Home > Reviews, Video Games > Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga

Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga

I’m a big fan of the MegaTen (known as Shin Megami Tensei in the west) series for a very good reason: every game is unique. When the world was making linear high fantasy, MegaTen was trailblazing with tales of post-apocolyptic urban fantasy and some amazing open-ended gameplay. Furthermore, the MegaTen games have a dark atmosphere to them unlike any other series: a perfect example of this can be seen in Digital Devil Saga for the PS2. Originally called “Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner“, this is the first game of a duology released after the success of Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer’s Call but before the mega-success of Persona 3. It’s dark, it’s gothic and it’s fantastic.

Digital Devil Saga takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland known as the Junkyard. There, six Tribes fight an seemingly perpetual zero-sum war for dominance over territory, moderated by the eye of the Karma Temple. For the Tribe that is victorious will gain the right to ascend to Nirvana, a mythical paradise free of war and strife. Suddenly, an artifact appears that transforms the entire populace of the Junkyard into bloodthirsty, cannibalistic demons, breaking the stalemate and sending the world on a spiral into utter chaos. With the artifact comes a mysterious young girl whose song can ease the bloodlust of the Junkyard demons. The story focuses on one of the tribes- the Embryon- and their leader Serph, who are the first to come into contact with the artifact and the girl.

A more significant development is that with the demonic powers, the previously robotic inhabitants of the Junkyard have been instilled with emotions. To soldiers whose only purpose was to fight, this emotion is like a whirlwind that is literally threatening to tear their world apart. One member of the Embryon is paralysed with guilt over her hunger and need to devour others to survive; another becomes a raging story of anger and lust that he cannot explain nor deal with. Through all this they continue to fight towards the one source of hope they have been promised: Nirvana. Watching these characters struggle to become fully emotional beings- with all the strife and tragedy that such a journey would bring- is fascinating to watch. The story is handled delicately and in a truly adult manner, not shying away from the human drama and pain on display.

The battle system is a return of the Press Turn system used in Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer’s Call, which rewards intelligent and conservative play and harshly punishes reckless mistakes. There’s no easy way to check the elemental weaknesses of an enemy: it’s up to the player to commit the weaknesses to memory, adding another layer of difficulty. The game does ease up a bit from Lucifer’s Call in that it allows the characters to “equip” any skill that they have learned (up to a maximum determined by their level) instead of having a pool of no more than eight at any one time. Skill advancement uses a talent-tree system: the currency is “Atma Points” earned from battle, which are spent on buying nodes on a branching tree. This unlocks further, related nodes on the same branch, allowing for a logical and intuitive method of advancement. Every character has the same grid, so character advancement is completely in your control. Of particular note are the “Hunt” skills: attacks that deal very little damage but award a payload of Atma Points if used as the killing blow, as the character literally eats the opponent whole. It’s a very gory and wonderful risk-reward mechanic.

The most wonderful thing about this game is its atmosphere. Every inch of the game is soaked in it: you don’t gain levels, you “ascend to the next Karma”. Hunt skills devour your enemy whole. Surprise attacks not only give your enemy the first attack, but don’t even give you time to transform. The artwork of Kazuma Kaneko is superb, using a lightly cel-shaded style that still looks good today and memorable demon designs. The music by Shoji Meguro is infused with dark, pulsing rhythms and heartfelt melodies that illustrate the sadness and melancholy of the Junkyard world. The battle themes are of particular note: the main battle theme is a slow, methodical war beat of heavy guitar and bass, and upon victory there is no fanfare, but a dark and ominous melody underscoring the carnage that just ensued. Speaking of sound, the voice acting is very good and only adds to the game; of special note is the performance of Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, who strikes a perfect balance of sultry malevolence as the enigmatic Angel.

The main story is about thirty hours long, which is a good length: it doesn’t feel padded out, and comes to a natural conclusion. You could add about twenty more hours onto that if you want to do all the extra content, though that mostly involves grinding your characters so that you can fight bonus bosses… including what is arguably the hardest boss fight in any RPG (and a real treat for MegaTen fans.) As the first part of a two-part story, it does end on a cliffhanger and some story elements are left unresolved. However, if you don’t mind leaving a couple of plot threads hanging, Digital Devil Saga is a wonderful self-contained story with a definitive beginning, middle and end. I’d even go so far as to suggest that the second part, Digital Devil Saga 2, actually brings down the DDS series… but that’s a review for another time. Rest assured that you don’t need to buy and play both games to get a satisfactory sense of closure.

Any weaknesses I do find are fairly minor. One character is particularly useless both as a battle character and in significance to the plot (hint: he’s got an accent) and I struggle to come up with a good reason for why he’s even there aside from making up numbers. I should also call attention to the final dungeon, which is one of the hardest, most unforgiving and frustrating final dungeons I’ve ever played. In addition to the hardest random encounters in the game, you’ve got such delights as fake walls, invisible pitfalls, a near-absence of save points and at least five mid-bosses. In a way it’s a real triumph to overcome (and worthy of being the final challenge) but it’s a painful one too.

My grade for Digital Devil Saga is Highly Recommended. Brilliant atmosphere, beautiful art style and an intelligent battle system combine to form one of the best RPGs for the PS2. Those who enjoyed the unique tone of Persona 3 and 4 will definitely see more of that in this game, though they may find the difficulty unforgiving. It’s a dark, horrific but ultimately satisfying experience: much like the feeling Serph must have when he devours an enemy.

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