"If you make a stupid blunder, the enemy will take advantage of it. Similarly, if you happen to manage something clever or youíve learned the right spells, you can trick the enemy into wasting its turns with ineffectual magic. The robust combat system allows you to give up half a turn if you donít want a particular character to attack, so finding yourself in battle with one of your three heroes ill-equipped isnít the end of the world."
They say the Devil is in the details. If thatís the case, then heís all over Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, the not-quite-direct successor to last yearís surprise hit, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. The games share numerous similarities, yet there are also significant differences. Some of them youíll appreciate and some you wonít. Itís all about those pesky details.
The first change will hit you right away. As the game opens, a group of soldiers is hunkered down amidst some ruins at the top of a hill. A cloudy sky sprinkles the area in a fine mist. At first, itís not clear who these characters are, or why you should care about them. Then the action centers in on one of them, the leader. His name is Serph and his pale complexion is plain like vanilla ice cream. Despite his unremarkable appearance, though, Serph is irreplaceable.
Argilla reminds him of this fact in a digitized voice. As you'll discover, most of the dialogue in this game is voice acted. Atlus really went out of its way to find just the right talent for the game. The results are dramatic without venturing into the realm of cheesiness. Thatís absolutely necessary when a game has a plot so complicated as this one.
Apparently not caring what Argilla feels is appropriate behavior for a leader, Serph charges down a hillside with his companions. Bullets fly toward the other group of soldiers gathered in the distance. At the slopeís bottom, Serph and company continue to exchange shots with their enemies. Explosions shake the rubble and Matrix-like scenes abound as the action slows to a crawl before explosions send rubble surging skyward.
Then things get freaky. A blast cracks open an egg-shaped object. Green light washes over it and suddenly it disintegrates. Light beams lash outward like tendrils, streaking toward warm bodies. Serph and his friends are caught in the middle of it all. They stumble toward the ground. Reality blurs. Bodies crumple. Blood spatters obscure your view. When everything settles, the in-game world known as the Junkyard will never be the same again.
After this promising opening, youíll at last gain control of Serph. The next hour or two acquaints you with the gameís general design. It wonít take long to grow comfortable. Cinema sequences unfold at a decent pace, and between them you receive useful directions from your baseís occupants. At your home, you can plan your next move, refill health youíve lost in battle and even purchase supplies and ammunition. Though you might be anxious for Ďthe good stuff,í youíll have plenty of that in a moment.
Once youíre comfortable with how things work, your first mission begins. Serph, Heat and Argilla head out to meet their enemies, a rival clan known as the Vanguards. In the Junkyard, there are seven such groups. All of them struggle against one another as dictated by the Karma Temple, a sentient tower of sorts that rises from the worldís core and disappears at last into the perpetual cloud coverage. The clan leader still alive when the dust settles is the one that will lead his people to the templeís lofty heights to find Nirvana (think Heaven).
Because this strange system dictates that the Vanguards are his enemies, Serph anticipates a frosty reception at their base. Predictably, the area serves as the gameís first dungeon. Upon entering it, youíll find a save terminal like the one located in your own base. Wise players will use this one, and any others they can find throughout the gameís available dungeons. Why? Because it just makes sense. Like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne before it, Digital Devil Saga is filled with random encounters that can stall your adventure regardless of your strength.
From the save room, Serph and his two companions venture deeper into the compound, surprised by the lack of resistance. Then they stumble into a room where Vanguard soldiers are cowering behind crates, terrified of Serph and his friends. They have good reason to be. It turns out Serph, Argilla and Heat are nothing less than demons. Not only that, but theyíre hungry. Itís not just them, either. Everyone in the Junkyard has become cannibalistic demon. They survive by devouring their enemies.
This concept brings us up to the details that really matter. Suppose youíre wandering about the map, exploring intricately-designed dungeons, and suddenly youíre thrust into the middle of a turn-based struggle against the local dungeonís denizens. At a glance, the system looks like it was stolen directly from Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Many of the enemies youíll face in this game are even the same. However, there are a few wrinkles.
Wrinkle number one is the fact that youíre not always fighting in human form. Sometimes an enemy surprises you and youíre stuck fighting as a human, or using one of your turns to turn demon. There are advantages either way, actually. Humans have access to ammunition. Some enemiesómostly birdsóare particularly susceptible to bullets. At first, I found this intriguing. However, it mostly serves as an annoyance. There arenít enough enemies in the game that are weak to conventional attacks. Generally when you find yourself fighting in human form, it means you got surprised, or some foe managed to force you to revert to the weaker persona.
When youíre a demon, though, all is well. Itís entirely possible to slay monsters at extremely low levels (just know that you can also be obliterated even at higher levels if youíre not careful). This is thanks to the element system that is the order of the day in battle. Imagine for a minute that youíre traversing a sewer. Monsters tend to utilize water-based attacks, as you might expect. As such, Serphís ice skills are detrimental. If he casts an ice spell and his enemy happens to be strong against such an offense, you risk accidentally healing the beast, or having it deflected. Either way, youíll use up one of your Ďturns.í
The game is mostly fair about such matters. If you make a stupid blunder, the enemy will take advantage of it. Similarly, if you happen to manage something clever or youíve learned the right spells, you can trick the enemy into wasting its turns with ineffectual magic. The robust combat system allows you to give up half a turn if you donít want a particular character to attack, so finding yourself in battle with one of your three heroes ill-equipped isnít the end of the world.
Of course, you should still avoid such situations. Here is where the game stumbles. In an apparent effort to add even more depth to the system used in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, the developers expanded the set of skills available in the game. The number of attacks you can learn is astounding. Are you sick of constantly taking fire damage? Spend Atma Points gained in battle to unlock fire-related skills. At first you can learn spells to deflect flames, then you can minimize their effect by default, then you can deflect or absorb, and finally you can nullify them. The same is true of the other elements, and of physical attacks, and of status-affecting spells. The problem is that everything takes so long to learn. At first, I didnít mind. Random encounters were almost exciting, because I knew Iíd get money to buy new Mantra downloads (basically, sets of spells). Then, once they were purchased, I knew I could start gaining Atma Points toward mastery of those given items. But in time, I began to realize that the whole process was growing tedious. Partly this was because I was getting impatient, but mostly the devour system was to blame.
As I said, the heroes in this game eat their enemies. Itís disgusting, but youíll get over it. You have to, because itís worked right into the gameís design. Letís say you come upon a group of slimes. After exchanging blows for one round and part of another, you know their end is near. At this stage, itís time to use a devour command. If the enemy is weak enough, you can consume him for an increased number of Atma Points. If during the fight you were seriously kicking butt and the enemy grows frightened, you can gain even more precious points. The game rewards those who take the hard path.
And why is it the hard path? Itís because like any good demon, you are somewhat squeamish. If you eat too many enemies, youíll get a stomach ache. This results in wasted turns in battle, which is very frustrating. The only remedy is to use items or to eventually master skills that nullify the effect. However, now weíre stepping on another of the gameís flaws. Early in the game, youíll max out with only eight skill slots available. As somewhere over 200 skills are available in the game, youíre constantly forced to juggle abilities and decide which ones are best for which character at any given moment. Then itís on to the next dungeon and you have to re-decide. Though more powerful skills tend to cancel out the need for various weaker ones, the majority of the game is spent deciding which skills you can most afford to ignore. When some of those slots have to be devoted to making you a good eater, itís frustrating.
Fortunately, or perhaps not, there really arenít so many dungeons in the game. This means you donít have to re-adjust so often as you might need to in a different game, but it also means that youíll find yourself wishing there were more variety. The gameís first few dungeons wear out their welcome. One of them you must explore slowly, flipping switches to activate gates. When you finally finish, it isnít long before the story requires that you go through it all again, this time by a different route.
Even the worst of dungeons are cool, though. Sometimes the details I keep talking about do work in the gameís favor. Though some role-playing games might be content to show you numerous doors that look almost identical, each building in Digital Devil Saga has its own unique architecture. From the crate-filled Vanguard base near the start to sewers with flickering lamplight to other unique locations I donít want to ruin for you, this gameís dungeons truly are a visual feast. Often, I found myself pausing to look out over the landscape, to admire shafts of light filtering over piles of books spilled from their shelves or the way water rippled. Detail here approaches a level that Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne never even dreamed of.
Dungeons are rewarding for other reasons, too. Puzzles are kept simple enough that you can figure them out with only moderate difficulty, yet you seldom feel as if the game is leading you by your hand. The challenge level here stays rather low right up until the end, where youíll work through a colossal area riddled with trick walls and floors. Thereís good diversity, too; itís not just about flipping switches.
Even if the game didnít offer that diversity, I would have kept going. The story here is that cool. You really get to know and like the characters, but the writers werenít content with just that. Instead, they threw in a mystery of sorts. Itís pretty clear early on that the worldís rules are changing at someoneís whim, and youíll want to keep playing just to find out who or what is pulling the strings behind the scenes. Every time you finish a dungeon, new information is revealed, meaning itís often hard to put the game down for long. It kept me up into the early morning more than once. Even after conquering it, Iím still playing to unlock the final hidden dungeons. Like other classic role-playing titles before it, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga employs the concept of a Ďplusí game. You get to keep all those hard-earned skills, too. Thatís cool. Devilishly cool.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (April 05, 2005)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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