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Fried Take - "Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker" (2015)

Full disclosure: I never got around to finishing the initial release of Devil Survivor 2 when it back in 2012. Not even close, actually. Even though I'm a pretty big fan of the MegaTen series, something about it just didn't pull me in like the other entries and spin-offs in the franchise. So, I half-expected my experience with the re-release, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker, to be in a similar vein. That is to say, mild interest followed by a quick and prolonged shelving.

But, lo and behold, I'm still pretty invested in Record Breaker a few days after getting my hands on it. I'm not sure if it's just me or if Atlus has really overhauled everything about the title, but this time around, everything about DS2 has managed to wrap me up and keep me wanting more at every possible turn. The narrative is enthralling, the gameplay is complex, the music is top-notch... just about everything here puts it head and shoulders above most 3DS role-playing games, and even most of the 3DS MegaTen entries. The entire package is a snappy yet deep title that commands your utmost attention whether you're in a battle or trying to unravel the convoluted, bizarre narratives, of which there are two.

The first campaign is a tweaked and tuned version of the original game. Players jump into a Tokyo that's been ravaged by a massive disaster and besieged by mysterious demons that can be captured inside of... cell phones. Yep. But that's not all. As the main characters of the trendy teenager variety, they obviously do devious things on the internet, so there's also a plot about a bizarre social network that lets people watch "death videos." These videos accurately show how somebody is going to die in the near future. At first, they look like a mass hoax. But when the main characters start appearing in the videos and are suddenly attacked by all sorts of nasty things, it looks less like a prank and more like an otherworldly plot to murder people. As players dig deeper into the plot, the natural disaster, demon invasion and death video site all end up being intertwined, and it's up to the protagonists to figure out what, exactly, is going on, and whether or not it can be stopped before things get much, much worse.

I tried my best to keep a straight face writing that summary, because frankly, DS2's narrative is so patently absurd that I find it deeply amusing. Demons being summoned from cell phones? Alien demons that cause earthquakes? YouTube predicting deaths? While, yes, it's super inventive and imaginative, it's in the same vein as Soul Hacker's ridiculous "broadband internet as a soul harvesting tool" to me. Which is to say, really, really stupid. Not in a bad way. Not in a way that makes me any less interested in how it's all going to wrap up. It's in a way that makes me feel like a bunch of 40-somethings were sitting around an office going, "hey, kids these days have, like, cell phones and MyTubes, right? What if those things were evil, like with demons and aliens and demon aliens?" That's basically how I imagine the brainstorming session went down. But hey, there's nothing wrong with a little absurdity, and in fact, I quite like it. The MegaTen franchise has always been home to ridiculous things, from jumping inside TVs to demon summoner detectives to phalluses riding chariots, and this fits that overall tone quite nicely. In any case, it's a vast improvement over the original Devil Survivor, which was patently bland and uninteresting throughout.

What bothers me about DS2, then, isn't necessarily the narrative itself, but the overall pieces it's comprised of. This is yet another "hip teens save the day and become best friends" tale that we've seen from the last two Persona games, and it comes complete with its own version of the Social Link system. Everything here, from that to the art style, reeks of a blatant pitch towards fans of the Persona franchise. And while I get it, with those games being outrageously popular, I can't help but feel simultaneously let down and worried for the state of future MegaTen outings, especially with the upcoming Fire Emblem crossover looking to be very, very similar to both this and the popular sub-series. Persona is supposed to be a spin-off, a diversion, and the fact that it's started to bleed over into other sub-series makes me really weary of where things are going. So while I'm not docking too many points based on this, I'm still really weary of yet another game with this conceit, and I hope that Atlus starts doing more interesting things with the franchise again like they did with Strange Journey and Shin Megami Tensei IV.

None of these concerns carry over to the gameplay, however, which offers the ultimate refinement of the combat introduced back when this sub-series began six years ago. It continues the tradition of blending tactical, Fire Emblem-esque navigation with the first-person, turn-based battles hallmark to the MegaTen franchise. Players try to gain strategic advantages on maps through both positioning themselves in different areas and making great usage of buffs and debuffs. When battles break out, players utilize both the character they're controlling and up to two other demons in battle, using both physical and magic attacks to defeat enemies, gain experience and absorb skills from other units.

That's about as simple as I can make it sound in writing, because DS2 has some incredibly complicated, convoluted gameplay that goes above and beyond what one might expect from a typical strategy game. Assigning platoons of demons to each character, allotting Skill Cracks, making the most of the demon auction system, effectively making use of the in-game clock, ranking up your friendship with all of the characters... there's a lot to learn here, and it's all loaded onto players up front. Even people who are leaps and bounds better at anything involving strategy than me have looked incredulously at this game, and with good reason: it's not easy to get a grasp of. In fact, even as somebody used to complicated games, I still find myself really confused as to what, exactly, is going on sometimes.That's not a knock against the game, of course. It's a micromanager's wet dream, and because this sort of thing is my jam, I'll happily get lost in numerous stat screens. But for people looking for a more streamlined, less menu-heavy experience, this may be a bit too daunting.

Overall, though, I'm happy with the gameplay present here, especially with the vast improvements Atlus has made. The original DS2 was unfairly punishing, with ridiculous difficulty spikes that were part of the reason I ended up putting the game down. With Record Breaker, there's definitely a more steady sense of progression. While, yes, this game is more difficult than 90% of role-playing games on the market, and yes, a momentary lapse in judgement will screw over your entire party in a matter of a few turns, it never feels totally impossible. You always know what went wrong. And at worst, you'll have to grind a few levels in Free Battle. So, yeah, DS2 is still a very challenging game, it feels much more balanced and manageable than the original release did, almost to the point of it feeling like a new game entirely... partly on part of there actually being a new game on the cartridge with that second campaign.

And perhaps it's because of this sense of freshness, this rebalancing, this overhauling, that I have gone from "unimpressed" to "pretty enthused" over Devil Survivor 2. The Record Breaker release takes what was, in my opinion, a bare bones, unbalanced and arguably unfun game and turned it into something that I would recommend to anybody in the market for a good challenge. It's hard and complicated and a little weird on the plot side, but I like that about it. It's so off the beaten path of most game releases, even most RPGs, these days, and it feels like an antidote to big-budget tech demos and "pick a girl to ogle" niche JRPG experiences. While it has a bit of a Persona-lity (I know, I'm hilarious) crisis at times, I still can't help but feel this is an authentically MegaTen experience, through and through. That is, a game that's weird, hard, and complicated.

Those three traits are what drew me to this franchise to the first place, and their presence Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker have managed to help me retain my love for it.


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