The Shin Megami Tensei series might be the epitome of cult video-game franchises, barely known by most players but beloved by a small, devoted core of fans.
The name (sometimes abbreviated to MegaTen) means "true reincarnation of the goddess," and publisher Atlus has stuck with it despite the lack of any notable goddesses in recent installments. What it has come to stand for is a kind of deep, demanding role- playing adventure that few companies are publishing these days.
The MegaTen umbrella covers an assortment of continuing stories, including the mind-bending Digital Devil Saga and the landmark Persona series. Most of the games have been built for PlayStation consoles, but Atlus has at long last delivered the first portable MegaTen adventure.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (Atlus, Nintendo DS, $29.99), like the Persona games, takes place in contemporary Japan. (Fans of Square Enix's The World Ends With You might notice some similarities, although Persona got there first.) Part of downtown Tokyo has been locked down, and demons are cavorting in the streets.
You control three teens who are trapped in the chaos. The good news: Your cousin has equipped you with hand-held computers that allow you to summon demons of your own. The bad news: You have seven days to live.
The bulk of the gameplay is an intriguing mix of turn-based strategy and RPG combat. You move your characters around an isometric grid, trying to gain tactical advantage. Then, when you encounter an enemy, you switch to a screen in which you choose attacks and spells from a menu. Because each of the teens also controls two demons with varying abilities, you have plenty of ways to tackle each battle.
As MegaTen veterans will expect, there are dozens of demons to recruit, and they're drawn from seemingly every mythological tradition in the world's history (with a few originals). You can use currency gained from battles to buy new demons, or you can fuse your minions into more powerful fighters. It's easy to lose hours just experimenting with fusion to try to develop the ultimate warrior.
The suspenseful plot of Devil Survivor is truly original, touching on issues of faith, government responsibility and the implications of an Internet-connected global society. The characters are presented in an appealing, angular manga style, and Atlus has performed its usual magic with a first-rate translation from the Japanese.
Devil Survivor is quite difficult — you'll need to try most of the battles several times before figuring out a workable strategy. But if you're looking for a fresh, challenging approach to the role-playing genre, it's very satisfying.