Active Time Battle: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked

Active Time Battle is a chronicle of one man’s spirit journey to play damn near every Japanese Role Playing Game ever made. It is a life’s work. It is, literally, an ongoing battle against time. I sincerely doubt I can finish what I’ve started without succumbing to madness. Viewer discretion is advised.

SMT: Devil Survivor ends where the average SMT game begins. Humanity has incurred God’s wrath, prompting him to hit the reset button and schedule an apocalyptic event only a week away. Demons flood the Earth by way of computer programs. Society is collapsing. The end is nigh, but, if you have any say in the matter, it will not come to pass. The bulk of the game’s content lies within that fateful final week.

In meat-and-potatoes terms, SMT: Devil Survivor Overclocked is a strategy role playing game released by Atlus for the Nintendo 3DS in 2011. The game is an enhanced port of the 2009 Nintendo DS title, SMT: Devil Survivor. You operate a squad of four human characters (selected from a larger overall pool), each of whom can supplement their own abilities by summoning up to two demons for their battle party. Enemies operate under the same principle, although they are greater in number and the party leader is typically a third demon.

Initially, I wasn’t particularly impressed by Devil Survivor’s narrative, though it picked up in its later stages. The gist of it is that demons have begun to appear in and around Tokyo, and as a result the Japanese Government has imposed a lockdown: nobody gets in or out, no exceptions. A mysterious cult starts acting even more strangely than usual, the demons are working to summon their hellish overlords, and your character’s cousin gives you and your friends COMPs—bootleg Nintendo DS systems that are primarily used as PDAs in this world—that have been modified to be able to summon demons. Your rag-tag group of Japanese teens travel around Tokyo, making friends and enemies, fighting, buying and fusing demons, and trying to make sense of their shitty situation and find a way out. It takes a while before things really get going, but by the time the series-standard alignments and routes enter the picture, it gets a lot more interesting. In short, it was cool to see the series’ usual conflicting ideologies, which are typically very broad in scope and consequence, applied to a much smaller, more-localized crisis. There’s still the assertion that your given alignment will have profound consequences on the future of the Earth and humanity’s place in it, but the immediate concern is on how each character and their respective philosophies will solve the immediate problem at hand, which is the lockdown.

Devil Survivor works off a time-based system not entirely unlike the calendar system found in the latter-day Persona titles. You have seven days (by default, some routes will extend to an 8th day if you wish them to,) in which to figure out a solution to the lockdown crisis. Each of these seven days is composed of several 30-minute chunks of time, and each event you choose from the world map (some are battles, others are dialogue scenes with the game’s broad and colorful cast of characters) will move the game-time forward by 30 minutes. However, there are more events in a given day than there is time to see them all—thus you’re making a series of small-but-meaningful choices throughout the entire game which are ultimately affecting your outcome. Side characters will live or die depending on whether you got around to them in time to save them, some of them even being potentially-playable or tied to specific routes. This was ultimately the most compelling component of Devil Survivor for me, as I felt they did an excellent job at making the endless decisions about who to visit in a given timeframe very stressful and consequential. This is definitely a game that would benefit from extra playthrough(s) to see how different aspects can unfold.

You do not negotiate with demons in Devil Survivor, instead acquiring new demons between combat missions by way of a digital Demon Auction. There will be a buyout price, or you can go to the bid wars with three other invisible NPCs (Most of whom, incidentally, are named after characters from Soul Hackers.) Invariably, if you are aggressive enough in your bidding, you can strong-arm the competition out of the auction well before you’ve put up the buyout price for the demon. If you do not do this within five seconds (and, again, it’s very easy to get around this by being aggressive in your bidding,) every remaining auction-goer will put forth a final bid. I found this system somewhat charming, but also far too simplistic. Eventually I realized that all I needed to do was mash the A button (which opens the bid window, and then places the default bid, which will be higher than the current-highest bid by a fixed amount,) in order to win every auction and save myself some money in the process. As a result, these “auctions” devolved into a very simple choice: “Do I want to pay a premium to get a demon immediately, or do I want to mash A for five seconds to get it for cheaper?” The latter always won.

Past that, the auctions only refresh when you’ve advanced the game time forward by 30 minutes or when you reset the game—though the game doesn’t tell you about that second one. This created some awkward situations wherein I wanted to fuse some strong demons before a big battle, but found myself running out of demons to buy. This stopped being an issue when I learned I could simply save and reset the game, but that introduced a new one: Why? Why not just add a refresh button instead? A tiny and ultimately inconsequential concern, but nonetheless something I’d view as an improvement.

Devil Survivor can be quite challenging, especially when it comes to boss fights. This is to be expected of an SMT title, and was typically welcome, with one glaring exception. The game’s first major story boss is constructed around an incredibly reductive gimmick that seriously challenged my willingness to continue playing, relying on the sorts of cheap tricks that the series is usually smart enough to avoid. Thankfully, he was an anomaly, and the bosses that followed managed to be quite intense without resorting to artificially limiting your characters’ abilities in battle.

Also of note is the game’s method of handling skills and character builds, which I found quite unique and fun, though not without one major drawback. In any of the game’s battles, you can set one “Skill Crack” per deployed character. You select a skill of any of your enemy combatants and assign it to a given character. Then, if that character’s battle party scores the killing blow on their assigned enemy combatant, you’ve successfully “cracked” that skill and can use it for yourself. Every skill can only be cracked once, at which point it’s added to your database of combat skills. Before any battle, you can equip these skills to your characters, permitting the character has the necessary stats (which vary on a skill-by-skill basis) to equip it. Each character can equip three Command skills (the usual variety of spells and special moves), three Passive skills (passive bonuses applied in any combat scenario) and one Auto skill (a powerful buff applied at the beginning of any combat encounter in which your party is able to act, permitting you have enough MP left over to cast it.) What is simultaneously the system’s greatest strength and weakness is that any given skill can only be equipped to a single player character. For example, if you give Bufu to a character, you cannot give Bufu to anyone else, and need to rely on demons provide supplementary ice damage. This means that keeping your characters stocked up with powerful and relevant skills is always engaging, and typically involves difficult choices. However, there’s a strong focus on Magic-based skills compared to Strength-based skills, which means that in a given party of four player characters, you can only realistically have a single physical attacker operating at peak effectiveness, while you can have several magical attackers operating at roughly the same level of effectiveness. I like the system enough that this isn’t a dealbreaker, but it still would have been nice if you could have had a 50/50 split within your party between physical and magical damage.

A final note: though the amount of content added in the 3DS re-release of the game is certainly above and beyond the call of duty, and the addition of full voice acting is an appreciated bonus (even if it isn’t always great), seemingly little care was given to improving the game’s other production values. The gameplay takes place on the bottom screen, with stat sheets posted to the top screen, which seems like a wasteful use of the 3DS’ increased real estate on the top screen. It would have been nice if they’d given the game some form of widescreen treatment and swapped the two screens. Devil Survivor: Overclocked still feels very much like a game for the Nintendo DS as a result of its 4:3 aspect ratio and tinny MIDI music, and while it’s hardly a deal breaker it was a disappointment to see a re-release that has simultaneously had so much and yet so little care put into it.

SMT: Devil Survivor Overclocked is a rock-solid game. I enjoyed my time with it, and am excited to dig into the sequel at a later date. It never quite reaches the highs that I associate with other entries in the MegaTen mega-franchise, but hey—there’s no such thing as a mega-franchise that can manage to be consistently as excellent as its best entries. It’s a unique SRPG spin on the usual formulas, with a lot of smart, crunchy design decisions only slightly dampened by the far fewer not-smart design decisions. I’ll take it, and I’d be glad to take more of it.

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