Reviewed: March 16, 2005
Released: March 22, 2005
The world of video game RPGís never cease to amaze me. I remember playing games not so long ago, that involved controlling an Italian plumber in a mushroom kingdom, as he jumped on turtles and odd little creatures called goombas, and traveled through huge pipes in order to save a human princess from a sentient dragon that never grew tired of kidnapping her or sending out peons to his dirty work for him. In all of its pixilated 2-D glory, I remember thinking; it doesnít get much better than this.
How wrong I was. I grew up to be a an RPG fanatic, once I discovered that video games could have plots, stories, and characters just as deep, thought provoking, and interesting as books and movies. Every once in a while, a game comes along that defines a genre, and many would agree that for RPGís, that game was Final Fantasy VII. Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga may just be that next game that breaks the mold of its genre, and sets itself apart as one of the best games of all time. And I wondered how they were going to top Nocturne.
In Digital Devil Saga, you will be playing as the silent protagonist, Serph, a leader of a tribe called the Embryon in a world referred to as the Junkyard. Other tribes also inhabit this world, and fight each other for territory. During one particular battle, a mysterious pod shows up on the battlefield. Nobody knows what to make of it, and it eventually ďhatches,Ē sending out waves of beams that hit everyone on the battlefield. The next scene depicts horrible monsters mercilessly killing and devouring many who were alive just moments before.
When the surviving members of the Embryon come to, they have no recollection of what has happened, and find themselves branded with odd symbols on their bodies. The situation becomes more confusing when they find a girl that seems oddly familiar, asleep inside the hatched pod. The story begins to unfold in a grim, dark world where people act more robotic than human. They find that the Karma Temple, the law in this world, has ordered the people of the Junkyard to embrace what they have become; half human, half demons that feed on each other like prey as their only means of survival. They are also ordered to strive to reach the gates of Nirvana, a promised paradise for the strongest, through their wars with each other. The girl found in the pod, Sera, is also to be brought to Nirvana by whichever tribe survives in the end.
As the story progresses, the characters seem to slowly become more human, finding memories they never knew they had, and trying to piece them together like a puzzle. The more they remember, the more human they become, and the tougher their struggle to keep fighting and killing to survive becomes. Sera is the only one who can seem to help them, through a mysterious song that soothes their demon forms, and keeps them from giving in to their violent instincts. Who is Sera? Where did she come from? Why does the temple find her so important? And why is she so familiar?
The story of Digital Devil Saga is a fascinating one, and be warned, this game is addictive based simply on the strength of its story. If youíve ever stayed up into the wee hours of the night because you simply couldnít put a book down (or in this case, the video game controller), you know what I mean. And what any great story in a video game needs to make it even more life consuming is a great gaming system backing it up.
Digital Devil Saga gives you five unique characters to play as, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. As characters level up, their strength, vitality, agility, magic, and luck also increase, which is pretty standard fare. And like in the last game in the Shin Megami Tensei series, Nocturne, the main characterís stats are customizable. This time around, though, you get three attribute points to distribute as you like, instead of just one, at each level up. There is also a system similar to the Magatama ingestion of Nocturne, only this time around, they are called Mantras.
Mantras are basically skill sets that must be mastered using a separate point system from experience - kind of like leveling Materia up in Final Fantasy VII. You will be able to spend money for each of your characters to equip these Mantras which, when mastered, grant the character new skills and unlock stronger Mantras. You level your Mantras up by gaining Atma Points, or AP.
The cool thing is, the fastest way to fill up your AP bar is by using what are called Hunt skills. The idea is that your characters can devour their enemies in battle, making them stronger, and giving them more AP than they could earn from a normal victory. I liked this idea, since it ties in with the story nicely, and makes skills much easier to acquire and more customizable than in most RPGís.
Suffice to say, you can learn new powers pretty quickly, if you're clever and resourceful. Just watch out for stomach aches if you eat too much, or eat an enemy that doesn't look like go down very easily (for example, you may want to avoid the ever present RPG blob enemy. It may look like jell-o, but it isn't.) Then your character wonít gain any AP at all.
Iím also happy to report, that unlike in Nocturne, once your characters gain these new skills, you donít have to endure the agonizing deed of deciding which skills you want to discard in favor of new ones, knowing good and well that you will never see the discarded skill on your character ever again. This time around, you may only equip so many skills on your characters, but you may keep every last one you learn right through the end of the game in your inventory.
Even the most useless of skills remain in your inventory, and you may set skills outside of battle however you see fit. This was a good move on Atlusí behalf, as I could see no reason as to why in the last Shin Megami Tensei game, you had to throw away skills that you spent so much time learning to get. While itís true you get fewer characters to play with in Digital Devil Saga than the last SMT game (and alas, no Dante from Devil May Cry), there's still more than enough variety to keep battles fresh right to the very end.
Your characters will most likely be fighting in their powerful demon forms, but it is possible to transform back into a human, using a gun as a weapon. You may also get ambushed, in which case you will have to either fight as a human, or take a turn to transform back into your demon forms. So why revert to human at all? Well, the battle system is much more complicated than it seems early on, although the game eases you in to the hard stuff nicely. Depending on what form which characters are in, what skills they have equipped, what actions they take and the overall formation of your party, the characters will automatically learn some very strong combo attacks during battle that two or more of your party members will partake in at once. And there are a lot of combos to learn.
You also absolutely have to keep in mind that enemies have strengths and weaknesses; since this is tied to how many actions you get in a turn. When you find a weakness in your enemies, exploit it, as it will give you extra turns. You also get extra turns if you manage a critical hit, or end up frightening the enemy (usually by draining or repelling an attack, but also by finding weaknesses). Frightening an enemy also makes it much easier to devour for a turn.
Keep in mind that your party also has weaknesses, and your enemies can exploit those as well. I canít tell you how many times Iíve seen the game over screen for not having a strategy to keep up with a strong new enemy in battle. You get used to the system after a bit though, and thereís definitely a lot of fun to be had trying out new skills, finding a strategy, and rising to the challenge of a particularly tough enemy. Digital Devil Sagaís system strikes a perfect balance between being challenging and very fun.
Shin Megami Tensei games have a certain style to them that makes for unique and interesting worlds and character designs, and backgrounds that I have to say are quite stunning. As in the last installment of the series (Nocturne), the game uses cel shading effects on 3D models, and in-game graphics are used instead of CG cut scenes. Everything is very much anime inspired and not overly realistic, making for a gorgeous fantasy world that players will love to immerse themselves in.
I can definitely say that Digital Devil Saga does a fine job of improving what Nocturne lacked, which is crisp, detailed and varied backgrounds. It rains throughout most of the game, and light sheets of water can be seen falling in a very realistic fashion almost everywhere, along with realistic light and shadows. The Junkyard is a rather dim world, always gray and sort of washed out, which also makes for a nice atmosphere that captures the mood of the game perfectly.
The world appears as its name implies, with massive buildings in varying degrees of disrepair sprawling in between wastelands and underground tunnels. Thereís even a scene gamers will play through in an abandoned amusement park that manages to appear creepy, and yet invoke feelings of nostalgia. This game's atmosphere and mood are captured perfectly by its graphics.
Character design is also certainly worth noting here. Each characterís distinctive look implies much about their different personalities before they even open their mouths. Heat is an impulsive and brash character with fiery red eyes and hair, that stands and postures just as proudly as he acts. Serphís silver eyes, hair, and expressionless face portrays his silent and reserved demeanor, while Cieloís wild blue dreadlocks and mischievous grin make him seem every bit as care-free and light hearted as he is.
Facial expressions are done so convincingly; characters will often not even have to say a word to let players know what they are feeling and thinking. The characters in Digital Devil Saga are so lifelike and vibrant, that I felt they appeared just as I would have imagined them in a book.
The characters' demon-form designs really scream one word to me: Japan. Think of all of those old monster films from Japan, cut out the cheesiness (if you can), and youíve got some very creative designs. Since each character has an innate element such as fire, ice, earth, force (thatís wind, by the way) and electricity, their demon forms all hint at who is what elemental.
Argilla is an earth demon, with shades of browns in her armor-like body, and Gale is a force demon with a green leaf-like cape. The characterís demon forms defy reality, and I admit, they did take some getting used to. They grew on me, however, and I appreciate the creativity and effort that went into their designs.
Another great aspect of Digital Devil Saga is enemy design. Though the game offers quite a few original designs, there are many appearances by old enemies and demons from Nocturne, which I enjoyed. I consider it fan service for those of us who spent much of that game leveling up and fusing demons in anticipation of what awesome design was going to be thrown at us next.
Perhaps this was partly done for the sake of simplicity, since they really went for the gusto with the looks of enemies in Nocturne, and didnĎt want to try and top it. Nevertheless, I was glad to see some of my old favorites back, duking it out with my new favorites. All in all, Digital Devil Saga is just as much fun to watch as it is to play.
Voice acting. Oh, how glad I am to see voice acting this time around with Shin Megami Tensei. I remember playing Nocturne and wondering why these great characters with loads of personality were left silent, when they practically screamed out for voices. Iím happy to report that that has changed this time around, and Digital Devil Sagaís characters are given more than just text and lip movements. It would be hard for me to imagine these characters without voices, and I honestly donít think I would have enjoyed this game as well if they didnít. Thatís how much the excellent voice acting brings to this game.
The dialogue is not stilted or awkward, and I could imagine real people talking and sounding as the characters did. Like their facial expressions, they are filled with emotion. Nobody sounds like they are trying too hard, not even Cielo, with his Jamaican accent. The dialogue and delivery is smooth and expertly done. Well, except for the main character, Serph. Like I said, heís the silent protagonist. And you know what? That is my biggest complaint about the RPG genre. Why must the main character remain silent in most RPG's? I understand itís supposed to allow gamers to insert themselves into the game through the lead character. Havenít RPG developers figured out that that can be done through branching dialogue, while still allowing the main character to speak his own mind as well?
Iíve never been terribly impressed with main characters in RPGís outside of Final Fantasy games (and a few others), because they always remain the most distant and dull character when compared to the vibrant personalities of the supporting cast that actually speak up. Can you imagine if Cloud, Squall, or Tidus didnít talk? I didnít think so. Still, itís a minor complaint, not so much to Shin Megami Tensei, but to RPGís in general. Let the lead character speak, damn it!
As for the music in Digital Devil Saga, let me warn you , it sticks in your head. Not in a bad way. Not like say, Britney Spearsí Toxic sticks to your brain like an obnoxious parasite sucking away your sanity. Itís just memorable. The soundtrack is heavily influenced by electronica, with a classical edge. It changes to fit the varying scenes nicely, and since I didnít get the soundtrack with the game, Iím thinking I might just dish out the money and pick up a copy. Itís very atmospheric, and like the graphics, voice acting, and character designs, it weaves into the game as a whole perfectly. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is grating. I didnít run for the mute button after listening to it for a while. I simply found myself enjoying yet another thing that this game has to offer.
An RPG just wouldnít be a decent RPG without replay value. After pouring hours of free time into this game, I can say there is definitely a lot to see and do in Digital Devil Saga, though not as much as in some games. Players will find themselves faced with obnoxious little walls throughout the game that can only be passed through with special keys.
Mind you, it is not essential to the story line that you find these keys and explore these dungeons, and they arenít always easy to get a hold of. But if youíre like me, and you canít stand not knowing every last inch of a game that youíre into, then you will be happy for the chance to re-explore old dungeons, return to places youíve been before, and find these items and of course, the always present, ever-challenging secret bosses.
Look around, and the game will reward you with side missions and optional goodies. Tack that onto the fact that there are many Mantras to learn that cost lots of money that you will have to save up for, and a storyline that's second to none and a blast to revisit.
Digital Devil Saga also comes in a deluxe box edition that more than fulfills its rather hefty price ($54.99, including a soundtrack and other goodies) in value. On top of it all, this game is only the first part in a two part series, so you'll have to pick up the next installment if you don't want to be left hanging.
Itís very rare when I feel I can resolutely say, ďthis might be the best (insert genre) of all time!Ē, but with Digital Devil Saga this is certainly one of those rare instances. This deserves to be on the same shelf with Final Fantasy VII, as one of the best RPGís as that has ever been released. Itís rare and quite refreshing to come by a game that is so unique in every aspect, with such complex characters and such a great story, that I feel the same sense of satisfaction that comes with reading a good novel when I play it.
Pick this game up, even if you normally donít go for RPGís, or even normally go for video games. Pick up Digital Devil Sage if you enjoy an excellent story with fascinating characters, an amazing world, and a unforgettable message about what it means to be human, what it means to be alone, and what it means to have someone. I simply canít recommend it enough. An easy perfect ten.