are a good-ass idea
I didn’t know what to make of the Septentriones when I first heard about them (and I still don’t; calling them alien invaders almost seems like a misnomer).  But you know what?  Strange as they may be, I get them.  I get what the developers were going for.

There’s an element of “facing the unknown” that’s woven through the narrative thanks to the Septentriones.  These are incomprehensible, irreconcilable creatures that have neither the desire nor the capacity to compromise.  They’re beings created solely to destroy the planet, or at least have it sink into the void as part of Polaris’ task force.  Their power and their very presence are to be feared (and indeed, whenever they show up several characters have the requisite “Oh SHIT!” reaction).  A huge part of the game -- pretty much every day of the story -- is dedicated to finding countermeasures against them…and said countermeasures get bigger and more destructive as time passes, to the point where the main cast is semi-responsible for the end of the world.  They’re more than just bosses to be conquered; they’re a vital element to the game.


11) Fighting them, however, is a pain in the ass
It’s possible to create your own broken teams, as I said.  However, you can only become broken in the context of player limitations.  That is, there are skills that enemies have (and the combinations of such) that are not only 100% inaccessible to the player, but turn plenty of skirmishes into downright slobberknockers.  And guess who’s usually on the receiving end?

Pretty much all the Septentriones share the ability to attack from several spaces away -- something you can do with certain demons on your side, but with significantly-high restrictions…restrictions that these bosses outright ignore.  So unless you have Devil Speed on hand (and you won’t), it’ll take one turn to get close to a Septentrion, and then another to actually get in attack range.  And by that time, you may end up so battered that challenging them with a half-dead Daichi and two dead demons is a pretty sappy idea.  Not that they care; they’ll just pick you apart before you can even land a hit.  This guy here will vaporize you with a huge-ass laser if you so much as stand in front of it.


12) Even with skill and strategy, there’s always going to be an element of luck 
Look.  I know that I just said that the Septentrion battles are all about “facing the unknown.”  And I stand by that.  I support it.  But in a strategy game, where “losing at the select screen” is a real possibility, there is absolutely no way to prepare for some of these fights on your first playthrough.  And even beyond that, there’s no way to remember what enemies will do, or are weak against when you encounter them again. 

I guess the idea here is that you have to adapt to the situation as it changes, or that you should have your characters optimized for any situation, not just to exploit enemy weaknesses.  But how do you adapt to situations where enemies roll around and force you to chase after them while you’re getting sniped?  Or when enemies have two distinct and absurdly-powerful forms?  Or a boss where only demons can attack and do damage, and if your demons aren’t strong enough (or die) you’re ruined?  DeSu2 doesn’t just skirt the line between being challenging and cheap; it gleefully backflips back and forth across it.


13) At least the music is cool
Nothing more needs to be said.


14) The interface is neat, too
There’s an argument to be made that Persona 4, a game released well into the PS2’s twilight years, doesn’t even come close to tapping the system’s power -- and as such, the graphics are nothing to be proud of.  And while it’s true that plenty of Atlus games may not have the fanciest graphics, they tend to compensate with some striking visual design, whether it’s in game or just in the menus/interface.  In this game’s case, it’s a stylish fusion of technology and mysticism, befitting what’s on display in the game.  Fans of the color blue will be quite pleased; there’s a lot of information you’ll have to keep track of, but accessing each bit of data is an easy and clean matter.

But special mention has to go to the map screen, which manages to foreshadow the encroaching Void.  If you look up at the top screen from time to time, you may notice that the outline of Japan might shift from the last time you glanced up.  It’s subtle enough for you to ignore at first, but once the plot starts coming together it’s a nice little touch.

15) The actual graphics are…serviceable
To be honest, I really like the maps -- they’re pretty detailed, and certainly manage to capture the spirit of a land in ruin…well, not on every map, but enough times to capture that essence.  And while there are some reused assets from DeSu1, the new stuff really shines in its own right.  That said...  


The same can’t be said for the character sprites.  They’re not bad or anything, and in terms of the number of animations, they’re expanded from DeSu1.  But still, I feel that they’re not as good as they could be, especially since the DS is GREAT at handling sprites.  I’ve seen sprites across the internet that looked both manageable and masterful; is there really no way for this game to have stepped it up a bit?

16) This game is more lighthearted than DeSu1
This is something that’s to be expected.  Part of the pressure and stress on the cast of DeSu1 came from them being completely without creature comforts -- food, shelter, electricity and of course a safe place to sleep at night were all in short supply. In DeSu2, however, Yamato has accommodations prepared for the cast from the night of Day 1 onward.  It contributes to the disparity between the demon tamers -- Japan’s newfound cream of the crop -- and the unlucky civilians/rioters fighting to survive.

So yes, you get a bit more downtime and ability to relax than the original game.  And because everyone’s not stressed all the time, it creates more opportunities for events that wouldn’t be tonally consistent in a more serious game.  So if you ever wanted to see, say, one whiny Hindu deity get flung into the sky to be shot by another Hindu deity, then you’re in luck.  Or maybe an event where an Osaka mascot murders demons to take their money?  Or a sequence where Hibiki, Daichi, and Joe get the chance to peep on the girls during their physical exams (in an event called “Secret Garden”)?  And that’s ignoring all the moment-to-moment jokes and conversations that’ll put a smile on your face.  Or just freak you out.


17) This game is also notably Japanese
Okay, this isn’t exactly what I’d call a fault, but it’s something worth noting.  As you’ve probably guessed, ALL the action in this game takes place in Japan.  And while you won’t need a travel guide to know who’s who and what’s what, the more important issue is that, yes, DeSu2 can feel like something you’d expect from Japanese creators.  I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, but there are people who are quickly turned off by that…well, let’s call it “aesthetic” and leave it at that.

I guess if I had to pare it down, what makes this game so Japanese is that it has some notable and familiar styling.  Part of the humor comes from some characters being offbeat, and other characters reacting (or over-reacting) to it.  Some people might find the interactions a little unrealistic, or the archetypes therein to be too out there -- like Airi’s, for example -- but unlike other, significantly-worse JRPGs I could name, these characters are more than just archetypes.  If you’re willing to treat them as more than just digitized doodles, you’ll be well-rewarded.  That I promise you.

18) The phrase “improbably buxom” is one well-worn in the DeSuVerse
Nobody can ever mention this game without talking about the ladies’ chests, so I guess I have to as well.  I should start by saying…really guys?  This is what you zero in on?  This is how you try to devalue the game?  Okay, so the girls are packing some above-average adipose in their shirts.  And they’re not exactly the most realistic.  So what?  Does it make the game any worse?  It’s just a stylistic choice by the artist.  This is not a fault in its own right.


Nope.  Nothing faulty here.  Uh…probably.

That’s not to say that it’s a benefit, of course.  In the same sense that Squeenix’s deluge of pretty boys is harmful to the brand, so too is it the case for the art of character designer Suzuhito Yasuda.  When you make every character improbably buxom, no one is improbably buxom.  Hinako is the only one who should have been sporting generous goods by virtue of her personality, and even then that’s a stretch (as a dancer, you’d expect for her to be a lot more…er, lean).  Though it does raise an interesting line of thought: in a world where everyone is improbably buxom, what does that mean for those that are different?  

Airi is the least-developed of the cast, and is also the female character most likely to be made fun of.  A correlation, perhaps?  If she’s below average, wouldn’t that make her some kind of freak of nature to be ridiculed and cast aside?  Similarly, what about Fumi?  There’s an event that suggests she’s the most talented of the bunch, and she’s almost resentful to have that status.  Could being supremely buxom also be something that brings about ridicule?  Could it be a mirror of our own society?  Could it be that DeSu2 is secretly commenting on the nature of our reactions and judgments based solely on a pair of vital but simultaneously ignorable body parts?


Eh, no sense in worrying about it now.  I guess we’ll find out the developers’ intent in DeSu3 if they add a hot springs scene.

19) It’s edutainment!
I actually didn’t know about this until I started fiddling with the menus, but apparently you can find out more about the demons you summon/buy through an option in the compendium.  That’s actually pretty interesting, because a lot of names might be familiar to you.  Thor, Odin, Heimdall, and Fenrir all get expanded details (though it seems like the definition of “demon” has been broadened here), so Norse mythology lovers might get a kick out of that.  I haven’t exactly gone through every description -- and can’t until I start a new file -- but from what I gather, pretty much every demon in the game is based on a supernatural creature/deity that exists in a real-world culture.

Take Hamsa, for example (otherwise known as MY SWORN MORTAL ENEMY).  Just a pain-in-the-ass duck soldier, right?  Nope.  Have a gander at this:

“A holy white goose which serves as the steed of the Hindu god Brahma.  During winter, geese migrate over India. These majestic white figures flying through the sky became symbolic of Brahmin dignity as they tried to reach Brahma, the god of knowledge. This may be how Hamsa came to be seen as Brahma`s steed.”


See?  It’s actually a goose.  The more you know…

20) Go buy this.  Just go buy this.
Really.  What the hell else can I say?

I will gladly admit that this game isn’t perfect.  I know that it’s got some flaws.  I know that it’s hard.  I know that it’s not the most visually impressive.  I know it has a distinct Japanese flair (which I still can’t believe is a problem for some people, but whatever).  But a good product has the right elements to overcome its flaws, or at the very least make you ignore them.  And to that end, Devil Survivor 2 succeeds.  IN SPADES.


This is a game that’ll make you think long after you’ve put it down.  Even if you clear the game, there’s still plenty of content you’ve likely missed out on. The sheer number of combinations available encourages freedom and experimentation.  The challenges on parade here will put you to the test, and push you well beyond your limits.  The characters who you’ll meet will stick with you, and drive you to do everything to help and protect them…because rest assured, if you drag your feet in certain sequences, they WILL die.

A lot of people will tell you that the JRPG is dead, or that they’re all too clichéd and obsolete to be worth anything, or that they’re all incredibly infantile when you get down to it.  That, or just an offhand remark about schoolgirls.  But don’t you even THINK about making a mistake on this one: Devil Survivor 2 is a fantastic game, regardless of its style, genre, difficulty, flaws, or whatever reason you might have to avoid adding this to your library.  Seek it out and get your hands on it, no matter who or what stands in your way.

See if you have what it takes to survive.

…Wow, that’s a corny line to end on.  Play me out, Japanese Spider-Man!


5 comments:

  1. Yeah... even on freaking easy mode, Atlus' games like to make your life miserable. Far too often I got my ass handed to me or got insta-killed by a light or dark spell and lose an hour and a half of grinding. I have no idea how anyone can handle anything above hard mode, unless he/she is suicidal.

    Just when I try to clean my mouth with soap, the old sailor erupts from the bottom of my gut and epodes profanities. It's not fair... T-T

    As for the "messiah complex"... It seems that the more nonlinear a narrative is, in relation to gameplay, the whole "messiah" issue is not much of a problem. (Writing quality not withstanding.) The Zelda games never bugged me with the "chosen one" themes, mainly because it is what it is. There are no ways out of it if you want to beat the game at all. Atlus' titles, such as 'Persona' and 'Devil Survivor', have the themes, but it depends on how you play the game. Several moments of character development are optional, but help you develop and learn new skills.

    The most annoying part of this is how the characters react to the PC. Nothing is more jarring than a guy, known to be a completely antisocial asshat, who is suddenly very kind, personable, and cooperative towards the PC for no reason other than "just because." The female PC's route in 'Persona 3' was especially guilty of this once Shinji joins up.

    Anywho.

    My 3DS library is still pretty small, so whenever I run into this title, I'll get it.

    Meanwhile, I've been pining for 'Fire Emblem: Awakening' since last summer's E3. But I'm broke...

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  2. Aw, man, you just brought back some bad memories of instant kills. I always LOVED it when my progress was erased by one lucky strike (and indeed, every time a light/dark spell was used on my MC I'd always gasp and hold my breath). I also loved it when my entire party got wiped out with one attack. Or those table things. And the Hulk Hogan guys. And pretty much every mini-boss.

    ...Why do I like these games again?

    But enough of that. I can't say I've tried -- or even had a cursory look -- at P3P, seeing as how my PSP suddenly decided to up and stop working one day. (The prevalent theory is that parts of its innards melted; that thing got REALLY hot.) But I'll take your word for it on the female PC. I guess there's an issue to be had with characters like that; it's one thing to make them bring out the best in a person, but it's another to completely alter their personality, goals, motivations, etc.



    Eh, whatever. Like I said, it's not a game-breaker, and the lead's gravitational pull doesn't pull anyone too far off course. I guess it's just something I take issue with when it comes to main characters...which reminds me, there's an old file I need to dig up and post up here on the blog. It's related (sort of) to this topic, at least. But I guess that's a post for another day.


    In any case, if you get DeSu2 or Fire Emblem, good luck to you. I have a sneaking suspicion you'll need it, as I so often did.

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  3. You're welcome! Although thankfully I never rage-quit 'Persona 3', though there were times I came pretty close. Still, it fluctuates between being brutally challenging and cheap.

    Oh, I'm not disagreeing with you. Despite my harsh-sounding point on P3P, the magnetism didn't destroy the overall emergence. It just... shocked me, threw me off guard. Generally speaking, I still adored just about the entire cast, which happens very rarely.

    It was just a minor nitpick that I agreed with you on.

    I'll look forward to that post. Your stuff is always well thought-out and written. :)

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  4. Hey, thanks. Good to know I can put a smile on your face...or an emoticon in your comments.


    Truth be told, I've actually got a couple of things that I want to get posted next week. The main character post might take a little bit, because I think it needs a few touch-ups. In the meantime, I'll be putting up something more than a little...shall we say, absurd.

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  5. Well, if there's one stat that I tend to sacrifice in games more often than not, it's speed/mobility. I'm like a fortress that shoots lightning and the occasional bowl of sauerkraut.

    Aaaaaaaaanyway, just because I like DeSu2 doesn't mean that DeSu1 is dramatically or automatically inferior; part of the reason why I'm wary of ever doing a "Top 10 Favorite Games Ever" list is because I know it'll be dominated by some too-similar games, the DeSu games well among them. They're both excellent games, no question, and at the end of the day the second game just manages to edge out the first. Like you said, they did try something different -- and in my case, it was both fresh enough to warrant a sequel but familiar enough to honor the name. Or something like that.

    I do admit that I kind of miss the Death Clocks from the first game, but I can see why the developers left it out. Keeping it in might have made things a bit too oppressive, and given the themes/ideas on display in DeSu2, it wouldn't exactly be a perfect fit.-- especially with the added humor -- but it still feels like a casualty. The Clock did indeed put you on edge in a way Nicaea never could...though "A dead face delivery site" has a nice ring to it.



    Well, whatever. I'm happy with both games as they are, and I hope they keep on making the games. And I'm hoping they get even more exposure in the future.


    Also, I probably need to give New Vegas a whirl. Still can't believe I never even touched that game...

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