Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga

A darker RPG for an older generation of gamers.


The Lowdown

Pros: Breaks the mold of console RPGs with a unique story and style.

Cons: A battle system and some enemy graphics ripped straight out of SMT: Nocturne.

Purchase at Play-Asia

Purchase at Lik-Sang

In a world of endless rain and war known as the Junkyard you play as a silent leader known as Serph. Serph leads a tribe called the Embryon on a quest to Nirvana. Getting to Nirvana is the goal of all the other tribes as well. Although only one tribe can actually gain passage to Nirvana as dictated by the Karma temple. This leads the world in an endless war until all of the tribes are assimilated into a single group. Things change quickly at the start of the game where a white light instills new powers to the inhabitants of the Junkyard. The mysterious light gives everyone Atma, the power to unleash their emotions to become a demon. This new virus gives everyone a new hunger for flesh as well, making the war become even more violent. There is one thing that can quell the hunger. A song by a black haired girl that appeared the same day they received the virus can quell their hunger. The Embryon have the aid of this girl, Sera, and with her help they will find a way into Nirvana.

At the beginning of the game Serph and his comrades are struggling to deal with this new power. Each character has a different reaction to it. Argilla is saddened by her fate, while the aptly named Heat is ready for action. The Embryon's tactician Gale ignores his feelings about it and the light hearted Cielo remains cheerful. Between battling the other tribes Digital Devil Saga brings up philosophical discussion in subtle ways. Many of the places and constructs are derived from religions. For instance instead of gaining experience from winning a battle you gain karma. The undercurrent of eastern philosophies is sure to stir up some thought. Digital Devil Saga isn't afraid of bringing these concepts in front of players either. Debates between Heat and Argilla about why they must fight are rather deep. If you choose to get into the story, which is pretty engaging, there is depth to it. Like other Shin Megami Tensei games players are given choices. Through Serph you will make decisions on how to console your teammates and if you should pretend to ally another tribe only to backstab them.

In between story sequences you'll explore dungeons. Really, really long dungeons. About sixty percent of the time playing you will be dungeon crawling. Dungeons can range from simple house layouts like in a mansion to a winding mess of sewer tunnels. A typical dungeon has tons of branching points, dead ends and hidden treasure. Scouring all the areas of a nine level area could take a couple of hours, not even including enemy encounters. Some dungeons such as the castle at Coordinate 128 also contain puzzles. This area has trap floors that will drop you to a lower level if you step in the wrong spot. This means you'll have to walk all the way back to the main entrance and start again with the knowledge of the trap. Dungeons like this one are even longer and can be taxing if you're not using a strategy guide. Simply stated, an average dungeon is about as long as the Obelisk in SMT: Nocturne, with more save points.

Like many other modern RPGs Digital Devil Saga eliminates a world map. When you exit an area a menu comes up with areas that you can enter. The menu takes away a lot of exploration of an overworld found in other RPGs. In fact most players might play through the entire game without ever knowing that by revisiting areas there are secrets to be found. The other way of quickly moving around within an area is by teleporting. If you can access a karma terminal (read: save point) you can teleport to other karma terminals, which is a great time saver.

You'll want to teleport if you can because of the high enemy encounter rate in the game. It feels like after moving ten or so steps you're in another battle. Where hardcore RPGers will appreciate the challenge, novice players may not enjoy the game as much because of this. The game's battle system is a revised version of the press system in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. You begin the battle controlling your three selected characters and for each character you have one press turn. If you score a critical blow or cleverly exploit an enemy weakness you'll gain an extra turn. The system is designed so that players don't choose fight every round. Enemies play by the same rules and if they hit one of your weak points they'll acquire an additional turn. Every character has a different innate weakness. Serph is weak against fire, Gale takes additional damage from lightning and Cielo has the annoying weakness of status attacks. To prevent enemies from gaining an absurd number of extra attacks you'll have to utilize shield abilities. Shield skills will cloak your entire party with resistance to an element. By using void death you'll become immune to instant death attacks. If an enemy casts a death spell, like mudo on a party member, they'll lose some of their press turns. On the other hand you can't just shield your characters from everything. Using a shield ability eats a press turn and you can only have one shield on your party per turn. Using shield abilities is a key to winning many encounters, even random ones in the game.

Normally in battle your characters will be in their powerful demon form. In demon form you'll normally do more damage with a basic attack, but more importantly have all of your hard earned skills. Battles are much more favorable for the player when you can use elemental magic to exploit weaknesses. Near the end of the game your strongest ability will be elemental magic like Bufudyne or Zandyne mixed with a boost and amplifying ability. This makes your normal attack and even worse your gun attack almost worthless. By putting some skills together you can do combo attacks. Combo attacks allow you to do more powerful skills before you actually learn them, but they eat more turns. Early on in the game using combos to give characters advanced spells like Media (this heals the party) by having two characters with Dia (which normally heals only one character), is useful. Later on in the game it's not worth using two turns to cast the same spell with just one. There are a few unique abilities like Primal Dance (a three way physical attack) and Micronova (a non elemental spell), but these are easily replaced later on in the game by ultra powerful abilities that only one character can use. As an option you can revert back into human form and battle using a firearm. There are some enemies, like flying enemies, that are weak against bullets. However, you have to waste a turn changing back into a human. The amount of damage you deal in human form is largely effected by which bullets you have equipped. Since bullets are rather expensive, most of the time you'll want to avoid being in human form. Perhaps the only major advantage in human form is doing a combo attack between with a player in demon form and human form. This way you can do strong elemental attacks like Neutron shot that deals lighting damage and hits all enemies on the screen.

The other major change from Nocturne is devouring your enemies. By using devouring abilities like feeding frenzy or consume you can eat an enemy and gain lots of atma points. Gaining Atma points allows you to complete your mantra, which unlocks new skills. The mantra tree is designed similarly to Diablo II's skill system or Final Fantasy X's sphere grid. You start off by completing simple mantras, which move you down a path for unlocking more powerful abilities. There are different tracks to follow such as: dragon for force skills, angel for hama abilities and even a path to get more devouring abilities. Besides atma limiting you from getting the strongest skills macca plays a role too. You have to purchase new mantras with macca, the currency of the Megaten universe. Players are more likely to be limited by macca than atma if they're devouring enemies. To counter balance this you'll have to thoroughly clear out dungeons to find cells, which sell for large amounts of macca. To maximize your return on cells you will need to make sure the solar noise level, that's the sun icon in the upper left corner is at max. The lack of macca certainly plays a problem late in the game when trying to level up all five of your characters at once. Many times players will be forced to battle even more just to attain enough macca to purchase a useful mantra.

Digital Devil Saga makes good use of cel shading to give the world an anime feel to it. Like the other Megaten games has illustrations by the famed Kazuma Kaneko. His innovative style leads to creative art like Heat's two headed demon form. Even random monster's in the game, like the one horned zebra, have a cool look to them. The one downside about the monsters is that over half of the monsters are taken straight out of Nocturne. Digital Devil Saga was released over a year between Nocturne in Japan and in all that time there is barely any new monster designs. The world of the Junkyard is meant to be bleak and is covered is washed out colors. Backgrounds certainly have a beat up feel to them, which suits the theme of the game. On the outside the environments have a quiet beauty to them. While inside a dungeon things are different. Seeing the same bleak backgrounds in a long dungeon makes it feel more like a maze than an environment.

Digital Devil Saga like SMT: Nocturne has a hard rock soundtrack to it. The main battle theme is composed of electric guitar rifts and hard drums, which separates it from other games. Also like Nocturne there are a couple of different battle themes, but you'll be hearing one of them way more than the others. The background music is pretty good too, if not as varied as other games. The trip-hop style of melodic background music play a good role of setting the mood of the game. If you have the Japanese version of the game you'll probably notice the theme song is changed. In the US version you'll hear Etro Anime's song "Danger" for the opening. The beat makes a good start to the game, too bad more of their stuff wasn't used. Atlus has done a pretty good job getting the voice acting together for this game. Heat sounds rough and angry at all times. Some might argue that his voice is better in the English version than the Japanese version. Gale's soft rigid tone fits his background of being logical. Cielo's voice is something that gamers are going to love or hate. All of the sudden he has a Jamaican accent behind him. It might fit him because of the dreadlocks, but it is a little out of place. He's the only character in the entire game with any kind of accent.

There is about 30 to 40 hours for one play through of Digital Devil Saga. If you spend time hunting hidden mantras and destroying hidden bosses you can up that by an extra ten hours. Once you complete the game you'll unlock a new game plus mode. In this mode you'll keep all of the mantra for your characters and be able to play through the game in hard mode. Within hard mode there is a brand new boss to tackle. We won't ruin who it is, but if you're into the Megaten series its a good surprise.

The story driven gameplay is what really separates Digital Devil Saga from Atlus' other gem Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. While Nocturne offers gamers more freedom, monster negotiating and a more customizable party Digital Devil Saga is more of a traditional RPG experience. The difficulty in Digital Devil Saga will certainly turn some gamers off, especially those not fond of RPGs. However, if you're a gamer into RPGs and have been waiting for something fresh check out Digital Devil Saga. Digital Devil Saga is certainly one of the best RPGs in a long time and worth your money.

Import Friendly? Literacy Level: 0/5

Atlus has done a great job localizing this game into English for a US audience. If you opt to pick up the Japanese version of the game you'll have to deal with plenty of kanji and metaphors. This makes the Japanese version rather unfriendly for non native speakers.

US Bound?

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga will be released as a package on April 5th. This contains the game and the soundtrack. A must pick up for RPG gamers.

Overall

The experience of Digital Devil Saga may be blunted for those who beat Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. For those gamers, Digital Devil Saga still has an excellent story to play through and the recycled battle system still holds its own.