"That's what makes Digital Devil Saga 2 so powerful — it plays on prior knowledge, whether dealing with something trivial like the Omoikane or something significant like the Serph-Heat-Sera love triangle. That's also why it's so important to play the first episode. Even though Digital Devil Saga 2 explains everything clearly (it's actually less mysterious than the first), the game spends its time advancing the plot instead of developing the characters (although Gale and Cielo are given more opportunity to shine)."
Will you be ready when Armageddon comes?
With Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2, Atlus pulled the "two-part game" trick again. This time -- unlike their Persona 2 stunt -- both chapters were actually released in North America. DDS2 successfully builds on the first game but, with revamped play mechanics and a brand-new soundtrack (less jazzy), it's complete enough to stand as its own entity. Although some gamers suggest that Atlus should have combined both 40-hour games onto one disc, I say the two games not only deserved separate releases, but needed separate releases. The physical distance between the two chapters intensifies the emotional impact; it's a powerful experience to revisit familiar characters and see how the first game's final moments of hope have been supplanted by an overwhelming sense of despair.
As in Yukito Kishiro's classic Battle Angel, the world beyond the first chapter's Junkyard is nothing like what the warlike lowlanders imagined. For their entire lives, the heroes of Digital Devil Saga fought against other cyberpunk tribes for the right to enter "Nirvana". Even after a mysterious power transformed them all into flesh-eating demons, the six Junkyard tribes continued their eternal war without question. Against ridiculous odds, heroic Serph and his comrades triumphed and escaped their cybernetic hell... but Nirvana is no land of peace. It's a harsh, urban desert world where the Black Sun literally absorbs the life from anything washed in its violent light. Anything except for demons.
The five Junkyard escapees make up part of this distinguished flesh-eating elite, but most of Nirvana's demons are members of the tyrannical Karma Society. Although once human, Society members have intentionally undergone genetic manipulation to survive in the deadly sunlight. Some can transform into bipedal elephants, others into giant moths... but they all devour human flesh to survive. The Karma Society regularly scours the underground cities for potential initiates. Everyone else is harvested.
One of Serph's earlier missions (after evading a Karma Society dragnet that's searching for Junkyard escapees) involves rescuing a group of men and women from a Karma Society "processing center". This is where captured humans are detained and eventually slaughtered. Then they're put into cans for eventual demon consumption. One of the captives is a little boy named Timmy. Little Timmy's journal, tucked on a shelf in one of the game's first buildings, tells a sad story:
"I went outside tonight to see my mom and dad again. It looks like when they turned to stone, my dad was trying to protect my mom... His head was shattered, but I can still tell that it's him. I'm going to find the pieces of his head, and put him back together."
I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Although absurd, the thought of a little kid looking for the pieces of his father's shattered head feels so genuine that it makes the boy's dire circumstances seem that much more oppressive.
This game clearly focuses on the story, which gives several playable events -- like running from a prowling, demonic jailer in real-time -- a lot more impact. Unfortunately, even though Serph has been pulled out of musty dungeons and dropped into the open city streets, Digital Devil Saga 2's world feels more claustrophobic than in the original. The first game featured environments like sewers (with logical dead-ends) or tribal military compounds, where it made sense for doors to be locked. Atlus's attempt to replicate the same design style in outdoor environs by blocking streets with construction signs, barrels, and bizarrely-positioned cars comes across as artificial, limited, and unrealistically confining. The first episode's locked doors meant you could return and explore for hidden items (and even some hidden dungeons), whereas there's very little reason to ever revisit conquered areas in DDS2. Although this improves dramatically in the (extremely complex) latter dungeons, the first half of DDS2 is disappointingly linear.
That's not to say this game has no optional bits. Even though it lacks hidden dungeons, DDS2 does include two sets of secret bosses. It also features the return of the OMOIKANE! In the first DDS, the Omoikane was a tiny, orange, squid-like creature that would accuse you of stealing its treasure. It was HARD AS HELL to kill (mainly because it would always run away), but successfully devouring an Omoikane would net a ton of money and experience points. Imagine my surprise when, while wandering through the streets of DDS2, I encountered not one, not even two, but an entire LEGION of Omoikane!
With newfound ferocity, the line of hovering, tentacled beasts stared my party straight in the eyes.
"YOU THINK YOU CAN DEFEAT US?"
"OUR TREASURE IS HEAVY, BUT WE ARE SWIFT AS WIND."
In other words -- they're all going to run the instant I hurt one of them. Those bastards are taunting me!
That's what makes Digital Devil Saga 2 so powerful -- it plays on prior knowledge, whether dealing with something trivial like the Omoikane or something significant like the Serph-Heat-Sera love triangle. That's also why it's so important to play the first episode. Even though DDS2 explains everything clearly (it's actually less mysterious than the first), the game spends its time advancing the plot instead of developing the characters (although Gale and Cielo are given more opportunity to shine). If you've played the original, you'll find that Atlus has greatly expanded the scope; this chapter transforms Digital Devil Saga from thought-provoking fable to philosophical epic.
Atlus has also expanded on the intense combat system that made the first game so engrossing. Like the original DDS, the key to victory is to use the right skills and the right characters -- mindlessly gaining levels won't help much here.
Basically, attacking an enemy's weakness gives you extra turns... but casting fire spells against fire sprytes will make you lose turns. This also means that protecting yourself (with skills that repel ice attacks or cause lightning-based spells to restore your health) can make deranged Karma Demons lose their turns, too. With astute planning, Serph and company can dish out twice as many attacks as normal. The game features a couple hundred skills, so there's a LOT of potential for customization and planning. New powers are still "downloaded" from save points, but instead of being forced to learn abilities in a set order, it's now possible to bypass less useful skills thanks to the new Hexagon Grid System (Final Fantasy X already called dibs on spheres).
This time around, it's important to build up your characters' magical abilities. This is partly because physical attacks aren't as useful as they were in the first chapter, and partly because characters keep joining and leaving the party! If you want to win, you'll have to diversify and exploit enemy weaknesses; you can't rely on sexy Argilla and her toothy cleavage, and you certainly can't rely on that jokester Cielo (who still has a ridiculous Jamaican accent).
Although mentally taxing, Digital Devil Saga 2's combat complexity ultimately makes victory taste that much sweeter. In the first DDS, I rarely used items (other than healing potions) during battle. In DDS2, there were times I pulled a win out of nowhere due to an "ice wall" item (deflects ice attacks) that I happened to have sitting in my inventory. Those kinds of come-from-behind victories made me feel like a major badass.
If you do find yourself with unnecessary equipment, you can still sell it off at vendors. This time, shops reward you with cleverly-named SHOP POINTS for selling and buying items. Earn enough points and intrepid shopkeeper Johnny, who usually sets up his kiosk in the middle of raging battlefields, will give you discounts or offer some sparkly new items... such as elusive Karma Rings. These nifty rings (like the kind you wear on your finger) can do simple things like boost your strength. They can also do unusual things like give characters extra turns, negate particular forms of attack, automatically cast spells, or increase money earned during combat. Just don't lose that money; in this game, when characters are "confused" during battle, they might stand there with a dumbfounded expression... or they might accidentally throw hundreds of dollars at the sinister Medusa slithering in front of them.
The money does not hurt Medusa.
...so try not to do that. The Karma Society and the fat cats living under its protection don't need any more cash than they've already got. However, although the snobbish Society gets to live out in the open under the black sun and admire flowers (very rare in this desert world), even they realize humanity is on its way out.
To its inhabitants, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2's world appears to be in a state near apocalypse, but the truth -- visible to the Junkyard escapees -- is that the apocalypse has already passed. A world where people transform into demons and eat each other... a world where purebloods turn to stone... a wasteland where humanity is forced to hide from the Sun... this is a hell more violent than any battlefield. Sera ESCAPED to the war-torn Junkyard, because to her it was more comforting than this unbearable reality.
Then it all gets worse.
Will you be ready when Armageddon comes?
Staff review by Zigfried (December 11, 2005)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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