This review was originally written for One Hit Pixel, found here.
We face a lot of difficult choices in our lives. Many of you reading this are playing Pokémon X/Y and have had to decide between Chespin, Fennekin or Froakie as your starter Pokémon. It’s something that has kept me awake long into the night, eyes bloodshot and hands trembling. However, even when life’s choices feel overwhelmingly significant on the surface, they may not be all that important beneath; you may not even have to dig that far.
The same is true of video games. A game where every choice was immense and game changing would be seriously bloated. As such, the smarter games out there deftly weave in the big choices with the little ones, complete with enough polish and obfuscation where it’s hard for the player to tell the difference.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked both adheres to and totally ignores this paradigm – which is risky for a game thematically based around choices.
Peaceful days died. Let’s Survive
You play as an ordinary teen in Tokyo who, along with his friends Atsuro and Yuzu, is given a new handheld games console called a COMP by his genius hacker cousin Naoya. What Naoya fails to mention is that the COMP harbours the Demon Summoning Program, there’s a group of cultists who are also handing out these arcane electronics, and the government is about to enact a total lock-down of Tokyo to keep the demons in. This is where the nominal ‘surviving’ comes in. The storyline takes place over 8 days of the lock down, as the trapped citizens become increasingly more desperate and violent.
Your primary choice is split between surviving within the lock-down and trying to escape it, though both your friends and the variety of characters you meet have unique agendas in the face of this crisis. Refreshingly, they vary in age, gender and background. Honda, a businessman who has a sick son outside of the lock-down and a melancholic yet steely outlook is a personal favourite; while Midori, a cosplay queen who uses her demons to act as a cliché Warrior of Justice, is a fresh idea though I absolutely hate her.
Midori is actually a special case, as her story arc is more directly involved with the RPG game play. There are a handful of missions that involve intervening when Midori is trying to be a hero. Sometimes you team up with her – but mostly you’re defending her when things get too hot. While this is not necessarily bad game design, saving her repeatedly is utterly frustrating – and most likely intentional.
Making friends can be fatal
Characters will appear across Tokyo each day, and visiting them will advance their plot arc, as well as passing time. It soon becomes impossible to talk to everyone in the time you’re allotted, throwing further choices at you. It plays out very similar to a visual novel or dating sim, except instead of trawling for anime genitals, you’re saving a pop star from their death-wish attitude, or covertly assisting special forces.
However, if you don’t intervene constantly, some plot threads will end without warning. Other threads will always be there, even if you’d rather skip them in favour of other characters. Devil Survivor Overclocked succeeds in mixing big choices with small ones, but you rarely feel satisfaction in your decisions. A lot of the early-game choices count for very little. After a couple hours of vacant dialogue choices where both answers say the same thing, you feel numbed to the idea of your decisions mattering.
When a choice that actually causes a story branch shows up, you can easily blow it off as meaningless and WHOOPS one of the characters is dead. Unless you have the prior knowledge of what to do, some sections of the plot are a lot less choice and a lot more guesswork.
How to train your demon
Still, the story elements are only half of the Devil Survivor Overclocked package. Devil Survivor Overclocked is a Shin Megami Tensei game – a series known for Pokémon-esque demon collection and a battle system that heavily punishes mistakes. Devil Survivor Overclocked is no exception, but here the battle system is framed with a turn-based strategy flare, like a cut-down Final Fantasy Tactics.
Each party member can roll with two demons as an entourage. Upon confronting an enemy, a round of combat takes place (with a bonus round for those with a high enough speed or who exploit elemental weaknesses). Skirmishes are lengthy, not necessarily because of terrain or placement considerations, but because you often fight a lot of enemies and each unit’s turn will end with a round of battles. To offset this, the number-crunching is geared towards attacks dealing a lot of damage and units being killed in a single round of combat. This applies as much to you as it does the enemy.
If enemies are frequently overwhelming you, there are ‘free battles’ that don’t progress the in-game clock and can be repeated as many times as you like – a kind of grinding that I despise. There is an Easy Mode option available, which I strongly recommend players take – not because Normal mode is insurmountable, but because it boosts experience and money gain without changing the strength of your opponents – so all it saves you an extra 10 hours of grinding.
The demons you obtain over the course of the game (via an auction – demons are cool with people trafficking, it seems) learn only a few skills – but you can fuse two demons together that will create a new demon with inherited abilities. It’s a feature common to Shin Megami Tensei, but here it’s a little easier to transfer good skills to new demons and soon enough (and with a little creativity), you can form a terrifying powerhouse.
Over time my main motivation for making my demon posse stronger was so the battles went faster and I could get back to the story, but if you’re the kind of person who strives for The Biggest Numbers, there is enough meat on Devil Survivor‘s combat bones. The battles being sporadically yet continually unfair is present all Shin Megami Tensei games, but it’s counteracted by how satisfying such strength can be when it’s on your side; if abusing the mechanics gets you going.
When I got going with a session of Devil Survivor, it really gripped my attention – generally I normally struggle to play a game for more than an hour at a time. Despite being weirdly passive, the story and setting are very compelling. Despite having pace-shattering bosses as soon as the very first one, having access to just as unfair combat tools is cathartic. Taking up Devil Survivor Overclocked right now is a difficult choice, much like the ones in its story – there are other Shin Megami Tensei games available on the 3DS and on the whole it’s not as accessible as its other RPG and Strategy peers. Know this for sure though – to play Devil Survivor Overclocked is by no means a bad choice.