Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga
Players: 1 Player Game | Release Date: 04/06/05 | Genre: RPG
The Shin Megami Tensei series has been ongoing in Japan since the SNES days. Since then, it has appeared on multiple systems such as: Super Famicom, Saturn, PlayStation, Sega CD, and even an upcoming Nintendo DS game. But this demonic RPG series never made the jump to American shores until the PlayStation 2 and the of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Nocturne, having a large learning curve, is extremely complex with an intense character system. Unfortunately, this title never got the attention it deserved. Lets take a closer look at one of the best sleeper hit RPG’s of 2005. Read on...
In basic terms, Digital Devil Saga is an RPG in the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest style. Specifically, Atlus seemed to take most of its inspiration from Final Fantasy X. Those of you who enjoy menu-battle Square-Enix games will feel right at home, at least where the gameplay is concerned. The setting and artistic style, however, are a very different affair, and really set this game apart.
Before you even spin the disc in the PS2, its obvious Digital Devil Saga is not your normal high fantasy, swords and sorcery world. The setting is a ruinous modern city known as the Junkyard. It serves as a battlefield for seven warring tribes, fighting an endless stalemate between each other. They live without emotion and know nothing but battle--until a mysterious object falls from the sky, carrying a girl named Sera, and transforming all the people of the Junkyard into powerful, man-eating demons.
Here, the game begins. You take control of five members of an underdog tribe called the "Embryon"--Serph, the silent leader, Argilla, the emotional and headstrong woman, Heat, the hotheaded fighter, Gale, the sterile strategist, and Cielo, the dreadlocked happy-go-lucky one. Each character has their strengths and weaknesses to certain magic elements, and automatically assigns their stat points upon leveling. This basically dictates how your characters will develop, creating a diverse team of combatants. Argilla pumps Magic, so she's your best caster. Heat goes for Strength, making him your physical attacker. Gale spreads his points a bit more, making him a jack-of-all-trades. Cielo, for some reason, goes for Agility, which does not help his attack skills at all, which may relegate him to the bench for many players. Lastly, you are allowed to assign all of Serph's points, so you can build him whatever way you want.
Your character’s stats aren't the whole story, however. The main meat of the character system is the skills, which are learned from the "mantra grid". If you've played FFX, you'll understand the basics of this system. As your characters gain experience (or "Karma") they also gain skill experience (or "Atma") from eating the demons they defeat. These Atma points go towards whatever mantra they are currently equipped with. Once they max out that mantra, they learn its skills, and the next mantra(s) in line are unlocked for use. Those skills can then be assigned to your character, although you can never assign more than 8 skills at a time, which is an important strategic element of the battle system. The key to surviving in battles is assigning your party the right collection of skills to survive all the enemies you might face in a certain area. This system isn't without its flaws, however - without a lot of planning you may find yourself without the skills you may need at a certain time, especially once the money required to buy the Mantras starts running short. Generally, if you keep several characters up to speed on the healing spells and play your skills to your character’s strengths, you should do just fine.
As for the battle system itself, at first glance it's like many other menu-based RPG’s. Your party gets its turn all at once, and then the enemies get their turn all at once. However, there are a few twists. If you hit an enemy with an attack it is weak to, or (in the case of physical attacks) hit them with a critical, you get an extra turn. But if you hit them with something they are strong against, or your attack misses, you lose a turn. The same goes for the enemies on their turn. This makes elemental and attack type strengths and weaknesses incredibly important to your survival, so it's in your best interests to scan every enemy and formulate the best strategy concerning which skills and characters to use at which time. At first the system seems unfair, as it rewards whoever's doing best by giving them more turns, meaning some battles will just be biased one way or the other. But eventually you will adapt and learn which battles to exploit and which to just avoid altogether. It's a system that keeps you thinking and keeps the game from being an auto-attack fest.
Additionally, you can also fight in human form, wielding guns. There isn't much reason to do this, as generally your demon forms are much stronger and buying the ammo types to keep your firearms up to par is very expensive. Sometimes you may get "ambushed" and start the battle in human form, and in that case you should transform into your demon form (making you lose a turn) or just run away. However, there are a few select enemies that are weak to gunfire.
It's a lucky that the battle system is enjoyable; there are a LOT of battles. The dungeons are long and mazelike, and the encounter rate is high. Cut scenes are few and far between with a lot of padding in between. At some points the battles just begins to wear thin, and you just want to get done with one dungeon and move onto the next. The sometimes boxy, cut-and paste level design doesn’t help either. Thankfully, it never becomes especially tedious, and for some the emphasis on battle may actually be an improvement after games like Xenosaga where more time is spent watching cut scenes than playing.
The game world is, as stated earlier, very unique as far as RPG’s go. It looks like a world that a FPS might be more at home in - military bases, abandoned modern cities, sewers, etc. Some of the areas are cool, but generally most dungeons feel like they were made out of building blocks. Once you've seen one room or hallway you've pretty much seen them all, and your surroundings get monotonous fast. This can be a problem, since a majority of the time is spent running around in dungeons, fighting random battles. The handful of hand-designed areas are gorgeous, however.
The graphics definitely go for style over technical prowess. There is a slight cell shading effect on everything, and it seems appropriate enough for the game without being distract. The main characters look very solid and their animations have a lot of personality, but the enemies can be a little lacking. Not only are far too many reused models from the previous game, Nocturne, but nearly all have jerky and unnatural hand-done animation. This is a minor complaint, but it would have been refreshing to see a lot more originality and skill in the enemy designs. Other effects, like magic attacks and such, are pleasing to the eye and thankfully brief, as is standard for RPG’s now.
The music, which is rock-techno, suits the game perfectly, and I liked it enough to get a hold of the soundtrack for my own listening pleasure. The main battle theme gets old after a while, but some of the boss themes are very, very well done. Voice acting is surprisingly solid, and even Cielo, who I thought would be annoying, is voiced respectably well. Only Sera's voice grated on my ears after a while.
If you're the type of gamer that acquired Knights of the Round and fought all the Weapons in Final Fantasy 7, you'll find loads to accomplish in DDS. There are a good number of ultra-hard bosses to fight, including at least one that you have to finish the game twice to unlock, and it's possible to have all your characters learn every Mantra on the grid. Even if you don’t touch the secret content you’ve got a good 35-40 hours of gameplay on your plate.
Overall, this game is a great experience for anyone who loves a good, long RPG with a lot of strategy and character customization. It also has an intriguing and mysterious story, which is continued and expanded upon in the sequel. This is a must-own title for all RPG fans.