Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2 review

29 August 2015 by , No Comments

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I don’t think much of the Shin Megami Tensei series. I don’t think it’s bad, I just struggle to get into it. Any world that starts with, “Heaven and Hell are both irredeemably evil” and then gets worse from there strikes me as being too hopeless to care about. I don’t know whether to roll my eyes or pat it on the head and call its attempts at maturity cute. So, you can imagine how surprising it was to me when its spin-off Digital Devil Saga games came completely out of nowhere to become some of my favourite Role-Playing Games of all time.

The duology was lent to me over the Summer of 2015 by my good friend and proceeded to devour almost every scrap of free time that I had. It’s true that, much like my other favourite PS2 RPG, Tales of the Abyss, Digital Devil Saga is highly-flawed and doesn’t succeed at everything it tries to accomplish but the fact that it makes such an effort to be new and unique at all is nothing short of amazing – and I mean that most sincerely.

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DDS’s plot can best be described as an ambitious mixture of Highlander, Jekyll and Hyde, and Blade Runner with Hindu trappings and a sprinkling of cannibalism – and if that alone doesn’t pique your interest, perhaps the setup will. Our story begins in the Junkyard, a ruined post-apocalyptic landscape where various tribes are competing to wipe each other out so that they can ascend to a paradise known as Nirvana. The heroes of our tale are the leaders of one such tribe, known as the Embryon. During one of their many battles, a mysterious artifact appears in the middle of the field and brands everyone with a mystic mark that forces them to develop a demonic split personality that can only be kept at bay by devouring other humans.

What’s even more frightening, though, is that these new forms have come packaged with human emotions; leading to an entire world’s worth of people who had only known how to kill each other suddenly developing anger, fear, joy, and regret. Wonderfully, however, DDS never feels any need to beat you over the head with the fact that The World Has Changed Forever(TM) to drive the point home. For the most part, the story is told subtly but clearly, giving you just enough information to put the pieces together yourself before hurrying back to gameplay. Cut-scenes are infrequent, last only a minute or two, and tend to rely more on imagery and strategic camera angles than big soliloquies or rambling villain monologues here. Combine this with the fact that the game’s dialogue is generally brief, to-the-point, and delivered by a pretty great cast and you have a shining example of how JRPGs should be telling their tales.

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Granted, not every performance hits that snappy dialogue out of the park. Joe Romersa was definitely playing Mick the Slug for the money and, despite being played by the late great Bob Papenbrook, big time baddie Varin somehow lacks a certain presence – but the ones that do work are fantastic. Amanda Lee Winn is a great fit for Argilla, the emotional centre of the Embryon, and Steve Blum is instantly believable as their stoic tactician Gale. Mary Elizabeth McGlynn is an absolute revelation as evil genius Angel, leaving teeth-marks in every piece of the virtual set as she hams her way through some of the most marvelously wicked dialogue this side of The Legacy of Kain and she spends a lot of time challenging Crispin Freeman’s role as the Embryon’s muscle Heat, whose character probably gets the most emotionally turbulent arc, for vocal dominance throughout these games.

DDS also works wonderfully on the combat front, with a battle system that shows exactly how to make turn-based clashes fun and strategic. Each side has a number of “turn-icons,” located in the top-right corner of the screen, usually one for each member of their party. These icons are can be distributed by the player how they see fit, allowing each character to perform their own attack or “passing” their turn on to a different fighter so that they can get an extra hit in. Furthermore, every unit on the battlefield has specific weaknesses and resistances. Hitting an enemy’s weak-point will give the attacker an extra turn icon, while using an element that they resist will cause them to lose one. As the game goes on, you’ll encounter enemies with even stronger resistances and even harsher penalties for using the wrong element on them. While some weaknesses are obvious, many are not and this can result in a lot of frustrating deaths if you go into a battle unprepared and unaware of how to fight your foe. Nevertheless, it’s still a great system for the most part and really comes to life in the boss battles against some wonderfully-creative opponents; from a demon that splits into two bodies to a colossal abomination that devours electrical energy.

The game also does the impossible by finding a way to make manual upgrading work in a JRPG. Instead of forcing players to faff around with hours of micromanagement nonsense, everyone levels up their stats on their own except for the main character Serph, whose bonuses are determined entirely by the player. This is a nice way to give the player agency without overwhelming them. The real customisation, however, comes with the Mantra system. Every character starts off with a small range of skills but players can teach them other abilities by spending in-game money to unlock new “Mantras,” which may contain healing abilities or elemental magic or passive effects. Once a character has accumulated enough points by participating in battle (with extra points being earned if they successfully manage to cannibalise their enemies), they will learn all of the skills associated with that Mantra and gain the option to purchase its next level to repeat the process. It’s not the deepest system out there but that simplicity makes it easy to use and there is a surprising amount of depth to it. Low-level Mantras are rather cheap, allowing characters to learn a wide range of abilities early on, but the stronger ones are extremely expensive and that forces you to think about which characters should learn what abilities so that you don’t waste time and money on techniques that are useless to them.

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Unfortunately, while the combat is great and the upgrading system is easy to get the hand of, DDS rather drops the ball when it comes to other elements of its gameplay. Like many SMT titles, the environments are tragically bland and basic. Every single level in the first game is some variation on a grey or brown labyrinth. Even when you find a mysterious mansion, the one place that you’d think might offer some sort of visual variety, it’s just another grey-brown labyrinth. The second game doesn’t do much to improve on this, either. While the locations sound more interesting on paper – from grim meat-processing facilities to underground laboratories infested with cosmic horrors – the sad fact is that they’re all just drab little mazes. It’s a real pity that the game’s environments look so underwhelming because the visual effects are all rather nice and the cel-shaded characters are pretty well animated (especially for a PS2 game), subpar lip-syncing aside. Alas, it’s not just the graphics that are lacklustre: the puzzles are token and and uninteresting and there isn’t much in the way of minigames or interesting sidequests to break up the tedium. This is a real shame, because even a combat system as enjoyable as DDS’s can get boring when it’s the only thing on offer.

Fortunately, however, the music is here to pick up the slack. DDS has a wonderfully unique soundtrack, courtesy of SMT veteran Shoji Meguro. The first game’s dungeon themes are generally better than the battle music, with tracks like the beautifully smooth Muladhara to The Spider’s String, a strong contender for the best dungeon theme in the series. The sequel, however, reverses this; with slightly weaker environment themes but far stronger fighting songs. Battle for Survival is quite frankly one of the single most badass battle themes in the genre, to the point that it almost feels wasted on regular encounters. Hunting, a recurring track throughout the first game, also gets an impressive Betrayal rearrangement and the final boss theme is an absolutely beautiful way to conclude the series. It probably isn’t Meguro’s best work on the whole but it’s still a very score that desperately needs more love.

The other big problem with DDS is that, while the gameplay is paced fairly well, the actual plot is a bit more uneven. Like the Golden Sun games, the way the story is told leaves these titles feeling more like two halves of the same whole than complete entities in their own right. The first game is very much focused on character development – allowing it to talk about honour, loyalty, bi- and intersexuality, and why male entitlement completely sucks – but it’s a little thin on actual storytelling. By contrast, the sequel’s plot rockets ahead at the speed of light but never gives the audience time for a breather and, while there is some development, it’s more implied than shown and genreally expands upon ideas raised in the first game. It’s an interesting little narrative experiment, using the first half of a story to develop the cast and the second to actually make them do things, but I must admit that I’m not entirely convinced that it works. The sequel has arguably even more interesting ideas than the first game but the fact that it just doesn’t spend anywhere near enough time on them because the vast majority simply aren’t relevant to the main story can leave one feeling a bit cheated.

But the fact that Digital Devil Saga tries at all to do all of these weird and wonderful things is still worth commending and its unique combat system, snappy dialogue, and interesting character development all make it worth recommending. What we have on our hands here, ladies, gentlemen, and all those outside and in-between, is a dented diamond. Sure, it’s obviously flawed but that doesn’t mean it can’t shine as bright as the competition.

Besides, I defy you to name one other game where you can punch an armless pyrokinetic zebra demon in the face.

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