Although it may not be as widely recognized as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei series is one of the most prolific series of Japanese RPGs on the market, with nearly thirty titles altogether. Despite the large number of sequels and spinoffs, the series keeps fresh by reinventing itself – there are several thematic connections through each game, mostly wherein the player collects an army of demons, but the setting and gameplay are constantly changing. Devil Summoner: Kuzunoha Raidou vs The Army of Ultimate Power once again flips things around for the franchise. The setting is post World War II Japan, a far cry from modern Japanese cities or post apocalyptic wastelands that are typical for the series. The turn based battles have been ditched in favor of fast paced action scenes. There’s a lot that’s different, but still plenty that’s familiar for fans of the franchise.
The game puts you in the role of a young officer who just happens to be able to see and control demons. You’re bestowed the title “Raidou”, the honorary name in a long line of devil summoners. After getting acquainted with the controls, you begin the story proper, when a young girl of a prominent family calls your detective agency. You meet her on a dark night, only to have her beg you kill her. Before you can say anything, she’s whisked away by a huge, mechanical creation with a red cape. Your job? Find out who this girl is. Why she was kidnapped. Determine a connection between this and all of the demons popping up around the city. And most importantly, solve the mystery behind this army of these robotic machinations.
Unlike the recent PS2 installments, Kuzunoha Raidou uses polygonal characters on prerendered backgrounds. This results in a much smoother framerate, and benefits with some nicely detailed locales. It can get a little bit confusing with all of the camera angle switches, but a handy automap will help you keep track of everything. During this time period, Tokyo is a mix of traditional Japanese buildings mixed with trolleys, trains and Western structures. The vibe is pretty similar to the Shadow Hearts games, which also take place amidst a historical setting, although those games are set primarily Europe and America, while Kuzunoha Raidou focuses on Japan. It’s a bit more lighthearted than your average Shin Megami Tensei, with bright visuals and the upbeat jazz/rock soundtrack who accompanies your demon slayings. Amidst all of the occultish intrigue, it keeps a sense of humor all its own – Raidou is accompanied by a talking cat who dishes out advice, and one rather silly standoff against a bunch of Yakuza takes place in a bath house.
The game is divided up into twelve chapters, each involving some small part of the overarching story. In the beginning, you can only visit a few different arenas of Tokyo, although more places open up as the game progresses. Most of the game involves running around on various fetch quests to solve puzzles that you encounter, so the feeling isn’t too far off from classic adventure games. But you need more than just items to proceed – many times, you’ll need to use demon powers to progress. One of the main goals is to capture as many bad guys as possible, who then join you team. Each demon has some specific power that can be used for to aid exploration – some can fly up to high ledges to get treasure, some can scout the screen for hidden objects, some can give a briefing on the enemies on the area. Others can help interrogate people, by using fire powers to enrage them, ice powers to calm them, or telepathic powers to read their minds. You can even take control of the demons and have them float around and talk to people. Unfortunately, they can still be attacked, and they can be rather unwieldy in battle. Solving these puzzles is definitely much different from the traditional “field-town-dungeon” structure that we’re used to, although all of the running around does eventually grow wearisome.
This is mostly because you face random battles practically everywhere, even in towns. However, these fights are usually pretty fun, and end rather quickly. Ditching the turn based battle system completely, when you enter battle, you’re whisked away to a separate screen and given full control over Raidou and one demon. Raidou has a variety of sword moves, as well as a gun with elemental based properties. Although the controls are smooth, there’s very little in the way of defensive maneuvers – you can block, but some kind of dodge move would’ve been nice. The camera also stays static, and only pans back and forth as you move – it can get difficult to pick out your characters if they run too far away from the screen. Your demon companion acts on its own volition, although you can set its AI or call it next to you if it’s in trouble. Picking the right demon for each battle is often important to winning, whether they can heal you or exploit enemy weaknesses. It also helps in capturing demons – instead of conversing with them like in other Shin Megami Tensei games, you need to weaken them, stun them with an attack they’re weak to, and then suck them up in a vial. It’s not unlike Pokemon, but it fits with the pace of the game. Stalwart RPG fans may complain, but the action scenes are welcome, as it’s far more involving than just sitting around pick actions from menus. They aren’t too hard either, especially since you can pause the action at any time to heal either Raidou or your companion, or summon new demons into combat.
Import Friendly? Literacy Level: 5
There’s almost no English at all, so it takes a good bit of Japanese to puzzle through the menus. Most gamers shouldn’t have problems with the fight scenes, but given the open-ended nature of the game, finding the next trigger can often be a shot in the dark.
Atlus has recently announced the English release Kuzunoha Raidou until the title Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner, for release sometime in 2006.
+ Pros: Fantastic plot, action-based battle system, and an innovative setting
– Cons: Constant battles, lots of fetch quests, and lack of moves in the fight scenes
Overall: When people complain that Japanese RPGs are nothing but outdated gameplay conventions and trite storylines, all you had to do was point them towards the Shin Megami Tensei series. Kuzunoha Raidou has once again demonstrated that the series is one the best RPGs on the market, with its unique setting, stylish action, and fascinating story.
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