Devil Survivor 2 and the Personafication of MegaTen
For the last few years, the Persona subseries has stood tall as the representative of the Shin Megami Tensei series. Both Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 were successes, so why not milk that cow for what it’s worth? Atlus is doing just that: there are ports, merchandise, anime adaptations, and even a live action stage play of Persona 4. All the while, other Shin Megami Tensei subseries have been ignored as of late. Persona has become the face of the series. Aside from the exceptions of the Devil Survivor subseries and old school throwback Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, the series hasn’t done much else lately. Those games get nowhere near as much attention and adoration as the Persona series, though.
With its popularity, it was only a matter of time before Atlus applied the unique social elements that made Persona 3 & Persona 4 so likable in order to improve other properties. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 is where I can say “This was inspired by Persona 3 & Persona 4 ” full of certainty. Allow me to introduce the Fate System. The Fate System, similar to social links, has a set of levels for each character that increases as you interact and form bonds with them. Each level rewards you with various gameplay benefits, in case you’re in it mostly for the grind. Interactions with these characters can vary from light hearted chit chat to depressing, personal revelations.
The problem is that the Devil Survivor series lacks the peaceful daily life of going to school and hanging out with friends that Persona struts. In Devil Survivor, especially Devil Survivor 2, life is over, completely shattered. Homes and buildings are completely decimated. Demons roam the streets, killing whoever is unfortunate enough to encounter them. Society is breaking down. Humans are killing one another for food, for survival. Survival is what matters above all else. And yet Devil Survivor 2 pushes a social system on the player amidst this chaos. It goes against the nature of what the first game set out to be and what the second seems to be.
Devil Survivor 2 is, a much more depressing game than its predecessor. Right from the get go, Tokyo is stricken with disaster. Raging fires and demolished buildings litter Japan. Entire cities have been utterly destroyed. The main characters’ homes share the same fate and the of their parents being unknown. In Devil Survivor there was a light of hope, escaping the lock-down and going back to the normal life you once had. In Devil Survivor 2, there is no hope: everything has been destroyed already. For all you know, your entire family could be dead. And yet a social system is forced upon is in these dark times.
Devil Survivor 2 is a dark game in theory, but everyone seems to be blissfully unaware of how utterly hopeless the situation is. For a large portion of the game you’re living in the dark of why and how this happened. You just live every day life trying to survive with no real conception of what will happen next. That sounds dark doesn’t it? It is. It should be. More than often Devil Survivor 2’s “survival” consists of visiting amusement parks and having generally silly, fun moments contrary to the current state of affairs.It’s possibly that Devil Survivor 2 does this to detract from the grim situation the protagonists are faced with. They don’t want to deal with the fact that the world as they know it is gone. They want to ignore that fact, while at the same time dealing with life threatening encounters every now and again.
Devil Survivor 2 also presents a lack of urgency for the danger that exists. In the first game, it was clear from the start that you were going to die in a couple days because of the death clock mechanic. It and the Laplace mail were mechanics integrated into the narrative that created a constant feeling of vulnerability. Even after saving your skin once, again and again you’d fall into death’s cold embrace. Every time you were forced to avert it somehow. Devil Survivor 2 lacks that urgency, and the Fate System isn’t weaved into narrative at all. Only the player is aware of it, similar to how only the main character, excluding the inhabitants of the Velvet Room, is aware of the Social Links in Persona 3 and Persona 4.
Devil Survivor put importance on surviving for the future. There is a sense of urgency that you have to do this or that as soon as possible so you can go on living and perhaps return to your normal lives one day. Devil Survivor 2 takes away that urgency for the future and puts precedence on living in the moment because the future is ultimately shrouded in mystery. Not just living in the moment, but having a reason to live. That’s why you never get death clips for the next day, only for events that are set to happen in the near future. Taking that sense of living for the now to heart, Devil Survivor 2 pushes a further importance on the social experience. They give you a reason to live, a reason to keep on going. As the game goes on, the situation becomes increasingly bleaker and those relationships hold more value. Your friends start to question why they continue living, if they’re going about life the right way, or if they’re life is useful or not. That’s when the game starts to move in a darker direction. By the end when it’s time to choose your classic Shin Megami Tensei route your relationships start to break apart and you have to fight your friends. Morals and beliefs collide to break that social element.
The emphasis put on the social element is like a double-edged sword. In a way, the cheerful conversations don’t fit very well when the world has gone to hell. On the other hand, you find solace in your friends. Devil Survivor 2 itself is almost like a friendship. Things start out by talking about the basics and having fun, then you start sharing dark secrets. You start to rely on your friend for strength and confidence. By the end you find out you and your friend may not see eye to eye religiously or politically. That’s when the choice comes in. You either abandon this friend or let bygones be bygones and accept each others’ differences.
The first Devil Survivor had day by day interactions with characters too, but were almost always concerned with the narrative. Whether it be about Haru’s lonely past, the enigmatic Shomonkai, or even a simple chat with Atsuro and Yuzu about how you were gonna get out of this mess. There was always a connection between character interaction, how these characters developed, and the narrative. Devil Survivor 2’s character interactions, outside events that are forced on you, usually consist of conversations don’t hold nearly as much meaning because they’re light hearted and whimsical. I can see Devil Survivor 2’s focus on friendship come to fruition by the end, but I don’t think the sacrifice is worth it. The relationships you develop with your friends are often tied to how far along you are in the game, but rarely to the plot. They’re all just side stories. The game tries to make up for the lack of urgency with an optimistic disposition, but I’m not sure if it’s worth sacrificing the more fitting aspects for those that don’t work as well.