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The Nintendo DS now has the market cornered on a bizarrely specific niche. If you’re all about hip, headphone wearing kids in Tokyo who just happen to be caught in the middle of a seven-day long apocalypse, consider Nintendo’s dual-screened portable your portal to a two-week dream vacation. See, The World Ends with You and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor both fit the above description with eerie levels of accuracy, and lucky for you, they’re both great!

While the two games may share similar premises, however, they haven’t cribbed any other notes from one another. Where The World Ends with You was a two-screened terror of an action-RPG, Devil Survivor is a far more manageable JRPG/strategy RPG hybrid. At first blush, battles look as though they’ve sprung from the same overly bounteous SRPG birth canal as every other rote SRPG that hits the shelves these days: grid-based movement, tiny, cute characters, more numbers than you can count – you know the drill. Actually engage an enemy in combat, however, and things get a little more refreshing.

Instead of depicting a quick clash between pint-sized brawlers, battles take place in a traditional JRPG format that looks most like a Dragon Quest battle screen. As expected, you then take turns exchanging blows with your foes, choosing between numerous physical attacks and magical abilities to forcefully remind your demonic enemies why hell wasn’t actually all that bad of a place. Using this basic formula, you command multiple parties, each made up of one human and two demons. Between demons’ preset skills and humans’ ability to “crack” and learn whatever skill they’d like by defeating select enemies, strategic options are brilliantly layered, making the action of mixing and matching to create the perfect party incredibly addictive.

When not playing guardian angel to the godless heathens of Tokyo (who, oddly, can’t stop stumbling into vaguely Christian apocalypses), you’re free to explore the city through a minimalistic, highly functional set of menus very reminiscent of Phoenix Wright‘s. Different locations play host to all manner of events at certain times each day, many of them key to unraveling the multitude of tantalizing mysteries that surround the city’s demonic invasion. For instance, over the course of a given day, you might overhear a conversation, walk in on a former pop diva’s outdoor concert, thwart some gangsters, fight a whole mess of demons and talk with every conspicuously hip-looking person in Tokyo.

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The overworld menu also grants you access to demon auction and demon fusion options, which form the bait and hook, respectively, of Devil Survivor‘s addictive allure. Auctions are your primary source of new demons, and basically function like eBay, allowing you to either bid or just opt for a hassle-free “Buy it Now.” Once you’ve acquired a demon, you can either add it to one of your parties or combine it with another demon using the unifying properties of some vaguely unethical science. (Again, though, we’re dealing with the devil, so who cares about ethics?)

Upon beginning a fusion, you’re asked to select skills from each participating demon to be carried over to whatever twisted end result comes of their unnatural union, potentially making room for some very strange skill sets. Giant axe-wielding ogre with healing spells? Sure, go for it. Water elemental who’s mastered fire? Why not? With a colossal selection of skills and demons, the possibilities are practically endless.

Devil Survivor‘s story is also a nice treat, and well-paced to boot. No overindulgent cut-scenes or sloppily written soap opera dramas here – just small chats with a colorful cast of characters that dole out the game’s plot in measured doses. It’s enough to keep you chomping at the bit for more, but not so much that you’ll long for the days when videogames actually included gameplay. Plus, talky scenes keep you involved by giving you dialogue options that, while seemingly inconsequential, prompt different responses from other characters. Sure, it’s no Mass Effect, but it’s enough to keep you from dozing off and missing crucial plot points.

Really though, the “nice treat” moniker can be applied not just to Devil Survivor‘s story, but to the game as a whole. Going in, I had no expectations, but came away with … well, I didn’t ever come away, honestly. I’m still addicted to the deceptively deep SRPG and, clichéd though it may be, had to tear myself away from the game to write this review. Devil Survivor‘s another interesting take on the JRPG formula that only solidifies the Nintendo DS’s position as an RPG behemoth.

Bottom Line: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is a highly enjoyable, often innovative strategy RPG. A word of warning, though: It’s sickeningly addictive. Work, school and social life are forfeit when the hooks sink in this deep.

Recommendation: Buy it. Devil Survivor‘s plenty lengthy. Plus, it’s a diamond in the rough of the summer doldrums. You won’t be disappointed.

Nathan Grayson has both survived devils and made them cry. Maybe someday he’ll finally teach them how to love.

Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

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