Thursday, November 10, 2011

No theories were conjectured in the process of writing this post: Devil Summoner 2.

Well, that's done.

After a long, arduous struggle, I've finally  finished Devil Summoner 2:  Raidou Kuzunoha versus King Abbadon (hereafter referred to as Raidou 2, because screw typing out that long title).

Let me clarify something first:  On many levels, Raidou 2 is vastly superior to its predecessor, Devil Summoner:  Raidou Kuzunoha versus the Soulless Army (hereon referred to as Raidou 1, because screw typing out that long, yet awesome, title).  The combat's been refined and polished, the demon roster and fusion options have been vastly expanded, there's access to a greater variety of equipment, multiple endings, plenty of sidequests, and a return of demon negotiation.  Yes, on many levels, Raidou 2 is a much better Shin Megami Tensei game than Raidou 1.

Unfortunately, it's not as good of a -Raidou- game as Raidou 1.

Wait, what?

While Raidou 2 is certainly an enjoyable game to play through, in the process (..I've come to loathe that word, and you will see why) of attempting to return to its MegaTen roots, the game's creators churned out a product that is superior in many ways to the first, yet loses a great deal of the spirit of what makes a Raidou game, -Raidou-.  This is a problem further compounded by a somewhat stiff translation in some parts, as well.

Read on to find out more about my experience playing, as well as why a nervous tick happens every time someone mentions the word "theory" "conjecture" and "process".

A Comparison:  Raidou Kuzunoha versus..Raidou Kuzunoha

To truly understand how Raidou 2 lost some of the essence of what characterizes the Raidou Kuzunoha entries in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, you'll need to see a comparison to the first entry.  As such, I offer you up two videos:  The introduction to both games:

Simple enough right?  Raidou chasing some criminal, his boss, Detective Narumi,  having his breakfast ruined by Raidou's feline sidekick, Gouto.  Their friend, the reporter Kichou Asakura, tripping over herself in an attempt to get the latest scoop, ended by Raidou facing down the titular Soulless Army.  Also sprinkle in some unpleasant looking villains (yes, that was Rasputin) and some mystical girl doing mystical girl crap for some MegaTen flavoring.  Now, let's compare it to the second:

 Wow.  Now this is increased in scope.  You do have some recurring themes:  Narumi's breakfast being ruined (again), a chase sequence, Raidou looking badass at the end, great.  But now there are ninjas.  And the end of days hitting the capital.  And holy shit, why are there giant monsters ripping through the streets and killing people?  And why's Raidou facing..himself with a mask?  Now he has a posse?  TWO demons at once?  Yes, it looks like this plot is going to be on a much grander scale, and go much deeper.

But.. that's not necessarily a good thing.

See, the initial Raidou game was a MegaTen game, but it didn't take itself too seriously.  There was a bit more over the top silliness juxtaposed with some serious moments there.  Let's take a few of the highlights (this may contain slight spoilers):  You deal with a cyborg version of Rasputin who can summon demons.  At some point, you launch a demon in a rocket into space (this is during Meiji-Era Japan) to stop a giant Gundam-like thing from terrorizing the capital.  You take a detour to have a near-naked fist fight with Yakuza in a bathhouse to prove your mettle to their boss.  By the end, there is an epic showdown against a demonic battleship.

Sound over the top enough for you?  Look at the title of Raidou 1.  Consider the fact that the original Japanese title was "Raidou Kuzunoha tai Chouriki Heidan" which, if translated literally, comes out to something like "Raidou Kuzunoha versus the Batallion of Ultimate Power / Ultimate Power Batallion".  Come on, you don't get much campier than that.

By contrast, Raidou 2 attempts to delve into darker territory with its plot.  This time, the choices Raidou makes throughout the stories influence whether he follows one of three traditional paths:  Chaos, Neutral, or Lawful.  The game explores the maturer themes of xenophobia, deicide, ritualistic sacrifice, government intrigue (to a minor degree), and choosing an individualistic path of recognizing one's potential at all costs versus trying to live in harmony with the rules and laws of society, even if they seem unjust.  There's even some truly twisted things that surface that I won't spoil (let's just say "Marriage Ceremony").

That isn't to say that Raidou is completely absent of some of those campy moments that made the first one shine.  After all, luck-stealing insect wielding ninja assassins dominate a better part of the first half of the game.  A great deal of the humor from the first, however, is more subdued this time.  Even characters who seemed goofier in the first (see: Narumi) step up and take a more serious role throughout the game.

It works well for the most part, and despite what some critics say about the convoluted story, it more or less makes sense, and it has a distinct MegaTen feel to it.  Just not a -Raidou- one.  In fact, as my dear friend Nick put it, it's like someone pulled out a MegaTen checklist and ticked off the necessities.  There's the enigmatic blonde young man:

His real name is Louis Cypher.  Seriously.

It's made pretty clear from the start that someone is either going to die or have a really shitty fate.

Really, almost anyone's picture would suffice, but we'll go with Akane.
Then there's the required homage(s) to previous MegaTen games:

The entirety of the Akarana Corridor is one big ol' trip down MegaTen memory lane.
As I mentioned before, choices that clearly direct you on a Law or Chaos path:

What law abiding citizen wouldn't?

Honestly, the story didn't make playing through the game painful.  The awkward translation in some parts, on the other hand..

Lost in Translation

Raidou 2 introduces us to Tsukigata village; a place in the mountains where I presume that, in the original Japanese version, everyone spoke in Kansai dialect.  Unfortunately, translating the intricacies of a language can be a difficult thing, thus sense time immemorial, it's been easier to just translate them as speaking like a bunch of hicks:

"You look like my 3rd cousin on my mother's side who's also my sister!"
But the biggest violators of this are the new Devil Summoner pair Raidou meets:  Geirin Kuzunoha the 18th and his protege, Nagi.  They like to use the words theory, process, and conjecture.  A lot.  No really, look:

Yes, a difficult  process indeed.
More theory.
I was feeling nice, so guess which option I picked.
By the time I read this, I was feeling less nice.
..Guess which option I picked by this point.
More goddamn theories.
I don't have the Japanese version of Raidou 2, but my guess is that in the original game, Geirin spoke in a highly formal, somewhat archaic Japanese, so that might be part of the reason for the weird conversion in English.  There have been other cases where such a manner of speaking was translated into more of a medieval way of speaking (see Cyan from Final Fantasy VI).  Heck, though, they even happen in the same game:

It's quite possible, though, that he spoke like a Pokemon in the Japanese version.
If you played a drinking game for each time Geirin or Nagi used "theory" "conjecture" or "process" you'd be dead.  This awkward translation isn't just limited to Geirin, Nagi, or the villagers of Tsukigata village:  One of the primary antagonists, who likely spoke in a more crass/disrespectful manner, is translated closer to the villagers (minus the "yew").  It's a little hard to take a guy who's supposed to be the leader of a deadly line of assassins when you continually wonder if he's going to break out a banjo:

Lines like this lessen the pure bad-assedness of having a guy pinned to the wall, by the neck, with your FOOT.
The only reason this stood out to me so much as I played was because the first game seemed to have a translation that flowed smoothly for the most part.  What happened with the second, I had to wonder.  Was the complexity of the language increased?  Or was it, as the Enabler noted to me in a conversation this past weekend, that the translation staff for this second game was minimalist due to it being released near the end of the PS2's life cycle.

Possible translation team for parts of Raidou 2
Mind you, none of these made the game totally unplayable.  It was just enough to give me pause at certain points, and slow the pro---... my journey in completing the game.  Of course, the translation alone wasn't responsible for this:  Certain additions in gameplay hampered me as well.

Gameplay:  Kuzunoha versus Kuzunoha, Round 2

Demon fusion and recruitment are integral parts of any MegaTen game.  In the first game, Raidou recruited demons by brutally beating them into submission, then launching into a tug of war battle with them in which, if successful, he's able to force them into one of his summoning tubes.  Rather than turn on him and try to kill him upon being resummoned, the demons seem to have had enough time to reflect and realize that if some punk kid was able to subjugate them for his cause, he must be a pretty cool guy to hang around.

In fact, they're so agreeable that once Raidou's done with them, he can either casually dismiss them, or fuse them with another demon through the power of SCIENCE, courtesy of his mad scientist friend, Dr. Victor.

Like 5000 times more cool than Igor's process.
I don't know about you, but to me, that has to be one of the coolest ways to go about recruiting and fusing demons ever.

On the bright side, the demon fusion system is still intact.  Unfortunately, sometime between Raidou and Raidou 2, the titular character must have received a complaint from the demon version of PETA.  The demon negotiation system makes a return in Raidou 2.  While I'm sure this might have made MegaTen purists happy, it's a lot less cooler by comparison:

"Talk it out" would never fly in Ogre Battle.
Not to mention it's horribly inconsistent at times, with the same tactics you used to recruit a demon previously backfiring on you during subsequent attempts.  Furthermore, there's a chance that when you make it to the final stage of negotiation, the demon will simply wander off rather than doing what you request.  Assuming they even talk to you in the first place.

In Raidou 1, your katana would leave it in no state to converse.
It's just frustrating, really.  The game does everything to establish Raidou as a badass, and considering his track record in the previous games, you'd think he'd stick with what works.

Not all of the changes were bad, mind you.  The addition of the Case Files system not only added depth by giving you tons of sidequests to complete, but served as a subtle reminder that the detective agency Raidou works for actually is a business, and actually has a clientele.  By contrast, the forced "detective meetings" needed to advance the story. . . not so much.

Suddenly, it's clear why Narumi needs Raidou as an assistant.

Another new addition is the luck locust system.  It's a unique system in itself, but let's focus on how it made my life a living hell while playing. If your luck is low enough after a certain point in the game, during the new moon, you'll receive an ominous message as the screens colors invert stating that you sense a dreadful presence.  That's your key to make sure you run to a save point or leave the dungeon as quickly as possible.  Otherwise, you're going to run into a fiend type enemy:  White, Pale, Black, or Red Rider (depending on what chapter you're on).  Let me put it in perspective for you:  The game decides that if you're unlucky, it's going to make that message clear by dumping an enemy that symbolizes one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse on you.

No shit.
On more than one occasion, Nick, David, or the Enabler had to endure me incoherently yelling "FUCK <insert color> RIDER!!!!!!!!!"  See, each time I ran into one of the Riders, I was a step away from exiting the dungeon and heading back to a save point.  Certainly, there are times where you can negotiate with the riders, but, being the stubborn person that I am, I tried to fight them and lost, repeatedly.  With each loss, I turned the game off in frustration.  Eventually, however, I found myself playing it again (I did mention I was stubborn).

It's a good thing I did.  In the end, the experience was worth it.

Concluding thoughts

When I finished Raidou 2, I'd clocked somewhere close to 100 hours.  I'll admit that a quarter of that time probably came from leaving my PS2 idle.  Yet a bigger chunk of it came from actually playing the game.  Raidou 2 is a good spell longer than the first.  Furthermore, it's easy to get sidetracked by completing the case files, raising demon loyalty levels, and, if you're a true MegaTen fan, the process of grinding Raidou up high enough so you can fuse new and more exciting demons.

But furthermore, since the Raidou games have the distinction of being a rare action-RPG in the SMT universe, this allows you to really see the demons utilized and come to life in a way that they just don't in other incarnations of the series.  As far as the action and battle goes, it still feels very much like a Raidou game.  While I didn't spend a great deal of time talking about the music, many of the tunes still have a Raidou feel to them.  Admittedly, the new battle theme doesn't hold a candle to the pure awesomeness of the original one, but many of the familiar Raidou themes, such as the aforementioned combat music, play in select dungeons as a tribute to the original.

Unfortunately, as this post showed you, the journey through the game wasn't always easy.  I stand by my earlier statement that Raidou 2 is in many ways, a better game than the game that preceded it.  Furthermore, many of the tweaks made to the game:  Combat, demon negotiation, sidequests, and more, show that Atlus is clearly a company that at least tries to listen to its fans:

At least, moreso than Tanaka listens to FFXI fans.
In the end though, while some of the antics are still there, a lot of the additions, particularly in the realm of the story, does kill some of the charm the initial game had.  I'm torn as I say this, because I wasn't as against the story as some people seem to have been.  It was certainly a story that stayed true to the MegaTen universe.  In fact, much of the criticism about Raidou 1 was that it didn't feel enough like a MegaTen game.

But perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing.

It wouldn't surprise me if some of you reading this have this game in your backlog, and are debating playing it (David and the Enabler, I know for a fact you two do).  There's even the possibility that you have the first game, as well.  I'll say this much:  Play the first game if you haven't already.  When you're done with that, play the second one as well.  If you're a fan of Raidou 1, you'll enjoy Raidou 2.

Just make sure you go in expecting more MegaTen than Raidou.

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