The reason it fails so completely is paradoxically the very reason that it looks so appealing in trailers: the active, combo-based combat. Namco x Capcom's combat isn't too bad at first, but it quickly becomes a series of using the same combos again and again, across maps that take ages to clear out. I've had math tests that were more fun. But now we have Devil Survivor 2, which manages to succeed in every way that Namco x Capcom's battle system failed.
The key here is that, as far as I can tell, Devil Survivor is the only SRPG spinoff that retains some semblance of what made the original so popular in the first place. Now hear me out before you start typing that angry comment. Final Fantasy Tactics is a fine strategy RPG, but it has much more in common with Tactics Ogre than most mainline Final Fantasy games (Final Fantasy XII notwithstanding). Replace the jobs with more generic classes, switch out the Chocobos for horses, and you'd hardly know the difference.
It's easy enough, I suppose, to shoehorn an existing universe into the basic framework provided by the likes of Tactics Ogre. But speaking the language of the genre without sacrificing the spirit of the original game is considerably harder. That's why I'm so impressed with Devil Survivor and its sequel, which manage to translate the battle system of a traditional RPG into an SRPG setting without missing a beat. Just how impressed was I by Devil Survivor 2, specifically? Just read my review to find out.
This is how a typical Devil Survivor encounter works: When an enemy gets in range -- most often when they're right next to your characters -- combat immediately shifts from the battlefield to a more traditional first-person RPG battle screen, three combatants per side. You get one, maybe two, turns to take out the middle combatant, which will result in the defeat of the entire party. The trick is to exploit the enemy's weaknesses with physical and elements attacks while taking care to minimize your own vulnerabilities. This works for a couple reasons:
The battles move quickly: One of Namco x Capcom's biggest problems is that it can take forever to skill a foe. Even long combos simply don't do enough damage. The result is that battles feel like a long slog -- just the sensation that SRPGs look to avoid.
Devil Survivor and its sequels avoids this pitfall with battles that are finished in a turn or two. Elemental spells hit extremely hard, but it's a two way street. I've been utterly crushed by a group mooks more than once due to a careless move. It's often difficult, but it's never repetitive or dull.
Enemies use actual tactics: The enemies in SRPGs are generally pretty dumb. More often than not, their only strategy is to brute force and overwhelm your forces. This never works at later levels because characters like El Cid can take out practically a whole formation by themselves.
Devil Survivor 2, by comparison, is more like an arms race. Enemy demons use bind spells to reduce movement, exploit elemental weaknesses, and heal one another. Later in the game, some monsters will split in two or use spells that nullify all damage in the first turn. It's brutal at times, but that's pretty much par for the course in this series.
By comparison, one of Devil Survivor 2's toughest boss battles is one where range and movement are paramount. Get in close enough to do some major damage, and it will spin to the other side of the map and continue to strike from afar. Only the proper mix of passive abilities that grant increased range and movement abilities will allow you to get in close enough to catch him. Even then, he packs a mean punch.
It's battles like these that go to show what a good match Shin Megami Tensei is with the SRPG genre. Devil Survivor has the trappings of a first-person dungeon crawler like SMT: Strange Journey, but meshes in the movement issues unique to SRPGs to add another layer to the strategy. The fact that all of this actually works is pretty remarkable.
I honestly never would have thought it would be possible to work active combat mechanics into the structure of an SRPG. Sure, there's the possibility of added depth, but there's also the danger of ending up like a Namco x Capcom -- slow, unwieldy, and most damningly of all, boring. Devil Survivor, however, proves that it can not only be done, but done well.
So with that, I encourage you to go and get Devil Survivor 2. After all, good work shouldn't go unrewarded.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.