I purchased Devil Survivor Overclocked on sale at Halloween last year. Having only recently discovered Atlus’s excellent Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series of JRPGs, I’ve since made it my business to play through as much of their enormous back catalogue as I can. Overclocked is a 3DS remake of a 2009 Nintendo DS game (hence Devil Survivor), brought out for the 3DS in 2011 in Japan and the USA and 2013 in Europe. It’s a satisfying and competent story-driven tactical RPG that, while it was never going to set the world on fire, is a reliable pickup for any RPG fan in possession of a 3DS. It achieved a decent amount of commercial and critical success and even spawned a sequel and an anime series.
Devil Survivor is a spinoff from the Shin Megami Tensei series, and deals with the same kind of themes you’d expect to encounter in a SMT game (demons; friendship; Tokyo teenagers trying to avert the apocalypse). The game has an idiosyncratic structure. The bulk of the “action” takes place in tactical SRPG missions in the style of Final Fantasy Tactics, where your party engage demons and other hostiles in parties of three. In between missions, you choose between a list of locations, some of which have events associated with them which can advance the story, provide new information or flavour, or trigger a fight. These options each use up a half hour of in-game time, and you only have a limited amount of time to make friends, save lives, and kill demons (just like real life, right?). You’ll get to make choices at times between different events, or in conversations, which can have significant consequences.
Combat is pretty good fun for the most part. The demons you encounter are varied, and some of them have creative design and a surprising amount of personality. Like other Atlus games, much is made of elemental strengths and weaknesses, and you have to try and build your party accordingly to prepare for fights and make sure you’re covered. This contributes to one of the game’s weaknesses, though,as many boss fights are punishingly hard and practically require you to pursue a specific tactic to advance. In the early game, progress is relatively straightforward, but at a certain point the game will make you suffer if you thought you were going to get away without grinding “optional” content.
Each party member is accompanied by up to two demons, and you can learn and equip a variety of offensive and defensive moves. Demons themselves are recruited for the most part in a purely mercenary system whereby you can bid for their services against computer-controlled characters, or exercise a hassle-free “buy it now” option. You can also fuse demons to create new, more powerful creatures, which is an established mechanic in SMT games and a surprisingly deep system here. There are some exhaustive guides on the internet which show just how much work was put into designing this, but fortunately you can generally come up with pretty decent results through a bit of intuition and trial and error. I found the demon fusion system in Devil Survivor to be quite satisfying, and I welcomed the fact you don’t have to recruit demons through laborious trial and error conversations in combat. Sometimes a simple cash transaction can be in everyone’s interest.
As for story, Devil Survivor Overclocked has an interesting set-up whereby the centre of Tokyo (inside the Yamanote line) has been locked down due to a demon infestation. The story is quite detailed (for which read: there’s a lot of exposition), and you gradually learn about the machinations of the various human and supernatural factions involved. On the whole, I found the story to be well-paced: although the supernatural shenanigans can feel overwrought, for the most part this is balanced against the real-world disintegration going on inside the lawless lockdown area that’s been overrun by demons. I particularly liked the sophisticated and intelligent integration of mythological content into the story, which seems to be a hallmark of Atlus’s games. Having read both The Golden Bough and The White Goddess last year, I felt quite smug understanding the references to the various demons and sub-plots going on in the, at times, convoluted story. It’s rare for a video game to make these kinds of literary allusions – or at least, to make them in a way that’s sincere and meaningful to the plot and action.
The other cultural references are quite apparent, and without wanting to labour the point, the understandable Japanese preoccupation with urban obliteration is a central theme here. I also felt a (very welcome) influence of Death Note, not least in how some of the characters can see “death clocks” above the heads of people who only have a few days to live. As far as other video games go, Devil Survivor seems to be often compared to the highly overrated Square Enix RPG, The World Ends With You, but as Atlus have pointed out, Square’s game itself made use of certain tropes and devices that have been well-established in Atlus games for a long time. Overclocked’s story is almost entirely revealed over the course of lengthy talking-head scenarios that have something of the feel of a Japanese “light novel”. Remarkably, all of these sections are fully-voiced, which is no mean feat as we are talking about a very significant amount of dialogue here. Most of the main characters are voiced well, but some of the secondary characters will annoy you (see: Haru and, to a much greater extent, Midori). You know the voice acting is bad when you start trying to kill a character off. We’re not talking Final Fantasy X levels of awfulness, but it still stands out.
The narrative is rather unusually structured in that the main character is given a certain amount of freedom in how he approaches the central events of the game, and what you choose really does have a dramatic impact on what happens, and on who lives and who dies. (Telltale Games should be taking notes here.) There are something like six or seven endings, some of which diverge significantly, and several of the endings trigger extra content that was added in the remastered (Overclocked) 3DS edition. A first playthrough will take you 40 hours and change, so there’s plenty of content. Most people are unlikely to have the time or inclination to do an entire second run through the game, but the option is there. If you’re a 3DS owner who’s run out of RPGs, and especially if you’re a fan of Persona or Shin Megami Tensei, this is a game you should definitely check out.