The return of Raidou’s RPG

Courtesy of Atlus

Courtesy of Atlus
You know you’re playing a great game when a talking cat is involved.

Ever wanted to play Pokémon trainer and action star in mythically re-imagined 1920’s Japan?

Whether or not that thought has ever penetrated your mind, the latest in the “Devil Summoner” saga of Atlus’ prestigious “Shin Megami Tensei” library of prestige, a quirky Japanese role-playing game for the Playstation 2, turns out to be an engrossing and entertaining experience for those that can survive the cultural translation.

For the many that missed the original “Devil Summoner,” released state-side in October 2006, you control Raidou Kuzunoha (the 14th, mind you,) who rose through the ranks of the “Devil Summoner” family to become a stalwart force in the war against the other-world. Like others in his particular line of work, Raidou has the ability to capture the physical essence of unwanted demons and confine them to tubes called “kuda,” where they can then be called upon for battle or for use in Raidou’s more normal job front, an apprenticeship at a local detective agency.

Things open similarly in “Devil Summoner 2,” where yet another strange missing persons case in Tokyo acts as a proxy for something much larger and supernatural at work. This time around, the very world is at risk, as Raidou must once again gather his friends (his detective partner/mentor Narumi, his talking cat Gouto and journalist Tae) and combat the forces of darkness. But the gods themselves are in on the action this time and are causing much chaos in Tokyo.

The best story mechanic is luck, the usually irrelevant character statistic. The gradual depletion of it over the game will affect your battle skills and the morale of those around you. The further you progress, the lower the general luck factor will sink, dragging down those around you into a deep despair that you must keep Raidou from succumbing to. It’s an excellent method that keeps the player drawn into the world and those inhabiting it to act as a general impetus to keep fighting.

The story is far from the usual paint-by-numbers RPG (role-playing game), and its eccentricity can dip into some aspects of Japanese culture that will be lost even on the most hardcore manga-fan. The plot turns the bland dichotomy of good versus evil on its head, and you can often sympathize with your enemy. Even when the narrative goes into melodramatic territory, there is always someone to relate to and a plot point to keep interest up.

The main game play in “Devil Summoner 2” is broken up between exploration, combat and subsequent demon collecting. Raidou and Narumi’s detective agency acts as the game’s hub, from which various cases can be taken on. Once a case or mission is selected, the player is launched into various locales across post-WWI Japan to traverse and battle through, meeting with NPCs (non-player characters) and occasionally hitting upon important plot points.

Like “Kingdom Hearts,” the battles in “Devil Summoner 2” unfold in real time, with the player free to move around the battle ground and attack at will. Atlus has improved what were rather loose controls in the first installment, adding more evasive maneuvers and demonic help options to create a much more balanced combat system. The player has access to the basic attack and defense options, such as Raidou carrying a gun and equally devastating sword for most melee combat, and the more specialized magical combat of demon summoning.

Collectible demons can be swayed to join your party either through intelligent negotiation, or defeat in battle. Elemental weaknesses are essential to netting the various baddies in the game, the spamming of which brings the creatures to their knees much faster than the hack-and-shoot approach.

New to “Devil Summoner 2” is the ability to allow your demons to aid in negotiation and non-aggressive demon acquisition, adding another reason to amass a varied menagerie.

“Devil Summoner 2” strikes a good balance between solid real-time hack-and-slash and gotta-catch-them-all collecting without any of the elements feeling out of place or unpolished. It’s all been done before, and better, but the game combines the well-used elements into a refreshing mix. The battle controls are still not as tight as other action-RPGs, but it’s far from game-breaking.

Technically speaking, “Devil Summoner 2” is an unimpressive game. Nearly every aspect of the visual presentation feels dated, as bland graphics drag the experience down significantly. However, the overall package still draws attention, not for any amount of blatant polish, but for an underlying dark and poetic style. The main and supporting characters are given a unique feel and look that is immediately recognizable: halfway between porcelain dolls and over-made-up Shakespearean performers. It won’t catch your eye on the street, but players that give it time will come away with an incredibly visceral visual experience.

The main artistic draw to the game is Shoji Meguro’s orchestral score, which, while recycling many tracks from the original game, throws in a couple new pieces and mixes. The repeated tracks are still fitting and enjoyable, and the rough jazz of the new tracks is aggressively entertaining. The fact that Atlus reused most of the set list, however, comes off as a lazy cop-out. Sound effects and voice work are middle of the road but more than functional.

With both its game play and storyline requiring a decent amount of dedication, “Devil Summoner 2” is definitely a poor rental. If you can put forth the budget price, though, you’ll come away with a uniquely styled, strong blend of classic game play, complete with a fascinating, if over-reaching story. Those whose first instinct is level grinding may want to try before purchase, but for anyone else hungering for an engrossing 20 to 30 hour experience, you’d be remiss not to capture this beauty.