Many of you may ask me in my opinion what justifies giving a game 5 stars. As a reviewer I care about a few key factors. Originality, good game play, decent atmosphere/plot, and a seamless non broken experience rate the highest on my list. Things such as "glitches or bugs" can knock down a grade on my end.
Let me state right off the bat any title with "Shin Megami Tensei" stamped on it somewhere will be a Japanese rpg but not a "stereotypical" J-rpg. Devil Summoner 2 continues this proud tradition in style.
As someone living through a new recession the story line hit home. Devil Summoner 2 has a mystery novel vibe to it. You are Raidou, a young man who can negotiate with demons so they will join you but you are a detective during the 1920's in Japan as well that is struggling to hold onto traditions as it enters the modern era.
The Capital's people are hauntingly enough a reflection of us. For some unknown reason "luck" has become imbalanced in the universe. Those that are poor and unlucky are EXTREMLY destitute while the wealthy with good life circumstances go about charmed oblivious existences often not caring or even knowing about the suffering around them. The back drop of this "past Japan" is much akin to "Modern America". There are unemployed workers that are completely without hope. Those fortunate enough to have jobs are forced to labor in harsh conditions thus resort to alcohol and other vices to dull the pain. There are nice girls who turn tricks at the red-light district because they cannot make ends meet any other way. The only glimmer of optimism is as Raidou you can accept cases and help many of these people thus turning back the tides of misfortune.
SMT games are good for addressing issues that effect normal people. The Persona series is most renowned for that and Devil Summoner 2 is no exception to that rule. Sure, things may eventually lead up to an epic confrontation with a mad-man trying to plunge the world into Armageddon but the bigger focus is always "monsters" created by our own society more so than denizens rising from the depths of hell.
The game-play in Devil Summoner 2 is "improved" over the first game in many ways. Raidou can roll and cartwheel with the dodge button to avoid attacks and he no longer has limited ammunition. However after 6 shots he still must reload. In close quarters the hero brandishes a sword to dish out the justice. Normal attacks focus powerful slashes on one foe whereas "special attacks" can hit multiple foes but normally do less overall damage to each adversary.
Now comes the real treat for you traditional SMT fans. Demon negotiation is back. Any person who loved Persona 1-2 or Nocturne knows what demon negotiation is. At any time during combat you can talk to most demons. They all have quirky traits. Like real people demons will judge you based on a first impression and they all have likes and dislikes. Have a stimulating enough conversation and various cute, scary, and sexy beasties will ally with you, allowing you to have them as friends in combat and even during investigations. Negotiating has many layers. For example your friends can better your chances of impressing another demon and may add their voices to the peace-talk. If you have a certain demon type already in your party other demons from that species will almost always be friendly to you if you choose to interact with them kindly instead of slaying them outright. Demons have as much "personality" and "heart" as your back up class-mates in the Persona games so you will get attached even to the weakest ones. (As you raise in level you get more "tubes" which store more demons.)
Speaking of Persona you can fuse demons in much the same way. Instead of dropping by the velvet room you talk to Victor, a mad scientist who loves making new creations from meshing demons together. As with the velvet room you can make more powerful buddies and even call back demons in their separate forms by paying a fee. The more powerful a demon was, the more it costs to recruit them anew. A good thing to also remember is registering your demons often. As they increase in level and rank you'll want to be sure Victor records their improving stats.
By itself the system of "negotiating" and "fusing" is fun enough as it is. However what is really innovative is you can summon one demon from your list to help you in non-combat situations. Inugami can read minds when you question someone showing you their true thoughts. Petra is good at diving down wells to retrieve items for you. A skill caste demon such as Pixie can even let you take on the appearance of your suspects and enemies in order to get past guards or other obstacles. All this accumulates into an engrossing and entertaining romp whether you are fighting creatures or merely gathering clues.
However there are a few minor gripes. First and foremost if this is your first SMT game you may not know the weaknesses of every demon type. I suggest using the analyze skill whenever you can and attempting different things in battle. You can switch out demons in combat so never be hesitant to trade someone out if they don't seem to be doing well in the present situation. If a creature can do insane melee damage try distancing yourself and using your gun. Sometimes bullets can temporarily stun foes. Lastly remember you can "hide" your demons by pressing one of the left shoulder buttons. This reduces the punishment your party has to take.
Beyond battles occasionally spiking in difficulty level my only other qualm is a mild one. There is no voice acting. The main characters are so deep, artistically rendered, and expressive the lack of speech did not phase me much but if you got spoiled by the great localizations and voice talent from the digital devil and persona games this maybe a red mark on your scoring sheet.
Overall Devil Summoner 2 is a great rpg. I liked its' strategic yet live action battles as well as the various ways demons can offer their aid both on and off the combat field. I'd go so far to say I haven't seen as much charm and creativity woven into many next gen titles. Give Atlus a stone wheel and a crank and they'll make you a reliable yet flashy all terrain automobile! Atlus does so much with last gen hardware and software I cannot wait to see what heights they will soar to once they catch up with the pack!
+I could relate to the desperate gritty semi industrial setting of 1920's Japan.
+Interesting and lovable antagonists and protagonists
+Combat physics improved upon since the first game
+Don't have to play DS 1 to appreciate DS 2.
+ Demons are valuable friends both during investigation and in the thick of battle.
+Touches on issues experienced by real people. Sure there is epic cheese too, but not too much of it.
+Talking black cat familiars are awesome.
+If you love pokemon (Aka collecting creatures, fusing them to make more powerful variants, and interacting with your adorable entourage of misfits) you will love Devil Summoner 2!
+No longer run out of ammo though you still must "reload" after 6 shots.
-Those new to SMT are not going to know the weaknesses of all the demons
-Battles can easily go from "reasonable" to "OMFG....it shanked me with one hit!"
- Status ailments which "mind-frag" your allies really suck. Stock up on appropriate items to keep your demons mentally and physically sound.
-The very term "demon". It encompasses all creatures you interact with even those whom are not truly classified as demons by mythology. For example "pixies" are fey. However modern religion does "demonize" all things of the old faiths so it makes sense if you look at it from a certain perspective. Aka "demon" is the term humans give to any creatures they fear and don't understand.
-If you enjoyed the turn based battles in Digital Devil saga, Nocturne, and Persona 3-4 the new "live action elements" may take awhile to get used to.
-No voice acting
-It's a shame certain gamers may get the wrong idea by the title "Devil Summoner". While there are adult themes it also is about doing the right thing, using negotiation instead of violence to make new friends, and impacting the lives of other people in a positive way. Kind of a chuckle-fest to consider how many yokels are going to assume this game encourages satanic worship and deflowering virgins to bring ol Horny back into the world.
Pro or con? +/-: Raidou is yet another silent protagonist. He's cool, chill, and fashionably verb but doesn't express much emotion. Compared to say Yuri from Shadow-Hearts he is a stick in the mud. However Raidou is supposed to represent the player and if he was given an opinionated and wacky personality would we be able to relate to him any better? That is debatable. Gouto, Raidou's familiar luckily has plenty of pazaaz as does the lovable cast which offer support. Perhaps even a quiet hero is a bit more impressionable with a black cat side kick pouncing around at his side. Either you like "silent protagonists" or you don't which is why I bring this up as a big neutral point.
Overall: Despite its' flaws DS 2 gets 5 stars from me. There are no game halting glitches, lag, or other nuisances which actually seem to pop up more in next gen titles. The 1920's era is portrayed perfectly, I love the artistic direction, and as with Persona it touches on the struggle and triumph of the human spirit. For the price you cannot beat this bargain. Also though it shames me to admit it I love my Raidou plushie. Apparently I'm not as macho as I thought. Oh well, back to playing!