Six target games beaten on the year! I've been digging into those hard, and for the past month or so I've been digging hard into Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga. Review up next.
As I've mentioned in other reviews on this site, I've never been much of an Atlus guy. I don't favor post-apocalyptic settings; I feel that many of their "grim-dark" demon designs and themes are sophomoric and full of unappealing fake angst ("dude you use your DEMON POWERS by SHOOTING YOURSELF IN THE HEAD"); but mostly I tried SMT: Nocturne and didn't much like it at all. Whatever. But over the past few years I've played and enjoyed several of their in-house-developed games, namely Persona 3, Persona 4, and Radiant Historia. Those three were great, and were enough to get me to make several impulse purchases of their earlier catalog over the past two years. The two Digital Devil Saga games are two of those impulse purchases, and the first of them made it onto my 2014 list.
So yeah, Digital Devil Saga has several of those issues I perceive about Atlus: it has a post-apocalyptic setting and a story containing specifically fucked-up premises. In this case, devouring others to become stronger. Whatever qualms I had about Digital Devil Saga before I dived into it, they eventually left me; this is a very good Japanese RPG that has some very sophisticated storytelling surrounding its RPG traditionalism. Well, hm. I guess the storytelling isn't why it's sophisticated; the story of DDS (which is what I'm calling it in this blog from here on out) gets its hooks in early and is then expertly paced in the rate at which the plot reveals itself. By the end, there are far more questions than answers, but they made me want to play DDS2.
Story and Characters
Let's talk about that plot first. DDS is the story of six tribes in a gray, barren wasteland called The Junkyard. These six tribes are at war, fighting along specific rules governed by a being known as Angel who sends directives to the tribes at a neutral site called the Karma Temple. The last tribe standing gets to reach Nirvana (presumably at the top of the large tower of the Karma Temple), but it's unclear what Nirvana is, or why the war is taking place at all. The wars are typically fought with firearms, and each warrior wears gray clothing marked with the color of its tribe (orange, red, blue, green, yellow, or white).
Your player characters are five members of the Embryon tribe. Serph, Embryon's leader and DDS's silent protagonist; Heat, Embryon's second-in-command; Argilla, Embryon's sniper; Gale, Embryon's main strategist; and Cielo, who doesn't really have a role on the team but is one of its key members. In the opening moments of DDS, those five are in a firefight against the Vanguards tribe. However, a meteor strikes suddenly, sending out sparks that mark each member of Embryon with a strange sigil (?) and revealing a young woman named Sera inside the meteor (!?). Sera has black hair, which is unique in The Junkyard (??).
So those symbols that everyone (except Sera) has now? Those are marks of demon power, or "Atma." Everyone in the Junkyard now has a demon form, or "Avatar," that possesses power far beyond their human forms. But along with this power comes an overpowering hunger that is only sated by eating other demons. The war over the Junkyard has suddenly become an eat-or-be-eaten scenario, and Angel's new directive is no longer simply to fight, but to devour.
This weird scenario that gets weirder with the advent of demon powers. Sera has some connection to this, and Embryon's struggle is both to devour the other five tribes and to protect Sera from harm. But it gets stranger; before Sera's arrival, The Junkyard's denizens never seemed to question the war, empathize with their enemies, or even have personalities other that obedient soldiers. They seem less than human in general, but over the game slowly become more human. They develop specific personalities (Heat is hotheaded and fiercely protective of Sera, Argilla is kindhearted and hates having to devour others, and Cielo is, um, Jamaican.) and start to know and remember things that they shouldn't know. When Embryon explores uncharted ruins, they slowly seem to remember the area, although they've never been there before. These revelations and recollections begin in a slow trickle, but then culminate in a "What the fuck is going on?" moment before crashing the final dungeon that provides no answers. The only answers are (presumably) in Nirvana.
So that's what's up. Six main characters (counting Sera), a bunch of rainbow tribes in a Junkyard, some fucked-up people-eating, and a narrative that starts out like a weird Hindu-themed version of The Warriors and ends up an emotional journey of self-discovery. With far more questions than answers. The end of DDS1 does little in the way of story resolution and cliffhangers straight into DDS2, which I will be playing. DDS1 has a GREAT story that is mostly told in cutscenes (there aren't very many NPCs or locations in DDS), but has enough intrigue and style for me definitely to want to finish it. I won't say it was 100% satisfying, but it definitely makes me hungry (heh) to play DDS2.
But one more thing: the official English title of this game is Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga; the Japanese title of this game is Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner. So is it an SMT game or isn't it? Well, nearly all the item and spell names are shared with SMT and Persona (Chewing Soul, Revival Bead, Agidyne, Samarecarm) and yes, DDS's enemies are 98% comprised of SMT demons. Does that make it an official SMT game? I think it's meaningless semantics. It bears no connection to the larger world of any SMT game (neither does Persona, for that matter), so I'll say it's in the greater SMT family, but is officially its own self-contained series. Like a second cousin. There. That ought to satisfy the wiki editors.
Playing the Game
That's enough story talk. Probably too much story talk. DDS has an interesting story, but if you play games for the story then you're doing it wrong; if the game isn't fun, then why am I even playing it? Well, DDS's gameplay uses the Press Turn system that was introduced in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne that was simplified and made friendlier for Persona 3 and Persona 4. Combat is turn-based, and you receive a bonus turn if you score a critical hit or hit an enemy with its weak point. On the flipside, if you hit an enemy with a type to which it's immune, absorbing, or reflecting, then you lose multiple turns. Eep. Just like in most of these turn-based Atlus games, the crux to surviving most regular fights is experimenting with different attacks, figuring out enemies' strengths and weaknesses, and having all of the necessary attacks represented in your team.
The Press Turn system is a solid base for combat, and the challenge level is a little high, but very reasonable. Enemies can exploit Press Turn just as you can (each of your characters is weak to a particular type), so that's another thing to consider when you build a team. In general, I tried to keep every possible damage type represented in my three starting party members (nine total, counting physical attacks), but for bosses my strategy was generally to die several times against the boss, figure out what skills were most appropriate, and then regroup and beat it. Some of these boss battles were quite challenging, and even with that trial and error preparation I resorted to checking a guide for help a few times.
Those bosses are refreshing compared to the normal dungeons. These dungeons are generally derelict areas with a sense of melancholy attached; an abandoned theme park, an abandoned cruise ship, a bunch of sewer levels (of course). They don't push any envelopes for RPG dungeons, but they are decent jaunts and each area is distinct in its own way (...except the multitudes of sewers). Then the random encounters hit. The encounter rate in DDS is really high, to the point where the dungeon runs become tests of endurance. Luckily, there are ample save points sprinkled throughout, but only some save points can heal your characters; sometimes I had to camp out at the start of a dungeon for a long-ish period before I could muster up the levels and stats to power through to the first save point.
Each dungeon has an easy-to-read map to make things a little more fair, and a few areas with tricky puzzles turn off random encounters so you can focus on the puzzles. In addition there are special rooms called Field Hunts (basically puzzle rooms where you try to take out as many targets as possible) that give you a free encounter against some high-EXP enemies as a reward. Oh, did I say EXP? My bad. In DDS, traditional experience points are called Karma, ability points are called Atma, and the currency is Macca. Place-names and other game concepts also borrow liberally from Hindu scripture and folklore. I don't know enough about Hinduism (or Yoga, Sikhism, or Buddhism) to understand the deeper meaning of any allegories or metaphors contained within DDS, but it seems neat. Maybe when I inevitably play DDS2 I'll see what's the deal is (thinking of putting it on the 2015 list).
Another key gameplay bit: Mantra. Mantra(s?) are DDS's analogue to a traditional JRPG job system. There are at least sixty or seventy jobs on the big web of Mantras, which consists of a linear flowchart that sorta resembles a single-elimination tournament (congrats to the UConn Huskies, btw). Typically, advanced Mantra require one or more basic classes as a prerequisite, and the "trees" of Mantra are organized into sensible chunks: the physical classes are grouped together, the elemental classes are grouped together, and the bottom third of the tree is a clusterfuck of status effects and instant death attacks. Exploring the mantra system is what customizes your characters' selection of skills and passives, and it's fun to explore. Can't help it. I love job systems.
Furthermore, there's a subset of physical attacks called "Hunt" skills. Hunt abilities seem like below-average physical attacks, except if you kill an enemy with a hunt then that character earns a LARGE AP bonus for the kill, at the cost of stealing the AP from your other characters. Devouring can get a character's AP moving up fast, but if you Hunt too often then your character can get a stomachache, resulting in no AP gain. Fun little sub-system to combat and customization.
By the time you reach the endgame, there are a large number of late-game challenges to face. At least nine super-bosses (which grant you special Mantra after defeating them) are present, and I only beat three of them. And I struggled a LOT with two of those three. And they're hard to find! You can't even access the last six bosses unless you reach the very top floor of the final dungeon, teleport way back to the beginning, and then revisit six older dungeons in specific areas. Not terribly intuitive! I would never had known that without a guide, but I may yet go back and beat those bosses. You know, after I level up my characters some more. SMT hidden bosses are no joke.
Visuals and Audio
Visually, DDS is fine. Large, clean sprites that are very nice-looking polygons with smooth edges. Kaneko's monster designs are classic (I mean, I love them in Persona 3 and 4) and seem to be mostly recycled from SMT: Nocturne (just like in Persona 3), and DDS's characters are... interesting. They're all pale, dressed in gray, black, or white with sashes or marks indicating tribe, and then have a random sorbet flavor for a hair color. They look like actors in a Kabuki version of Mad Max. The Avatar designs are... not the best. They're a little weird and twisted (fitting in with the Kaneko monsters), but don't really do it for me. Switchblade arms and horns, lots of teeth showing up in weird places; I think I understand the concepts, but they didn't resonate with me the way that Soejima's character-specific Personae do. Maybe I'm a Persona fanboy (...Okay, I definitely am), but I found Kaneko's art direction to be a little hit/miss.
The music is really superb in DDS. Recurring Atlus maestro Shoji Meguro shows off his incredible range with DDS's soundtrack, which feels like a few Trent Reznor-inspired industrial jams adapted into traditional RPG pieces, like "guitar-heavy boss battle," "ominous dungeon music," and "orchestral world map theme." Meguro's pop chops are still evident, but it's not as hip-hop or bubblegum as his Persona music. DDS is definitely Meguro's rock and pop flavor, but with a bit of industrial thrown in. If Meguro soundtracks were peanut butter, Persona 4 would be creamy and kinda sweet and Digital Devil Saga would be crunchy and bold. Wow. I just typed that. Of all the metaphors I could have chosen I went with peanut butter. Maybe I need a snack.
The Final Word
Look, meditations on peanut butter aside, Digital Devil Saga is not for the faint of heart. Its combat is solid, but unforgiving. The dungeons are nice, but the random encounter rate is awfully high. The storyline is really interesting and at times thought-provoking, but ultimately ends with an obvious "To be continued..." But hey, if you like traditional Japanese RPG gameplay, and want to play through an unusual, mysterious, storyline that *might* be set in The (rainbow) Matrix, then give it a shot. I enjoyed what I played, and I can tell just by the setup and foreshadowing that I'm in for a hell of a payoff in part 2. Can you dig it?
Yes. Yes I can.
Games Beaten: 2014 Edition
1. Ys Seven
2. Rayman Origins
3. Assassin's Creed II
4. Dust: An Elysian Tail
5. The Walking Dead (season one)
6. Frog Fractions
7. Mortal Kombat (2011)
8. Digital Devil Saga
Well that's 43% of my targets completed in roughly 1/3 of my allotted time. That's not bad. I have a few dense RPGs in my near future, so I'll probably need that extra wiggle room. Up next, I'm not sure. Maybe Persona 2: Innocent Sin or maybe Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance. I'm in the early stages of both of those. Also near the end of Persona 3: Portable FeMC / girltagonist route. The next got 'im probably will be one of those three, but don't rule a yet-to-be-determined fourth game. Lots of things to play.