Devil Summoner is the latest title in the long-running Shin Megami Tensei series, a series that shares more in common with style, theme and design than any other components. The latest installment pits you, Kuzunoha Raidou (or at least, the 14th person to have gained the title), against a mysterious foe with strong connections to the world of the demons, the Dark Realm.
The story is done differently than most, as it's played out like an old detective story. Set in 1920s Japan, you are sent to work with a private eye who does the 'special' cases. After the mysterious kidnapping of a young woman, you and you detective friend get thrown into a story that is (as usual) much bigger than you either thought. The story isn't too gripping, but it moves along at a pleasant enough pace. There're too many times, however, when you're just running from point A to point B to point A and back again just to talk to another person and this running back and forth can get tedious quickly.
I found the setting one of the interesting aspects of the game. While set at the dawn of the century in the capital of Japan, the mystic element of demons and magic is still present. There are also some places where you can go into the Dark Realm, a mirror image to the world you're in, but swarming with demons and magical forces. The whole thing is a welcome change from the standard settings of fantasy realms, hi-tech realms, and so forth. Additionally, the game seems to have put a light spin on everything, like the demons you control which are cheery and filled with energy, or the mob boss who helps out his community. It's a little jarring at first to see a demon greet you so happily after you've just captured it, but as you fall into the flow of the game, it'll get a little more natural.
The fighting system is along the style of capture-and-battle, though there's a fair amount of depth to it. While walking around, whether it's downtown Edo or through a dark cavern, there's a chance that you and your demon will be thrown into combat. At this point the game enters a real-time battle, where you can run around the field and attack at your pace. Equipped with a sword and a gun that can load elemental and status-afflicting bullets, you have enough to take down many opponents. Still, you'll need more help.
Your character has a collection of 'tubes', capsules in which he can capture the enemies you fight (with a few exceptions like bosses and mundane things like zombies). After capturing them, you can summon them - hence the title of the game - to do battle with other evils you fights.
But battle isn't just about running up to the nearest enemy and cutting through them. Like much of the Shin Megami Tensei series, a lot of emphasis is placed on strengths and weaknesses of opponents and, in this case, those of your summoned help as well. Using ice attacks against an ice demon will get you nowhere at best, and at worst will actually heal it. However, fire a few rounds of fire-charged ammunition into them, or have one of your demons cast a fire spell, and it'll be stunned for a few seconds, opening it to critical hits and often determining the course of a battle. While not as prevalent as in other SMT games, this system of strengths and weaknesses is vital to finishing battles quickly and with minimum damage, adding a heavy dose of strategy into what normally would have just been a simple hack-and-slash system.
Still, though, with enemies casting spells and your demon buddy casting spells and you shooting your gun and just trying to stab the nearest thing, the battles can often be reduced to chaos in which it's hard to see what's happening or what is attacking you. There's a little icon to tell you which demon is yours in all the cacophony of magical effects, but other than that, you're on your own to figure out what is attacking what. Considering that some demons can take up a fair portion of the screen, and you can find multiple instances of these, plus maybe three smaller guys, and maybe one or two more thrown in for good measure, you can often find yourself getting hit constantly as you struggle to make order out of the mess on screen. Battles like these aren't too common, but they happen often enough to add annoyance as I use my healing items once again.
One thing that I noticed almost immediately about the game is the difficulty. I'm not saying this is really hard game to play through, but in an age where games balance your progression in strength with the difficulty of the enemies, Devil Summoner decides that perhaps you should spend some time leveling up. First of all, your cohort AI isn't terribly good, and when an attack is being aimed at it, more often than not that attack is going to hit it. So, unless it's powerful enough, after a battle or two, you'll find yourself needing to heal it once again, lest it not survive the next. Second, items are expensive in this game. Very much so. The cheapest healing item in the game costs 150 yen, and yet an average battle gives you about 45 yen. Yet in these battles, you'll probably be taking a hit or two. See where this is going? When you get a demon that has the ability to heal, this financial burden is lightened considerably. Still, since these demons also tend to be a pain to level up, it almost balances the considerable advantage they bring to your team.
The AI is actually a large problem in battle. You can give your demon cohort some commands like to use an attack, to not use magic, to concentrate on healing/strengthening you, and a couple others. These don't really do anything except say which spells your demon can use. When it comes down to how it fights, or how it moves, without your explicit input, it usually doesn't fair to well, getting hit by easily-avoidable spells, for example, or using a certain spell constantly again an enemy that is strong against it, or wasting magic points on a healing spell when you have only a tiny fraction of hit points missing. It's a big issue that makes healing your demons a constant task, and which makes battles a lot harder than they should be.
If your current demons don't quite do it for you, there's the ability to do some fusion. This process, in a variety of ways, will make your demons stronger. This is either done by combining two demons to make a third, or, as you progress, you can unlock the ability to do such things as sacrifice one demon to power up another. There are determinants which influence the results of the fusion processes, but more often than not, they are fairly random in what they produce. It's useful, but seems thin and tacked on. Still, it's a way to get some more powerful demons (since leveling up can be a fairly slow process) or some that you might've not seen before.
With interesting characters, setting, and battle system, Devil Summoner is fairly enjoyable to play, but the high difficulty might be a little off-putting to some. It's easy to get frustrated in this game, and there's a lot of leveling-up work involved. In general, despite a somewhat enjoyable battle system, the game feels a little generic in many ways, and gets old quickly.