So, I decided to try out Devil Survivor 2. I reviewed the first game a while back; this one is a spiritual successor kind of sequel, with no direct relation to the first game’s events. I did not like it nearly as much. The characters are a pack of annoying anime cliches and the plot is virtually nonexistent outside of the final Big Choice, which is just more “the answer lies in the middle” propaganda. I couldn’t even be bothered to do a NG+ for this one.
The gameplay is a marked improvement. The designers very clearly reacted to complaints about the first game. There are a number of quality-of-life improvements that make fusing demons and cracking skills much easier, you accumulate party members at a reasonable rate instead of getting all of them on the last day, and there are more demons to choose from in general. Despite this, I found the final stretch more tedious than anything; the game relies quite heavily on giving bosses tons of resistances and inconvenient arena layouts that require very specific teams to counter. There were also way too many examples of “LOL J/K the boss has another form with completely different skills and defenses from the one you saw when you were setting up your teams, no we aren’t giving you a chance to change anything.” Overall, I feel that they relied too heavily on fancy set piece abilities that just ended up being really annoying to try to counter. Polaris forcing two party members to trek up a mountain and then park there the entire battle was probably the worst example, but Alioth’s auto-nuke was also ridiculous, as was all of them having ridiculous range that allowed them to take constant potshots at you. In the first game that was reserved for the very final bosses instead of being something you just had to put up with the whole way through. Also really not a fan of them gimping New Game+ — I do not have the time to go through all that again unless I get a guarantee I can skip everything, especially when there are far fewer subplots to pursue prior to the ending this time.
I did, however, think the Septentriones were pretty cool. Their alienness was a nice change from the generic demons of the Bels, and their designs were much more interesting.
On the flipside, everyone has balloon breasts. (And special mention to Ms. Shrinkwrapped in the middle, there.) The first game was also guilty of this, but they were at least anatomically plausible for the most part. These just looks ridiculous.
Plotwise, this game actually has virtually no similarity to the first one. There is far less tension overall, as you join up with a huge government organization early on, and there are way more characters helping you. It’s a really strong departure from the first game’s setup of a tiny band of friends all on their own. The story honestly gets pretty boring with how safe and orderly everything is; every day is just you getting a mission from your superior and you efficiently pursuing that while chatting with your buddies about their personal lives.
Additionally, the prophecy program has been streamlined to only show you the deaths of specific individuals shortly before they happen, which overall left me with a sense that less is more. I liked the mystery of the prophecies’ limited information in the first game and the way it allowed the protagonists to proactively make their own plans at the start of the day, but here it just feels like a trite attempt to be edgy. “Look, we’ll SHOW you the character getting horrifically burned to death! LOOK AT HOW SERIOUS AND MATURE WE ARE!!” Okay, but I still feel nothing, because half the victims are people you’ve just met and have no emotional investment in, one of the few exceptions is the annoying comic relief character I hated, and saving them doesn’t take any actual effort — you just have to neglect all sidequest events and advance the plot as fast as possible. The deaths also have almost no impact on the plot — Airi will still join the communists even if she watches them murder her friend on Day 3 without ever even bringing it up, and nor does anyone stop kissing your feet even if they see you purposefully get Makoto killed. I guess it’s symptomatic of the general problem with writing narratives with Schrodinger’s characters — the tone of the story is going to be very different depending on if everyone’s been dying or if everyone’s been saved, but you can’t feasibly write a totally different version of the story just based on one change.
The characters in general were completely bland and unlikable, a particularly poor mark when the characters were the strength of the last game. They are all shallow and banal anime cliches. Like I appreciated that they made the spineless coward a boy this time but GOD I never thought I’d miss Yuzu and her ability to actually shut up once in a while; Daichi is absolutely insufferable with his constant whining and moaning and you do not get nearly enough chances to tell him so. Keita is a brat, Joe is so annoying I was tempted to let him die just so I wouldn’t have to put up with him anymore, and all the women are just fetishes. (Incidentally, how is Otome a doctor at 24? She’s not even the oldest character in the cast! Game, if you want to make a character whose entire motivation is about “making a better world for the children” maybe don’t make her barely older than a child herself???) The only character I liked at all was Ronaldo, but he’s a pretty generic hero type without much depth or personality.
Overall, it felt like they used up their best story ideas in the first game, and this was them grasping at straws.
However, that alone wouldn’t justify making a whole post for this. The plot does do one interesting thing, and that is that, in a stark departure from the normal SMT formula, it’s not about God and Christianity at all! The setup here is that a robotic god-like entity exists, and for various handwavey reasons it’s decided it’s time for the world to end. If a strong-willed leader challenges it, it will remake the world according to their will, similar to the King’s Gate in the first game. I think this was a good move overall, as it discards all the weird Christianity baggage to better focus on the human side of things and the ideals you’re choosing from.
However, it does so by taking the same tack as every “We’re morally gray, ~your choices matter~!” video game: Both sides are equally wrong, why can’t we all just hug and get along? Sure, one side is run by a literal fascist who goes on long rants about how the weak don’t deserve to live and refers to his opponents as scum and vermin, but what’s really important here is that it’s wrong to fight your friends (who you met three days ago and are also literal fascists).
The ostensible choice is between creating a world of equality where everyone works to help everyone else, and creating a “meritocracy” that is actually just wild capitalism/fascism; might makes right and everyone has to justify their worth or they die. This is essentially communism vs. capitalism, with the characters making all the standard arguments for and against. But that’s not what I found significant here. What bothers me the most is that the game never acknowledges that the meritocrats’ vision is how the world already is. Society at large already operates on capitalism and individualism where the strong consolidate their power and prey on the weak; that is the baseline we are working from in any debate about how to change the world. This is not a choice between two equally valid ideas, this is a choice between changing the world and keeping it exactly as it is. (There is some token attempt by the fascist leader to argue that what he’s actually opposing is dynasty, but that’s a) pretty rich coming from a guy who only has superpowers because he’s part of a mystical bloodline and b) a direct result of his own principles. When you tell people they can do anything they want, what they do is consolidate resources for them and theirs. That is inevitably where “meritocracy” leads.)
And I find that to be a very toxic, very insidious message. Popular media loves to pretend that we exist in the center, and conservatives and progressives are just pulling in equal and opposite directions. But that ignores the reality of what conservatism is and how it operates. Conservatism is about keeping things the way they are, it is about preserving the status quo and current institutions. It’s literally in the name! And what is the best way to keep things the way they are? To tell them that all extremism, all change, is equally bad, and that the answer lies in the middle. Because what you will inevitably find in the middle is conservatism. The “middle” between two extremes is to do nothing at all. To keep things exactly as they are. People can walk away from these narratives playing into conservatism’s hands while believing they’re opposing it.
The story also has the fascist claiming that he will willingly concede power if a stronger opponent deserves it, which is also incredibly dangerous propaganda, because that is what fascists always say and that is what fascists never, ever do.
The only thing I can say in the story’s favor is that it does truly present the communist side as equally valid. Its advocates are never reduced to strawman caricatures, and their arguments are more aware and nuanced than I’m used to seeing in popular media. One character even explicitly brings up the unfairness of race, gender, and disability, and even counters the centrists’ argument that things are slowly improving in current society anyway with the point that people currently dying of illness and racial violence can’t wait decades for you to solve their problems, you condescending dickwads, and another declares that it’s the duty of the powerful to help the powerless — not even that it “should be”, just that it is.
But because the power of friendship has to reign supreme, everyone is willing to abandon or even completely flip these passionately-held beliefs after a single conversation, and that just feels so… disrespectful to me. It honestly feels like a complete farce, that these people who have known each other for a week (or less) are willing to give up their beliefs based on their entire lived experience for ~friendship~. No, these kinds of beliefs are absolutely the things you should end friendships over. I purposefully chose to get Makoto killed and have no remorse over it, and I ended the game wishing I could have traveled back in time to murder Keita with my own hands. These characters either needed to have had history prior to the start of the story to justify why anyone should care about their relationships, or you should not have been able to flip them if you were on the opposing side at all. (You could even still have your friendship cake and eat it too; the “true ending” — because of course there is one — is on the neutral route anyway.) If you truly want to follow your ideals to the bitter end, that is a sacrifice you should have to make. (One of the things I did appreciate about Dragon Age is that it did force you to choose between irreconcilable characters and decisions at certain points; I’d have liked to see that here.)
So. If you enjoyed the first game on its mechanics alone, you will probably enjoy this one too. But I can’t recommend it on its own merits. The plot is a mess, there are way too many trite and shallow characters, and the politics, while perhaps impressive for 2011, leave much to be desired in our current climate. If this is more representative of the Shin Megami Tensei series as a whole, I can’t say I’m impressed.