Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga - Review  

Hindu Cyber-Punk
by Michael "CactuarJoe" Beckett

35 to 40 hrs.


Rating definitions 

   With a unique, highly inventive blend of Hindu myth and modern Sci-Fi speculation backed up by engaging gameplay and solid technical details, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga works well both as a complex, emotional narrative and as an exercise in RPG mechanics. Digital Devil Saga is a bit less challenging - less vicious may be a better phrase - than its counterpart, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, but it's still a highly challenging game. DDS avoids most of the more deeply-set clichés of the genre and uses the ones it does include to good effect. Though the game does have some flaws, such as a frustratingly high encounter rate and a tendency to blindside the player with difficult fights, Digital Devil Saga's unique cast of characters, coupled with high quality voice acting and its own unusual kind of storytelling, helps set it apart.

   The events of Digital Devil Saga take place in a rainy, gray world called the Junkyard, a dark and unpleasant purgatory where six tribes, egged on by the faceless Karma Temple, fight for supremacy and the right to ascend to a paradise known as Nirvana. This six-sided conflict has always been vicious, but it truly becomes a war when, in the middle of an encounter between the Vanguard and the Embryon, a strange light descends to earth. As it does, it releases ribbons of light which shoot through the people of the Junkyard, transforming them into demons who must devour one another to survive.

   After the initial shock has died down, it is revealed that the light carried another surprise with it to the Junkyard - a girl named Sera. As Serph and the Embryon begin to interact with Sera while protecting her from the other tribes, they start to experience something completely alien to them - human emotion. Heat, Serph's right-hand man, begins to feel anger at the other tribes as they try to get their hands on Sera. Argilla, a cold-hearted sniper, starts to feel remorse and disgust at her own need to devour others. The individual struggles of these and other characters as they come to terms with their newfound emotions and powers makes for one of the better character-driven plots in recent memory.

Some characters adapt better to the new Law than others. Some characters adapt better to the new Law than others.

    The Shin Megami Tensei series is famous for its heavy reliance on mythology, and in this case Atlus makes the unusual decision of basing Digital Devil Saga largely on Hindu myth. The use of Indian-style artwork and architecture combined with strongly Hindu character and monster design gives DDS a very unique flavor. Furthermore, though the story does deal with a few of the more common RPG themes - love, loyalty and a fight against an omnipotent mad god - its use of the myth of the war between the Asuras and the Devas as a starting point for the plot gives the story a surprisingly original feel.

   The combat system is a very slightly modified version of the Press Turn system used in last year's Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. The system works like this: at the beginning of a turn, a Press Turn icon is granted for each character who isn't dead. In order to make a move, the player must expend one PT icon, but there's a twist; most enemies have a weakness, such as Ice elemental magic, or Status Ailments. Hit this weakness, and it'll use only half a turn. The same is true for critical hits or using Pass to skip a particular character. However, miss, or use an attack that the opponent is strong against and it'll cost two PT icons, or even the whole turn. The main differences between the Press Turn system in SMT:N and DDS are largely cosmetic; the player gets three characters in their party instead of four, and instead of convincing other Demons with a constant set of abilities to join the party, there'll be five characters whose moves can be fully customized. This is done by purchasing skills through the Mantra Grid - like Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid, but far harder on the wallet. One of the bigger problems with Digital Devil Saga is the cost of acquiring new skills; some of the nodes on the Mantra Grid require truly insane amounts of cash to activate, and gathering money is never a simple task.

There is no such thing as a pleasant giant insect. There is no such thing as a pleasant giant insect.

   At any rate, the Press Turn system is an interesting exercise in RPG mechanics, and shows unusual depth for such a simple system. Its main flaws stem not from its design, but from things like an overwhelming random encounter rate. At times when the Solar Noise gage registers the highest, the encounter rate spikes to the point where there's a fight every two or three steps. The game's habit of throwing out bosses that require specific skills to defeat which the player could not possibly have known about in advance is also a potential source of annoyance.

   Digital Devil Saga's control is solid and responsive, and though a more consistent use of the game's look feature would have been appreciated - it's not always available in every area - the interface does a good job of never getting in the way. The game has a very detailed and useful automap feature which comes in handy during some of the more confusing puzzles; this automap is generally one of the more considerate things the designers of this game did for their players.

   The Shin Megami Tensei series has always had a very solid artistic footing. Character designs by Kaneko Kazuma are and have been one of the most interesting and enjoyable things about the series, visually speaking. Mr. Kazuma's designs are again present in Digital Devil Saga, and are again both original and intriguing, drawing from both modern anime and ancient mythological influences. However, a great deal of the monster designs are carried over directly from Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, which is a bit disappointing. It isn't that the creatures are poorly designed, but rather that it gives the game a slightly used feeling. From a technical standpoint, Digital Devil Saga's cel-shaded graphics are nothing that spectacular, but the sparing use of brilliant colors in a predominantly gray world gives it a striking style.

   Besides Kaneko Kazuma, the other name usually associated with the Shin Megami Tensei line of games is Shoji Meguro, the series' principal composer. Like Mr. Kazuma, Mr. Meguro makes another appearance in Digital Devil Saga. Mr. Meguro's work on this game is a bit more melodic and more rock-oriented than in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, where the music was more anticipatory, more aimed at building tension than excitement. As with Nocturne, Atlus's inclusion of the game's soundtrack is a welcome gesture and an exciting trend as more and more games are released with their music in tow. Overall, Mr. Meguro's work on DDS is one of his best performances to date.

   Although nowhere near the level of difficulty found in SMT:N, Digital Devil Saga still manages a respectably high level of challenge. Random encounters are difficult enough that they don't become simple exercises in mashing the X button, but not so difficult that repeated encounters will become a trial. The overall level of challenge does ramp-up significantly over the thirty to forty-hour course of the game, to the point where some of the fights in the last areas are of an order normally reserved for boss fights.

   Digital Devil Saga works along similar lines as other RPGs, using familiar overall themes and a turn-based combat system. However, the original take this game has on even the most common RPG conventions combined with its unusual story and high-quality design gives DDS a unique quality which is very refreshing. Overall, Digital Devil Saga is a game worth playing, particularly for gamers who enjoy mythology or sci-fi, and especially for anyone looking for an escape from uninspired games.

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