In my review of Strange Journey, I found a competent but very flawed game trying to emulate the older games a bit too well. It suffered from linearity of storyline, extremely difficult battles, an extremely flawed item crafting system and lacked flexibility to customise your demons.
Although released before Strange journey, Devil Survivor's game design avoids all these problems and has created an enjoyable good game. The game is new territory for Shin Megami Tensei as its a turn based map strategy game rather than your standard combat game.
From a game design point Devil Survivor hits nearly all the right notes. Here's a summary of just what I liked about the gameplay design and and how it contrasted with the gameplay of Strange Journey.
Good Game Design
1) The player chooses when to advance the story- Unlike the very linear dungeons and progression in Strange Journey, the game uses a time based system to advance the story and game. You are given a map of Tokyo and various locations you can visit. Events and people at the location are clearly marked as well as whether the event will cost time. You can also train by entering a 'free battle' area which doesn't take time. This means that if you need to train, you can easily level up or you can push on. Displaying the portrait of the person you will interact with at the location also gives you a rough idea of what story path you'll be heading down as well.
2) Demon Skills are easily changeable- One of the major complaints I had was the lack of ability to change skills or even decide what skills are inherited in Strange Journey, in Strange Journey the skills you inherent are based around affinity of the new demon and are chosen for you. The only way for a demon's skills to change is when they level up where there is a random chance for them to randomly inherit a skill. You can't choose what skill you inherit or even see what the skill will be. You just have to guess. You do also have the demon sources which are crystalised demon skills you can use during fusion. This grants you much more control over this but you only get one shot at this. If you screw up and choose the wrong skills you'll pretty much just have to fuse a new demon. Unfortunately resummoning high level demons can be quite expensive particularly if they're heavily
In this game before you fuse a demon, you choose what skills and abilities to inherent from the previous 'parents'. You can't change most of the innate skills once you fuse but if you perform well in battle as one of the bonus perks you can actually change the offensive skills of your demon if you desire. Overall a much better improvement over. I do think they should have also allowed you to alter the innate inherited abilities for a fee as well but I think the system works well enough in the game as forces the player to choose carefully to ensure they have a carefully balanced team.
3) Party skills are interchangeable- The game doesn't have equipment, rather you can steal the skills of enemy demons and demon tamers and then have your trainers use them provided they meet the minimum requirements for the. These human demon tamer party skills can be reassigned between each battle. For example, you could give yourself a healing spell and a fire spell and then pass them over to someone else instead if you decide you need an ice and wind spell instead. All abilities active and passive are transferrable giving you a wide range of customisability. There is a limit in the sense that only one skill can be assigned to one tamer. I personally think more games need to implement this sort of system!
4) Game difficulty is about right- Devil Survivor is on the easier side and requires less grinding than normal. This is a huge plus for gamers who are short on time but want to finish the story.
5) Demon Fusion Database- One really great feature is the demon database which lists down all possible combinations of demons and the fusion possibilities provided you've possessed that demon or have the demons that can create that particular demon. This is great because it allows you to figure out what demons you need to bid for or sacrifice in order to fuse a more powerful demon and even if you fuse a demon away you can still check how to get it back.
In Strange Journey, you can only see the combinations for demons you currently have only. So its hard to figure out if you need to resummon a previous demon or not particularly if you're like me and like to keep a large well-balanced party. The cost of summoning up modified high level demons is extremely high that you are usually better off trying to persuade them again and refusing them.
Poor Game Design
Here are some issues with gameplay of Devil Survivor which I noted. These are mostly minor issues than any major flaws.
1) No demon interaction/negotiation- Unlike the main games of the series, you purchase and bid for demons through an auction rather than persuading them. This severely limits the demon interaction which is shame because that was one of the strong points of the previous games. The demons do speak to you when you hire them or fuse them but that's about it really.
2) Lack of weapons/equipment- It is debatable whether weapons and equipment are required since you can pretty customise every single main team member with whatever skills you like as long as they meet the status requirements.
3) No alignment- In most of the Shin Megami Tensei games there's a Law, Chaos and Neutral alignment with bonuses for using demons with the same alignment. Unfortunately this was removed from the game. I personally think this would have the game much more interesting. Storywise you do choose between the 3 alignments (Angels, Humans or Demons) but again I couldn't discern any particular bonuses you get from it.
4) Lack of truly significant branching story paths, event rewards and probably requires more optional quests- One of the key themes is around being able to choose your destiny. Surprisingly then, I feel that there is definite lack of truly significant differences in paths. For example, through every single game, you have to defeat all the demon Bel's and each day's major events play out the same. It is only on the last day where your choices really make a difference and you have to choose which faction and ending you want to see. Yes, there are some minor plot changes mid-game and some minor rewards such as whoever accompanies you as a 4th player but I do feel that the game needs to grant even more event rewards and unlocks as a bonus. I can appreciate that the development team probably didn't have time to craft several different major plots in but it is a bit of a shame this 'choose your event' mechanic wasn't better utilised.
5) New Game+ Requires your main characters to re-level up- Its strange that you can keep your demons (including their skills and levels) but can't keep your demon tamers' abilities and level. I appreciate the fact that you can now rejig your main character's stats but since you can't actually customise any of the other demon tamer's that accompan you its seems a bit strange to depower everyone and force you to level up again despite your demons being level 60 and able to deal 3000 damage to level 3 enemies.
6) Needs more pictures, demon encyclopaedia and more unlockables- This is a really petty thing but I think the game could have used a demon encyclopaedia to describe the demons, maybe a glossary or history of each location and also some galleries. Again, really minor but I think it could have gone a long way particular for people who aren't familiar with the Tokyo area and help build the atmosphere. The in game descriptions and pictures aren't enough to convey the feeling of Tokyo quite yet.
7) Needs the passcode or resummoning system of Strange Journey- In Strange Journey you could save your customised demons so you could resummon them again at the cost of macca or give a code away to a friend which allows them to summon that specific demon. Unfortunately the game doesn't actually save your special demon combinations as far as I can tell so once fused away you can't really get them back again. Fortunately as mentioned above the ability to choose skills does reduce this problem quite a bit.
All in I really enjoyed it and I highly recommend it over Strange Journey.