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 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.

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