Devil Survivor is another Shin Megami Tensei spinoff by Atlus. The game was never released in Europe and is a Nintendo DS game, so it took quite a while for me to actually muster up enough interest to play it. I have an irrational distrust towards any Nintendo system games, deal with it. Now that I've finished the game I'm pretty damn glad I did, and I'm going to order the sequel right away. Devil Survivor is a tactical RPG with all the power of Shin Megami Tensei packed into it. It doesn't even contain anything particularly unique or new, but the overall design is just brilliant. The recipe for success here is in fact really simple: it's a very faithful adaptation of SMT into a tactical RPG.
1. SMT lite?
Battles in the game run in a very typical isometric battlefield where units move and fight each other. The terrain is oversimplified: there are no modifiers from terrain, there's just obstacles and open ground. Fighting takes place in the streets of Tokyo so the lack of actual terrain does make sense. It's clearly not a game of map positions. Instead it's a game of unit composition. Each unit in the game is made up of one to three characters, most of which are demons. The player controls up to four humans who each can have two demon allies to form a unit with, whereas most opponents will be teams of demons only. It's worth bearing in mind that these are SMT demons which makes them inherently more multidimensional than your typical standard tactical RPG units. I'll go into the demons in the next section.
During a unit's activation, every member of that unit is allowed one action. In addition, the unit can move and initiate a battle. The way the game relies heavily on correct unit compositions, the leader of each unit can use his or her action to summon a new demon, provided another one uses their ability to withdraw first, or has died in combat earlier. Other possible actions mostly involve healing and certain tactical level abilities possessed by demons. Moving and attacking both affect a unit's turn order. If they do only one of those things (or neither) their next turn will come up sooner so it is not always desirable to fully utilize a turn. The reason the game is so big on unit composition is the combat system, which is basically SMT lite. I think a similar approach was taken in Bahamut Lagoon.
Each battle is a small game in itself with its own screen as the combatant's fight a full round of SMT style combat. There is nothing astonishing about SMT combat: it's just a turn-based system. The player sets a command for each of their combatants, and actions are then carried out in a slightly varied order based on agility. Some predicting ability is needed to figure out a good approximation of the order actions are carried out in. One UI slight makes this a little more annoying than it needed to be: there's no way to view agility scores of combatants while in the combat screen even though it is possible to do so on the main battle screen. Otherwise it works like a charm, mostly because it relies on a tried-and-true mechanical core of turn-based combat.
The SMT twist comes from extra turns that can be scored but also stolen from other combatants. The conditions are quite familiar for people who have played Lucifer's Call, Persona 3/4 or Digital Devil Saga: hitting a weakness or scoring a critical hit guarantees a bonus turn and often steals one from the opponent. Likewise hitting someone's immunity can give the defender a bonus turn. These bonus turns are taken in another round of combat that is fought immediately after the normal round. Only characters who scored a bonus turn participate in this round. This system is simple yet clever because it puts a lot more emphasis on weaknesses and immunities. It's not just more damage, it's also another turn in which to do even more damage.
This is especially aggravating with AoE spells: if there is even a single target that is weak to the spell, then the caster gets another go which can be used to cast the spell again. In this case the attack does more damage to everyone just because one of them was weak against it. See why team composition is important?
2. Demons all around
The reason team composition forms a big part of the game is the way that the game handles demons. Best demons are always obtained through fusion because they inherit abilities from their parents. Devil Survivor has streamlined the inheritance process quite a bit. Instead of 8 general slots where abilities are inherited randomly, demons have 3 active slots and 3 passive slots, and the player can freely choose which abilities to inherit into each slot. The only limitation is that the demon's natural skills cannot be replaced. Inherited skills can greatly enhance a demon's power by giving it a larger range of attacks and even covering its weaknesses with rarer abilities that provide immunity. The entire process of demon raising is about passing along the most important skills and obtaining new skills from demons on the way.
However just mindlessly passing good skills along won't do, because the other half of good demon raising is to pay mind to their natural attributes, their weaknesses and resistances and immunities. If a physically strong demon inherits powerful spells, it often doesn't utilize them very well. Devil Survivor includes another, even more important aspect into this equation: racial abilities. It's a long standing tradition in SMT that demons are categorized into different races which are used to form the rules of fusion. However, in Devil Survivor each race has an important tactical ability that cannot be changed. The fusion process therefore has another goal: not only is it important to match skills to to demon attributes, you often want to have demons from a specific race because of their ability.
The cleverness of the demon fusion system is well-proven by its ubiquity in the series and its spinoffs. As far as character development schemes go, it is special because of the huge amount of variables that go into the system, and the complex dynamics that dictate fusion results. Note that Devil Survivor has actually simplified the process quite a bit, particularly inheritance. It also includes a nifty search system that makes it easier to figure out how to create a demon of a given race. These are necessary amends because the number of demons that are needed in battles is eight at minimum and often more to adapt party compositions to different situations. They have done a marvelous job with this simplification: the system feels as intriguing as more complex systems from other SMT titles.
The reason this all works so well is that while they have made inheritance simpler (free choice instead of random selection with complex rules) they have at the same time limited its power by putting more emphasis on the demons' natural abilities. This is especially achieved by introducing racial abilities which are tactically more important than any combat abilities. There's also an interesting balancing mechanism: not all racial abilities are equal usefulness, but often demons who have the better racial abilities are either harder to make, especially of desirable components, or generally weaker.
3. Structuring for pacing
If there ever has been one glaring flaw in SMT titles, its pacing. Modern titles have it better: Persona 4 and Devil Summoner 2 have really good pacing. The problem is that the games often have really intriguing plots but they become hard to follow and go into because between every event that moves the plot forward there's hours of running around in dungeons. As a tactical RPG, Devil Survivor is already naturally structured better. Even if the game only contained battle events with some dialogue before and after, it would still have a lot more going on because each battle takes maybe an hour at most. It's not just that though. The game is structured by time limits. The player can often choose from multiple places to visit, and each visit is either a dialogue that deepens one plot line in the game, or a battle.
The nice thing is that this system incorporates choices quite naturally. Each event is only available for a limited time - sometimes even just one single hour in the course of the game - and each event takes the game clock forward 30 minutes. There is never enough time to go to all events so the player has to make choices. These choices mostly affect how other characters end up in the game. A lot of them can die as a consequence of the player's choices. Overall the structure makes the game go smoothly and have meaningful decisions all the way through. Selecting events is a simple matter of choosing where to spend time from a menu so it's also time efficient on the UI side.
I was swept away by Devil Survivor. It should have been predictable, I mean, I love SMT, and I love tactical RPGs. Still I was surprised how smoothly these concepts came together in the game. It's full of elegant design choices. I might actually go as far as to say that it's the best tactical RPG I've encountered so far. This is largely due to the complexity of the system when it comes to units. Raising and selecting demons is a delicate business. Moreover, they've had the guts to make the game hard enough to actually encourage the player to explore their possibilities and pour some serious thought into character development. The icing on the cake is an intriguing plot with a lot of characters that are meaningfully incorporated into the story. That, and the fact that the plot really feels like it's moving forward constantly.