By Ian Boone. This is LOAD FILE, where we made a dark deal and now we’re paying for it by playing video games. This week, Ian reviews Shin Megami Tensei : Devil Soul Summoner 2 : Record Breaker, developed by Atlus and out now for the Nintendo 3DS.
Demons swarm the streets of modern Japan while alien beasts slay humans by the score. A mysterious website is sending videos to subscribers of the moments their loved ones die. Society is rocking on the brink of collapse, and just a brave few armed only with their smartphones know enough to take action.
Do they launch a clever hashtag campaign (#TOKYOOOHNOOO) to bring awareness to the terrible devastation? Do they use a demon summoning app that brings more demons into the world to battle the invading hordes? As brilliant as I think a game could be based on the first concept, only video game logic is going to see us through this crisis. Bring on the demons.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Soul Survivor 2: Record Breaker is the newest title from the multifaceted Shin Megami Tensei series. Originally released in 2012 with the more vanilla moniker SMT: Devil Soul Survivor 2, this new version packs voice acting, new gameplay mechanics, and a playable semi-sequel/epilogue that follows the original story.
For initiates, Shin Megami Tensei games unite occult themes with assorted settings such as high schools, post-apocalyptic wastelands, and even the Antarctic for its role-playing good times. Characters battle and inevitably begin to summon demons from a recurring and ever-growing pool that is recycled from game to game, which almost gives it a Pokemon-like aspect.
Record Breaker stars a silent teenage protagonist who is fairly normal for a modern Japanese youth (ignoring his overly Americanized mall-fetched look). Normal backflips out of a window very early on when an idiot acquaintance of the player character signs them up for Nicaea, a website that updates users with death videos of their friends and family.
Surely a sinister, omnipotent website watching everyone die could be fodder for story on its own? Normal takes the jump necessary for such a story and keeps falling: blackouts begin to shut down the city, and demons begin attacking citizens. Aside from the demons, monsters known only as the Septentriones are exterminating every single human being they can find.
Instead of upping their bandwidth for the presumed snuff upload, Nicaea starts to install an app on its subscribers’ phones that allow demons to be contracted. Using the services of demons gives the player and their party a fighting chance to fix things, but Nicaea is not an exclusive site, and the summoning app has also fallen into evil hands.
Things escalate rapidly here, with what starts to be just a bad day for Japan becoming a bad week for the whole Earth. In between the world-ending stuff, videos of impending death will force action and harsh choices. It’s fantastically far-fetched, but laced with enough gravity and real details such as city names and streets that it keeps the player grounded and caring that their world is going to hell.
The variety of action in Record Breaker is limited as compared to most role-playing games. There’s no crate-smashing. No yarl-founding. Equipment isn’t going to be quested for and crafted.
It’s a time thing, you see. The End is coming and the day grows long. Players choose what mission or event they wish to attend from an overworld map. Transit is instant, the mission or portrait dialogue ensues, and time moves on. It eliminates dithering around with side activities when you should be dealing with the Apocalypse, but I personally felt a weird disconnect with my character. Aside from choosing between two to three text responses occasionally, the adventure aspect of the game reads more than it plays.
If you can push through the quirky-yet-flat character discourse, you’ll be rewarded with the strategic turn-based battles of the game. Presented in classic isometric, your fighters will be split into up to four parties. Each will have a summoner, and a single demon can flank each summoner. Once a summoner is killed, the demons disband, so protecting them is important.
Units can move and be moved around the map and against each other. When a fight occurs, screens switch to a first-person view of the enemy party. A mini clash happens, where attacks and special moves are exchanged and such. If there’s no Extra Turns earned and the enemy still stands, the fight concludes and goes back to the total battlefield.
These missions will earn experience points and money for the player’s party and more, but new demons can’t be catched on missions. They’re bought off an auction service through the summoning app using that hard-earned scratch you make in battles. It’s an auction too, so other users are bidding on these creatures besides you. Beating other offers or paying the upfront price gets a new demon to command… maybe. Sometimes they’ll extort you for more money to join, or worse. Quirks, quirks everywhere!
When demons outlast their usefulness or if you’re just feeling experimental, they can be fused together to produce a new one. There’s some varying results based on what is getting mixed, but some skills can be passed down from the old demons. The idea is that you’ll be fusing your auction house finds to get the really good minions, and from there feeding them to each other until you have the perfect specimens. Brutal.
Much of Record Breaker’s substance is as arcane as the occult it draws upon for inspiration. Reading the on-cartridge manual is a must, but understanding the battle and auction systems fully only marginally reduces their clunkiness. The series is known for a difficulty streak, but it doesn’t have to actively resist my chances to have fun.
The Shin Megami Tensei series made its biggest impact in the West to date with SMT: Persona 4 back in December 2008, and no small part is due to some of its endearing and weird characters. In Record Breaker, we get a cast of forgettable tropes and delusional cosplay suggestions.
With so many entries in its series, MegaTen can afford a stinker in its series now and then, and it definitely cashed in on Devil Summoner 2: Record Breaker. With Persona 5 in the works for the PS3 and PS4, Atlus does have bigger goals in sight. Maybe a handheld entry just doesn’t deserve the effort that makes games memorable. But if they don’t care, why should we?