Tuesday, January 28, 2014

General RPGs' Minigames 10: Auctions

Auction minigames. They’re not all over the place, but there’re plenty of’em to be found in RPGs. Some of them are kind of accurate mimicries of the actual process of an auction, like the one found in the Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor games. Others are no closer to an actual auction than a “Mash the A Button to Eat Soup” minigame is to the actual act of masticating, such as the “auction” in Final Fantasy 6. I mean, that one is really just 2 opportunities to say you will pay a predetermined, unchangeable sum of money for 1 out of about a whole 6 randomly generated items, wherein only the second opportunity to bid actually has any bearing on getting the item. It’s less an auction minigame and more a Will You Buy This or Not minigame.

But even when an auction minigame is made well enough that it actually feels like an auction of sorts...what is the freaking point? The enjoyment of being in a real auction certainly isn’t present. You’re not actually there, you don’t actually get to see the people you’re competing against for the item you want, there’s considerably less of an exciting mysteriousness about what unknown junk and treasures could be put up for sale...sure you’re pleased if it’s some item or such that you could use, but I’d have trouble believing that anyone could achieve the same excitement about an auction minigame’s prizes as they would for the possible spoils of a real auction. And if you find that enjoyable, somehow, then okay, fine. But why would you want to waste time doing so in an RPG for pretend items when you could just hop on EBay, get the same experience of bidding against a faceless rising number, and actually have a chance of getting a real, actual item for your trouble? Don’t need an RPG for that.

Now, I’ll give you that the auction in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker managed to actually make the whole auction scenario feel fairly realistic. The minigame has Link in a room, with the other bidders being recognizable NPCs from town whom the player likely has some familiarity with, and so it doesn’t seem like you’re just competing against an impersonal number generator, you actually get a better feeling of bidding against someone else. Additionally, as far as I can tell, the NPCs bid in a relatively unpredictable manner, at least more so than most other auction minigames I’ve encountered, so that also adds a bit more realism to the process. So this one, at least, tries to capture the atmosphere of an actual auction, instead of just being a weak mockery of EBay. Still, it’s a time-consuming process for item acquisition that could otherwise have just been handled quickly and efficiently by just buying the damn thing outright, and its novelty only lasts a couple times before it wears off and the process becomes boring.

Auction minigames certainly aren’t as frustrating as many minigames I’ve covered before (fuck Spheda, man), nor as gratingly common and widespread (I’m so goddamn sick of fishing), nor as time-consuming (goddamn Torneko’s stupid-ass weapon shop!), nor are they annoyingly mandatory (stupid hauler beasts), so I don’t have too much hatred for them. Still, they ARE annoying and/or boring, they DO consume more time than they’re worth, and I frankly just don’t see the point.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Xenosaga 3 Mini Rants 2

My goodness, can it really be that it's been 3 months since I last did a rant on the most numerously flawed RPG series ever? Well, let's fix that!

Hey, remember that time I did a series of little rants about Xenosaga 3’s problems instead of a regular-sized rant about only 1 of those issues? I do. It was fun! Well, not exactly, but it wasn’t tortuously awful, either, so what the hell, let’s do it again!

Dying of Plot Plague: So, according to Kevin, Shion’s connection to U-DO (which just seems to be her being able to talk to him/her/it any time she passes out) makes her sick, for some inadequately-explored reason, as it did with her mother. KOS-MOS apparently runs by drawing power from U-DO, a convenient fact which I don’t think has ever been mentioned up until this moment in the series. Thus, because of Shion’s connection to U-DO, her close relationship with KOS-MOS is slowly killing her.

Wait, what? How the hell does that work? Shion just communicates with and gets passing-out headaches from U-DO (which happen whether or not KOS-MOS is nearby, using any unusual amount of energy, or even switched on, so that negative effect has to just be from U-DO in general). She’s not otherwise said or shown to have any particular connection to U-DO. If she did, she should presumably have some sort of negative reaction to Jr.’s abilities, since Jr. is a being specifically designed to combat U-DO (and he’s the strongest of such beings, to boot), but she doesn’t. So why does KOS-MOS running on U-DO juice have any sort of negative effect on Shion? If I’m chatting with my friend Varanus on Skype when an overzealous Red Cross worker bursts into his home, ties him down, jams a needle in his arm, and extracts a gallon of blood, leaving Varanus a withered husk of a human being, I don’t magically start losing MY blood too just because I happened to have a line of communication open with him when it happened. So why is this the case with Shion? Additionally, how does this relate to KOS-MOS and Shion becoming closer and having their wills align? If KOS-MOS uses U-DO as a source of fuel either way, then how will Shion’s condition worsen by deepening her relationship to KOS-MOS? What about that exacerbates the condition? I’m not unwilling to believe that it COULD make the situation worse, but I’m gonna need SOME reason, even if it’s magical sci-fi bullshit, for that to happen. But I won’t get one. Because the game stops directly acknowledging this situation of Shion slowly dying fairly shortly after the scene where it’s introduced. And why is that?

Because Xenosaga, that’s why.

Oh yeah, I love the part after Kevin tells Shion and company about this U-DO-Shion-KOS-MOS death connection stuff, and Jin warns Shion against taking it at face value, even though it “may seem plausible enough.” Does it seem plausible, Jin? Does it really?

What’s He Even Doing, Again?: Kevin wants to save the universe. Kevin wants to destroy the universe. Kevin wants to save the universe BY destroying the universe. Kevin wants to save the universe by destroying the universe, but only for himself and Shion, so for everyone else, he’ll be destroying the universe by destroying the universe. Even by Xenosaga terms, his purpose is about as rational and coherent as the intro for Team Rocket.

Blood Censorship: Censorship is rarely a good thing, but most of the time, I don’t really care if some blood and gore are removed when a game’s transitioning from the too-lax lands of Japan to the too-uptight lands of the USA. The overbearing creative deadzone that is United States Entertainment Culture has not yet managed to kill my imagination off, so if you show a guy getting stabbed with a sword, I don’t necessarily HAVE to see the blood from the wound to know he’s probably not feeling all that great about it. There are, however, some scenes that really HAVE to be free of censorship or else they’re significantly damaged, and the scene in Xenosaga 3 in which Little Shion is futilely, uncomprehendingly trying to catch her murdered mother’s blood in her hands in the hopes of putting it back into her...damn is this ever an example of why censorship is a bad thing. If you watch the scene from an original Japanese copy of the game, it’s very impressive, very emotionally painful and powerfully dark to watch. I’ll give this game credit where it’s due, and here, it’s very due.

Buuuuuuut, try playing an American copy of Xenosaga 3 through to this scene, and...well, the game was censored to have all blood removed from it.* So you sit there and you watch it, and you frown in mild confusion as you see this stricken child making inexplicable hand motions and muttering about putting something back in that doesn’t seem to exist. The entire mood of the scene is destroyed. I’d even go so far as to say that it actually looks silly. Man, even when Xenosaga 3 gets something right, it can’t get it right all across the board.

Voice Acting: The English voice acting in Xenosaga 3 utterly confounds me. I mean, in theory, it should be great. Pretty much every voice is a perfect match for its character. KOS-MOS is appropriately feminine yet robotic. Jr. is appropriately young but gruff. Captain Matthews is appropriately rough. Shion is appropriately normal yet somehow annoying over time. And so on. And a lot of these voice actors have got a lot of talent and experience under their belt, too. The woman who voices Jr., Brianne Siddall, has voiced a ton of lads and done a fine job each time. The guy who voices Margulis, Michael McConnohie, has, I think, voiced roughly one third of all RPG villains to date. Kirk Thornton, who plays Captain Matthews, has been in so many shows and games and such that it might actually be faster to make a list of things he has not done vocal work for. And yet, the voice acting for Xenosaga 3 just plain stinks!

It doesn’t stink in the usual way. I mean, like I said, these people are right for their roles, and they’re pretty much all quite good at what they do. But...I don’t know how to describe this. It’s like they’re doing a good job, but in the wrong way. Let me pose an example to you. Take this sentence: “What are you doing?” Now, there are a LOT of ways you can read that, a lot of scenarios that it can belong to. That could be a question of simple curiosity by someone passing by. Someone could be screaming that in horrified disbelief as they witness a terrible event. You could particularly emphasize any one of the words in it to get a different implication--”What are you doing?” implies extreme puzzlement and likely some dismay or disgust over what the speaker is witnessing, “What are you doing?” has a sort of snobby air to it, “What are you doing?” can imply some disdain for the doer being addressed, as though it’s laughable or unusual for the person to even be present, let alone doing something, and “What are you doing?” implies extra incredulity of some sort of the act itself. You could speak the sentence quickly and with little interest, and it becomes an apathetic moment of slightly sarcastic disregard for the other’s actions.

My point here is that practically any given sentence a voice actor reads can be used in many different situations in many different ways, and thus it needs to be spoken in the right way for the situation’s context. And that consistently does not happen in Xenosaga 3! These well-chosen, competent voice actors are delivering their lines well, but those deliveries are very often inconsistent with the situation in which the characters are speaking them. The inflections and parts emphasized are all over the place, and only seem to hit the mark for the characters’ situation and emotional state half the time, 60% at the most. It’s distracting. I can only assume that the voice actors weren’t properly directed while they were recording, weren’t given the proper context of the lines they were recording and weren’t told to re-record lines that weren’t going to fit in correctly. I can’t really think of any other reason for why this should be such a problem all across the board.

Jr.’s Guns: You know, the last time I did a series of mini-rants for this game, I talked about how useless MOMO seems in the cutscenes, but when I think about it, Jr.’s not a whole lot better. Like MOMO, Jr. is a fine fighter in the game’s actual battles; his abilities and his skills with his handguns are adequately effective, and you can quite easily use him efficiently as a party member. But like MOMO, if you go by all the instances of storytelling--actions taken outside the battle screen, and the content of the cutscenes--Jr. doesn’t seem to be able to do jack squat, at least not with his handguns, which are all he really uses outside of special situations with his fellow URTVs. He fires at giant mech suits, and, predictably enough, does no damage. He fires at T-elos, and does no damage. He fires at Voyager, and does no damage. Any time we see Jr. shooting at anything more than a faceless grunt enemy, there’s no damn effect. Being an effective fighter in the battle screen really doesn’t cut it with Xenosaga, as I mentioned before with MOMO--this is a game series with hours and hours and hours of cutscenes. They are the games’ primary vehicle of storytelling. And as Jr. cannot inflict damage on any significant foe throughout the Xenosaga series’s cutscenes, he comes off as useless to the team’s combat dynamic. It’s not as bad as with MOMO, since at least Jr. gets a chance to TRY to attack enemies here and there, but going by the storytelling sequences of the games, you would think him just as useless as you would think MOMO. They really should’ve given him a more appropriately dangerous armament--antique handguns just don’t cut it in a setting of giant mech suits, super robots, and lasers freakin’ everywhere.

Do You Know What Being Alone Actually Is, Shion?: Uh...okay, if Shion’s greatest fear is, indeed, of being alone, as is indicated by one of her little fireside chats with U-DO, then why does she later want to leave her friends and family to help Kevin? Yes, she’ll have him (and what a fucking prize he is), but in the process she’ll give up everyone else who cares about her and has been there for her. Not only that, but if Kevin were to successfully work his universe reset voodoo, she’d REALLY be alone with him, as they would be the only 2 people in the entire universe! That’s a pretty lonely scenario even with your precious boy-toy by your side, and what if something happens to him again? Seems like a hell of a counter-productive gamble for her to take if her loneliness is her greatest fear.

And Why Did All Of This Happen, Again?: The millennia-spanning ludicrously complex plan of Wilhelm that involves all the hogwash of collecting relics of God and souls of dead Bible women and giving abusive boyfriends superpowers and making little boys who are also sort of God into robot pilots and so on...it all stems from the one, single problem that the universe is, over time, dying. But the game never, to my understanding, has the courtesy to specifically explain to us exactly HOW the universe is dissipating, what’s causing it and why. First it’s blamed on the wills of people who don’t feel like they fit in (the Gnosis), and then it’s blamed on chaos’s existence, but not once do we get any idea of how either of these things, or anything else, actually translates into the end of the universe. What is it about the mere existence of the Gnosis and/or chaos that makes this happen? The Gnosis are fairly destructive in general, but that’s just on the normal human scale, like the way an all-out nuclear war in real life would devastate the society of man and its creations, and wreak havoc on the Earth’s surface, but would not actually, so far as I know, really damage the Earth itself, only the stuff on it. We never see the Gnosis doing anything that could even faintly connect to destroying the universe itself. And chaos is just bumming around, not bothering anyone. So how do either the existence of chaos or the existence of the Gnosis hasten this universal collapse that Wilhelm’s trying to circumvent?

And here’s the other thing about that situation I don’t get. Once Shion and company have defeated Wilhelm’s plans, chaos and Nephilim begin to summon all the Gnosis to them, with the intent of sealing the Gnosis and themselves on Lost Jerusalem (Earth) so that the destruction of the universe can be slowed, to buy humanity enough time to hopefully come up with a true solution to the problem. Well that’s all fine and good, very noble and all that, but, uh, why should that make any difference? I mean, all we can glean from the game’s information about how the universe is dying is that it’s the existence of chaos and/or the Gnosis that causes it--and since chaos is a good guy who would never actively destroy the universe, and as I said we don’t see the Gnosis really do much besides destruction on a human scale or just sit around in space, it seems like the only logical conclusion really is that just chaos and/or the Gnosis existing is all it takes to be detrimental to the life of the universe, even if, as I said, we have no idea why that is or how it is done. But if just existing is enough to bring about the universe’s end eventually, then why does sealing chaos and the Gnosis on Lost Jerusalem make a difference to how fast that happens? Lost though it is, Earth is still IN the universe, so, sealed there or not, the Gnosis and chaos will still be existing in the universe. If their mere existence is enough to hasten destruction, how can it matter which planet that existence happens to be taking place on?

The Ambitions Of Sellers: During the heroes’ final meeting with Sellers, before he just vanishes inexplicably from the plot altogether, the guy makes a bunch of grandiose statements about how he has no loyalties to Ormus or the Federation, and that he’ll happily use any powerful organization as a vehicle to advance his goals. He also talks about how sacrifices are acceptable and trivial in order to accomplish great things. Okay, right, amoral mad scientist schtick. Yet do we ever get any clear idea, anything but the very vaguest of notions, of what those goals and great things are meant to be? I mean, I’m willing to allow for some non-specific mad science-y ambitions, a la Hojo from Final Fantasy 7, but we should be privy to at least a general idea of what it is that Sellers is trying to do. I think we kinda get an idea that he’s trying to surpass his old boss Mizrahi, but in what way? Why? How? What is it that Sellers finds interesting about his work? What are the results he wants to see? What are the results he’s even observing? Again, a case where Show, Don’t Tell would’ve been the right move--Sellers can go on and on all he likes about his goals and ambitions and science crap, but we’re given nothing specific to qualify his statements.

This Guy Are Sick: Most of the time, when a character in Xenosaga says something that doesn’t make any sense, it’s not because it’s badly translated, it’s just because they’re spouting the usual over-complicated nonsense that is the signature of Xenosaga. There are, however, some occasions in the game that are just silly gibberish that doesn’t seem like it could make sense even by that standard.

For example, when Helmer talks about how his planet, Miltia, is evacuating its population as quickly as possible in light of the danger of Abel’s Ark, Canaan says “You humans are hopeless. It’s times like this when you should be working together.” Where the hell did THAT come from? Wouldn’t expedient planetary evacuation imply at least some form of cooperation? Does Canaan mean that they should instead be working together toward some different solution? What the hell does he think Helmer and the regular military and citizenry are going to be able to do? All the bullshit magical hooplah that has to do with Abel’s Ark is way beyond conventional resistance. I have no idea what prompted this statement by Canaan, what the intent of the statement is, or why everyone around him just seems to accept it as valid.

Or as another example, Albedo’s line when he shows up during the confrontation with Yuriev: “I’m so happy to be able to see you again. It’s rather amazing. I feel like thanking the laws of this universe.” What the fuck does that even MEAN? It’s like something some weirdo would say in Earthbound! Granted the laws of the universe are sort of behind anything and everything that happens, so you COULD thank them for virtually anything, but to my knowledge, no one ever goes around doing that. And for that matter, Albedo is only able to see Jr. again here because Wilhelm BROKE the laws of the universe to make it happen--Albedo DIED, and Wilhelm brought him back. If there’s any time where the normal laws of the universe actually weren’t responsible, it’d be this one! But that’s beside the point. The point is, what the fuck are you talking about man.

Well That Was Convenient: After the heroes defeat Citrine and try to stop Yuriev, Yuriev shoots the panel controlling the door he’s exiting from. Now, I understand why he does this--it’s to stop anyone from being able to open the door to follow him. What I don’t understand is why, after he has shot it, the door opens one last time for him? He shoots it while the door’s closed, then it opens for him after the damage has been done to it, and only THEN, after he’s made his getaway, does it seem to realize its control panel has been destroyed and refuse to open. Look, Namco, either shooting the damn thing breaks it or it doesn’t. You can’t change your mind halfway through the scene.

Ehhh, I think that’s enough for today. Hope you’re not getting tired of Xenosaga, though, because there’s more to come.

* I can’t even understand why that is. This is a game made for adults, it features a nonstop barrage of adult themes. There is enough mature-themed shit going down in this series that a little blood should not be the breaking point.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2's Superiority to its Predecessor

Well, lads and lasses, it's a brand new year, and I'm back and ready to fill it with the ramblings of a cranky, impossible-to-please fanboy gone senile before his time. And since you're still here, reading this tripe, I guess that means you're back as well, and still somehow unable to find something more interesting to do. I actually feel enthusiastic about this year--there's a lot of really great RPGs on my horizon, and I actually have a fair number of ideas for some rants that I think will be pretty fun and/or cool. Let's get this thing rolling!

Until Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2, the first Raidou Kuzunoha game was the low point in the SMT series for me. That’s not to say that SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army (forevermore known here as SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 1--that’s already more of a mouthful than I like) was a bad RPG or anything like that. That’s certainly not the case. But it’s all relative--Shin Megami Tensei sets its bar extremely high when it comes to story quality and thematic depth. A great game like SMT Persona 4 is dead average by the standards of the 13 SMT games I’ve played to date, so a mere “fairly good” RPG is low on the SMT scale. But SMTDS Raidou Kuzunoha 1 was amusing and fairly fun, and had a few solidly cool parts, and I enjoyed it and found it to be worth my time.

In this way, my expectations for the sequel, SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon (known hereafter round these parts as SMTDSRK2), were both hopeful and low. It’s an SMT game and the first had been decent, so I was expecting a positive experience, but given its predecessor, I also wasn’t expecting anything particularly noteworthy. But I was quite pleasantly surprised by the the time I finished it. Not only did Raidou Kuzunoha’s second game improve on virtually every aspect of the first, but this is actually a game I can fully count as a true Shin Megami Tensei title. And because I like pontificating aimlessly about unimportant subjects, I’m gonna explain how.

First of all, I guess it should be said that the second game has considerably better gameplay, for whatever that’s worth. The first title’s gameplay was actually relatively fun and well-made (though a little too easy, I think), but they really improved on it for Raidou’s second game. The nuances of combat seem slightly more complex in general, and the ability to now have 2 demons on the field helping Raidou instead of 1 puts a lot more power in your court and provides for much more potential for strategic party preparation. But the game’s well-balanced, so that this doubling of demons doesn’t dwindle or destroy the difficulty; if anything, SMTDSRK2 is much more satisfyingly challenging than its predecessor. There’s also a huge increase in the number of different demons in this title; I think the game’s bestiary has to be double what SMTDSRK1’s was, making it about as sizable as any average SMT game.

Of course, that stuff’s all the small junk that doesn’t really matter to me. It’s nice to see it improve, no question about that, but it isn’t a consideration for whether I find this or any other RPG good or bad. That’s left to the storytelling, the plot, and the characters. And they have all improved, as well.

Let’s start by talking about the characters. The secondary characters (Gouto, Narumi, and Tae) in SMTDSRK2 are pretty much the same as they were before, without much done with them one way or another. Towards the end of the game, there’s some slight development for Narumi and Tae with the villain god’s mask thing exposing certain inner turmoils of theirs, but overall they’re just there, doing their thing, moving the plot along. I guess Narumi did have a slight bit of development in SMTDSRK1 with his history that this game doesn’t have, but it’s not much of a step back. This sequel does have some decent new characters, though--I can’t say that Geirin or Akane impressed me overall, but each was at least pretty decent and had some depth, and Nagi is original enough to catch one’s interest and goes through a fair amount of good personal development.

The villains are better, too. Shinado makes a pretty solid true villain, recalling to mind Nyx from SMT Persona 3 in that his attempt to extinguish humanity is born from and relates to people’s own weak spirits and despair, but distanced from Nyx by the fact that his threat is consciously made because of his observations and belief, rather than just being an unquestioning device of armageddon. Dahn makes for a good, real-feeling villain for the majority of the game. Not to say that the villains of the first game were bad; they were just fine, and I did like the way they had the lead villain be the Raidou Kuzunoha from the time period of Shin Megami Tensei 2, loved the way they tied their greatest classic in with Raidou’s game. Still, Dahn is a more relatable, genuine-feeling guy. In fact, he’s realistic enough and sympathetic enough that some players may feel more inclined to side with him than stop him. I certainly did--I recognize that he’s too ignorant of the ramifications of his actions, but I still find myself in agreement with his intent far more than the beliefs of those opposing him. I’m not saying he’s a truly great villain or anything, but he’s a good enough one that a boring mostly-Law-sometimes-Neutral player like me actually advocated Chaos in this SMT as a result.

That brings me to the last point on improved characterization--the Alignment system. By adding Alignments to SMTDSRK2, Atlus has injected a much-needed dose of personality into their titular character. Through the many questions and requested input that the game’s story and narration pose to Raidou to determine whether he’s Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic, the Alignment system allows the player to better understand why Raidou is doing what he does, how the events surrounding him affect his beliefs and perspective, what he believes, and whether he identifies himself solely by his role as Raidou Kuzunoha XIV, or whether he sees himself still as a unique individual. An interesting thing about this is that the rigidity of the game’s plot (Raidou’s gonna do almost all the same stuff regardless of his alignment) doesn’t hinder how variable Raidou’s character is at all, because whether he’s doing it for himself or for his duty, Raidou’s task is exactly the same--I’m quite fine with the player’s choices for what a protagonist believes having a large impact on the game’s events, but this game shows us that you can have the benefits of a protagonist whose beliefs and personality are set by the player, without it making a big difference in the plot. Kind of different to have a case where the importance is placed on why you believe in the duty you’re performing, not on changing the duty itself. In fact, this might just have made the Alignment system in SMTDSRK2 far more effective at creating a character for Raidou Kuzunoha than it has been for any other SMT Silent Protagonist. In every other SMT game with an Alignment system that I can think of, the resulting alignment of Law, Neutral, or Chaos for the protagonist is aimed at determining which faction the protagonist sides with and thus makes a major difference to the game’s sequence of events. With Raidou Kuzunoha 2, the sequence of events are relatively fixed, so instead of just being a tool to know where the protagonist stands on the issue of order and freedom, the Alignment system is forced to focus on the character more since its regular plot duty is removed.

At any rate, the cast of SMTDSRK2 is definitely improved upon through better villains, solid additional support characters, and allowing for Raidou to have a personality. Nothing’s lost, a lot is gained.

Let’s look at the plot’s execution next. SMTDSRK2 is definitely better in its storytelling than the first game. Again, it’s not that the first Raidou Kuzunoha was bad or anything--this one just improves on it. This is mostly because the weirdness is dialed back just a bit. SMTDSRK1 was...very odd at times. Shooting demons into orbit in a homemade rocket ship, being trapped in an alternate reality for little to no reason, and facing off against a robot Rasputin...it got a little too surreal at times. Fun, but surreal. The sequel seems to take itself a lot more seriously. It’s not that the quirky, weird parts are gone, they’re just fewer, allowing for a more serious and sensible story, and the oddest parts of the game are mostly kept as sidequests, instead of being thrust into the main plot. You still have, for example, a cameo by alternate universe Raidou, but it’s optional, unrelated to the story proper. So the sequel still has the fun feel of the first game as much as it needs it, but as a whole, the story comes off as much more genuine and serious. Raidou Kuzunoha 2 is still a game with the levity of its predecessor, but with a richer and more substantial feel to its main plot that I can appreciate.

And since we’re on the subject, the plot’s also a lot better with the sequel. While keeping track of all the terms can be a little difficult at times, overall the story is a solid save-the-world venture, but with far more substance than the first game. The first Raidou Kuzunoha title was fine, but the only time I can recall it making any impact on me or impressing me was at its very end, going through the awesome final dungeon and seeing the highlights of Raidou’s future, then discovering the identity and motives of the villain. It’s good stuff, but far too little, too late to make the first game particularly interesting. With SMTDSRK2, however, you’ve got a plot with significant creativity (just love the idea of an assassin who kills with bad fortune), a grander feel overall (the presence of good ol’ SMT veteran Lucifer and the foreboding of the Day of Misfortune, and a good expansion of the Raidou Kuzunoha mini-universe (mostly through the introduction and explanation of Geirin Kuzunoha and the Fukoshi clan), combined with the Fiends running amok, does the trick nicely), and a decent exploration into the themes of faith, hope, and despair, the classic SMT Law vs. Chaos question, and Luck and Fortune as a form of belief and even faith. Now, yeah, SMTDSRK2 doesn’t go into those themes in as great depth as many of the other SMTs. Its use of the Law vs. Chaos theme isn’t as strong as it is in SMT Strange Journey, for example, and its investigation into the essence of Luck and people’s faith in it isn’t as complete and thought-provoking as SMT Persona 3’s investigation into the Tarot, or SMT Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2’s use of Hinduism and Buddhism. Nonetheless, Raidou Kuzunoha 2’s use of these themes is very solid, and gave my brain a satisfying meal, and that elevates it leagues above its predecessor--I’m still not really sure what, if anything, SMTDSRK1 is actually about.

And like I said, not only is Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2 a better game in every important way than its progenitor, it’s also a true Shin Megami Tensei game, at least to me. See, to me, the heart and soul of the SMT series is an examination into the religions, faiths, and belief systems of humanity--understanding them, how they came to be, how they affect us, what place they have in our society and culture, and what place they should have. Plenty of other great stuff is important to the SMT series, too, of course--human nature, how ordered and free society should be, how best to live your life, and so on. But all of the rest of that stuff is the result of the in-depth exploration into faith that is SMT’s core, a byproduct of the main event. Highly debatable, of course, but that’s how I, myself, see Shin Megami Tensei. And SMTDSRK2 definitely fits the bill with its examination into the concept of good and bad Fortune, the ways it affects us and the degrees to which we believe in or deny it. Oh, sure, it’s not as heavy a topic of belief as Christianity (SMT1, 2, 4, Strange Journey, and Devil Survivor 1), Hinduism and Buddhism (SMT Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2), the raw behavior patterns of religions in general (SMT3), or even the Tarot (SMT Persona 3 and 4). All the same, the idea of Fortune, the capricious whims of fate and sometimes karma, is one that nearly everyone I’ve ever encountered believes in to some capacity, and quite deserving, as a concept of belief, of an SMT game devoted to it. Raidou Kuzunoha 2 does so to a perfect degree, giving us plenty of insight and ideas about Luck to consider at length, yet not trying to stretch that analysis and plot attention further than it should (Luck’s too subjective and undefined a subject to warrant the level of investigation that some of the other games give to the other theological themes I mentioned before).

Overall, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2 is a marked improvement on the original in every significant way, and even in some insignificant ways, as well. It was quite a pleasant surprise for me, and goodness knows I don’t get enough of those. Big props to the SMT team at Atlus for taking something lackluster (for them, anyway) and turning it into something really worthwhile.