|Platform DS, 3DS|
|Release Date Feb 28, 2012|
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker is one of the most inspired and successful blending of multiple genres that I've ever seen come out of Japan.
As a developer, Atlus' strength is largely in fairly traditional turn-based role-playing games, and Record Breaker definitely takes advantage of that. But that's only the bottom-most layer of gameplay. The turn-based battles are wrapped in a cloak of strategy gameplay, which is then clothed in a heavy narrative coat of choice-based visual novel stylings.
What's especially impressive about Devil Survivor 2 is not just how it draws on these various, disparate styles of gameplay. Rather, I was thrilled by the way it ties them so tightly together and finds ways for each to interact with each other in a way that feels natural.
Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker begins like a deliciously evil urban legend: The player-created protagonist and his friend Daichi download a new smartphone app called Nicaea. The rumor going around school is that this app will send you videos of your friends dying before it happens. Sure enough, within minutes of our heroes signing up, they receive videos of each other dying in a horrible subway accident.
Devil Survivor 2 builds on one of the strengths of Shin Megami Tensei: It's not another fantasy RPG
While the main characters are (of course) able to avoid their deaths, things only get worse from there as a mysterious disaster strikes Tokyo and demons appear all over the city. The story follows the protagonist, Daichi, and a ragtag group of friends they assemble as they explore a post-apocalyptic Japan and try to figure out what exactly happened.
This fun setup builds on one of the long-running strengths of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise: It's not another generic fantasy RPG. Sure, there are some anime tropes at play here — particularly with the protagonists being "chosen ones" of a sort with a special power that allows them to battle the forces of evil — but generally the characters are all regular teenagers with regular teenager attitudes and issues. The extraordinary situation they're thrust into lends the game an air of mystery and suspense, but it never feels like it totally overrides the simple human drama of young people confronting their own mortality in the wake of a huge disaster.
Of course, they're also given some agency in how they respond to the disaster, which comes in two forms. First, narratively: Record Breaker's story progresses via lengthy, fully-voiced cutscenes. Players are usually given anywhere from two-to-five options of which area to visit next, and depending on the path, you may recruit new characters, save lives or lose allies whose cries for help you ignored. The penalties can feel harsh, but they never feel arbitrary; I was given plenty of warning and time to prepare for battles where a character's survival in the plot was on the line.
To save these characters, you'll need to master the second form of agency for our heroes: Record Breaker's excellent combat system. Every time you enter a combat scenario, you can bring a party of up to four human characters. Each human can be flanked by two different demon companions, essentially giving you four groups of three characters each. Those groups move around individually on an overhead, grid-based map — a classic strategy game setup.
It's not that simple, though. In an interesting twist on genre norms, when one group clashes with another on the battlefield, the view switches to a traditional turn-based RPG combat screen. Both the player and enemy teams go through a single round of combat and then are placed back out on the battlefield screen.
I always felt on the verge of failure but with all the necessary information to how to improve
Record Breaker is technically a 3DS re-release of the original Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2, which came out on the original Nintendo DS in 2012. But rather than a straight port, Atlus has gone back and added quite a bit to the game.
Most notably, Record Breaker includes a complete second campaign that picks up where the original game's story ended. Though it's not quite as long, this add-on is still meaty, easily packing an extra 30 hours onto the already lengthy original campaign. It also twists the story in some fun new directions that fans of the original game will probably want to see for themselves.
The other big addition to Record Breaker is full voice acting, including in the original campaign. Atlus has returned to the original script and recording new voiceovers for every human character — demons and other enemies remain unvoiced, but that eerie silence fits the bizarre creations of this series.
Beyond those two changes, Record Breaker is full of tiny quality of life improvements, such as the ability to fast-forward past events to improve replays of the game. It also includes an easier difficulty setting, a godsend for less hardcore fans who still want to experience this excellent game.
In a worse game, this extra layer to combat could have felt unnecessary. After all, many strategy RPGs have had plenty of depth with just strategy combat — with two sides clashing and taking turns on the map alone. But Record Breaker builds something wonderfully complex yet not overwhelming out of its multi-level battles. I found myself pulled in by the process of putting together the perfect team of demons, picking the best spells to cast on any given turn of a battle, optimizing my chances for critical hits which grant bonus attacks. I always felt on the verge of failure but with all the necessary information to how to improve when I failed — a tension that made my successes feel outstanding.
As with other Shin Megami Tensei games, Record Breaker also throws a Pokemon-style demon collection meta-game on top of everything. By purchasing demons at an auction house, you can bring them to your side. From there, you can fuse demons together to form new monstrosities that carry over some of the skills of the previous generation.
There is a frankly absurd amount of depth to this formula, though much of it is blessedly optional. If you want to spend hours grinding for cash and extra levels to put together the most incredible, overpowered team of demons possible, you're allowed to do so via "Free Battles" on the map screen. As someone who's not as obsessed with min-maxing, I was able to keep moving on with the story with a limited but enjoyable amount of time spent messing around with the make-up of my demon army.
Devil Survivor 2 brings many disparate styles together in a great combination
Between its multiple interweaving systems, I expected something to get lost in Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker. But that didn't happen. Against all odds, these competing mechanics come together and form something that feels complete — a game where a player-driven story supports a brain-taxing strategic component supporting tense, classic JRPG battles. That these systems can coexist at all is a surprise; that they can feel right together is a feat worth celebrating.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker was reviewed using a pre-release final downloadable 3DS code provided by Atlus. You can find out more about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews