Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga (PS2)

<img src=”http://media.insidepulse.com/old/columnImages/image7934.jpg” align=”right”Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Release Date: 3/22/05

Megaten. Short for Megami Tensei, which then became SHIN Megami Tensei. It’s just finally starting to get noticed by American gamers thanks to Atlus’ recently bringing over Nocturne Maniacs, and word of mouth in regards to the two Persona games (Be Your True Mind and Eternal Punishment) that were brought over during the PSX days. If you’ve been a long time reader of Inside Pulse, you know that I consider the Megaten series to be one of the greatest franchises of all time, from Devil Summoner and Soul Hackers on the beloved Sega Saturn to SMT IF… for the Xbox. I’m a veritable Megaten junkie, having owned and played every game in the series, including the slightly related games like Lunacy and Maken X. This series, along with Shining Force and Sakura Taisen are the RPG series I can’t get enough of. If that still doesn’t help, let’s leave it at this: I prefer the Persona games to Pokemon. Nuff said, huh?

I realize that a lot of gamers in the US still haven’t played this series, which in Japan, is considered one of the three big RPG series, along with Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. And out of them all, I think Final Fantasy is the worst of the series, at least in terms of plot and game play. If you have never played a Megaten game before and after reading this review are curious about learning more about Atlus’ greatest creation, I point you towards my “Top 30 RPG countdown” where I list Revelations Persona: Be Your True Mind as the 11th best RPG of all time, and it’s sequels, Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment as the second best.

Digital Devil Saga, also known as Avatar Tuner (both names I will be using interchangeably throughout the review) , is set at 55$ for you to buy, which includes the game, a soundtrack and some “controller armour,” which is just a skin for your PS2 joystick to wear. It’s the first time I can remember Atlus doing a premium package, and it’s probably to entice people to buy a game they’ve never heard of ala what Working Designs does. Great games that aren’t really known + nifty package = really happy gamers who use the power of word of mouth to give the company free advertising and help sell even more of the game.

Before we begin I want to explain this game seems to bridge the gap between Persona and the main Shin Megami Tensei line. You will see some familiar faces from both Innocent Sin/Eternal Punishment and Nocturne Maniacs, the former in some obscure subtle ways, and the latter is a very blunt and obvious way that may induce some joystick throwing.

What is to come now is a review of a game I can’t strongly insist upon anyone reading this to go out and buy. It’s been a long time since a game wowed me, and put me at awe with its plot, graphics, and game play. It blows anyway any other RPG on this generation of consoles (PS2, Xbox, GCN), and hopefully after reading this, you’ll be inspired to go buy it at your local gaming store. At least I’m honest enough to tell you this up front, yes?

Let’s Review


1. Story

The tale of Avatar Tuner/Digital Devil Saga takes place in a land known as the Junkyard. It appears to be an island or an isolated small area that’s unreachable, and more importantly, one that can not be left aside from death. The land is divided into 6 warring tribes, along with a seventh neutral area controlled by the unseen rulers of the world. It is these rulers who put the residents of the Junkyard to war, telling them that the winning sect who slays the others shall be allowed to enter a paradise known as Nirvana.

For an unknown period of time, there is a perpetual stalemate between all sides. No one gains ground, no one looses any. Until one day something appears in an area between the territories controlled by the Vanguards and the Embryons, the latter of whom you play as.

Both militias attempt to take the item, with the main, but mute characters you play as, Serph, leader of the Embryons and his four most trusted warriors, Heat, Gale, Cielo, and Argilla gaining the advantage.

And then everything goes to hell. LITERALLY. The large object in question explodes and bathes all the fighters in some strange energy. And then they begin changing into things horrific to describe and monstrous in nature. And also very cool looking. Then everything goes black.

Serph and his friends awaken on the battlefield unharmed but surrounded by a bevy of corpses that have been…snacked upon. The leader of the Vanguards, Harley is scared of the Embryons, claiming they turned into demons and devoured everyone.

And so they had. All who inhabited the junkyard were transformed/possessed/given their true forms and marked with various brands designating their new infernal forms that lay just beneath the skin. And with these new powers came a hunger. A hunger so insatiable that it was always there, never ending, never resting. A hunger that could only be quelled by devouring the other strange human-demon hybrids that everyone had become. Some reveled in their new powers while others were horrified and loathed what they had become.

Meanwhile, the Embryons learn that the strange glowing black object had someone…or something inside it. There, unconscious in the remains of the object, was a black haired girl they would eventually learn was named Sera.

What follows is a story where the Embryons try and learn who they are now, and in fact, who they once were. The tale is one of discovery. Who is the “Angel” who commands them to fight and who has given them demonic abilities? Who is Sera, and why does Angel want her found at all costs? Why are some people losing their humanity and becoming full fledged demons while others are more human than ever? This is one of the best stories ever told in video gaming.

I don’t know if this counts as a spoiler or not, but Avatar Tuner plays like a Kafka or Camus novel turned into digital entertainment. It is surreal and existential, far more than any other Megaten game before it, while holding on to the constant religious and mythology references and metaphors running constantly throughout the game. Watching these characters discover things we take for granted, such as tears, and concepts as friends and anger and love is amazing. The characters of Digital Devil Saga know these emotions and words. They recognize them as they discover them, but yet they have never used them before? Odd, isn’t it? I love it beyond words, simply because the game tells two different stories. The first is the straight out “Demonic Risk meets Pac-Man” tale the average non-Erudite gamer will take the tale as, all the while questions why these people “are so stupid” as to not understand simple human concepts, vocabulary and emotions. The other gamer is one who enjoys theology, similes, and surrealism. In essence Digital Devil Saga can be considered a metaphor for Purgatory or alternatively, the Embryons are just that, embryonic beings learning and feeling for the first time as we ourselves did once ejected from the womb.

If you can grasp the tale being told by Digital Devil Saga, than you will find it one of the greatest stories ever told in a video game, far and away better than any non-Persona Megaten game to come before it. This game, along with both Shadow Hearts might as well be the Holy Trinity of storytelling for RPG’s on the Playstation 2.

If you play RPG’s for well told tales, then you need this game. You need it more than any other game out right now. Experience it, and hopefully either before or after you play this game, you’ll go out and you’ll grab a copy of The Trial or Crime and Punishment, or something by Sartre or Kierkegaard. This game is a wonderful homage to a genre of fiction left pretty much to dead white male Europeans.

Story Rating: 10/10


2. Graphics

Wow, this game is beautiful. Some of the CGI scenes are just amazing. I marked out over the Tarrasque showing up. And Argilla is the most beautiful Megaten character design I have ever seen.

Is this game as graphically amazing as the latest Final Fantasy game or their Sacnoth brethren’s Shadow Hearts 2 game? No. Not at all, but this is by far the best looking Atlus game ever, and one of the best games to look at on the PS2.

<img src=”http://media.insidepulse.com/old/columnImages/image7938.jpg” align=”right”Let’s talk backgrounds first. The level designs are simply amazing. The world looks like some post apocalyptic war zone. Smoke, crumbling buildings and a hazy sky are countered with stunning and colorful interior graphics showcasing a sterile and soulless technocracy. Shadowing, texturing, whatever you want to throw around to describe the graphics, they’ve done it. The completely surreal nature of the Junkyard is captured best by the exterior world.

Character designs are fabulous. Every character, either human or demon looks great and realistic. The monsters are imaginative and sometimes horrific, sometimes amusing, but alas, you rarely come across Jack Frost, the Pikachu of the Megaten world. (note: I edited this from never due to the fact I did remember, after someone reminded me on the Atlus forums, that he does show up. I totally blanked on that.)

Visually, Digital Devil Saga is stunning. From the lowest little demon to the final hidden boss you have to beat the game at least once to encounter, everything is wonderful to behold. Again, DDS is not the greatest game graphically on the PS2, but the cut scenes are amongst the best and the normal in game graphics are excellent as well.

Graphics Rating: 8/10


3. Sound

Be very grateful for Atlus for providing a soundtrack CD with the purchase of this game, because the music is incredible. It’s some of the best music I’ve heard in an RPG in a very long time. But then, the Megaten series gave us the Velvet Room Operetta, my favorite video game song of all time, so it’s no surprise that all the tracks in Digital Devil Saga are amazing. From the wacky offbeat almost musical jug sounding song that plays when you go to a vendor, to the electrifying tracks that play when a battle occurs, every song is worth listening to. And speaking of battles, there is a different track for each version of the battle, a normal track, one for in human mode, one for boss battles and so on.

The music really helps enhance the mood of the game, and often times I catch myself humming various tunes from it even hours after turning off the game. They’re catchy and addictive and the soundtrack makes it all the better.

The voice acting in DDS is terrific. All the characters are emotional and intense throughout the game, with the exception of Gale, but he’s supposed to be unemotional and almost robotic, so his voice actor captures this perfectly. Of course, Serph doesn’t speak in true classic RPG main hero fashion, and this actually fits the pattern of many Megaten games.

Heat and Argilla are the two best acted characters and I really enjoyed listening to them, and even the enemies are well scripted and have their lines delivered with great care.

Digital Devil Saga’s auditory qualities are, like the plot, one of the best this generation of video games has to offer. The quality is superb and I can’t do anything but give this the highest recommendation possible.

Sound Rating: 10/10


4. Control and Gameplay

Well, Digital Devil Saga plays and feels more like a Persona game than a straight Megaten game. But at the same time, it uses the excellent Press Turn system from Noctune Maniacs. So in a sense, the game is like a best of both worlds in terms of controls.

Let’s talk the actual battle engine first. It’s a turn based RPG, where your team gets three attacks to begin. Now, if your character misses or uses an attack the opponent is strong or invulnerable against, you lose one of those 3/round attacks. However if you get a critical or use an attack they are weak against or devour an opponent, you get an extra turn and so on and so forth, basically ensuring you can make some very large combos and potentially can take out the enemy before it gets a chance to attack. It’s wonderful, but also sometimes frustrating. Still, the press engine does something that I’ve only ever seen in the Shadow Hearts games and that’s actually put a degree of strategy into a turn based RPG. Look how many of those games are just “Pick an option, and then press a button.” Hell, even the first Persona game was like that, and was my only real dislike about it. But with Digital Devil Saga, you have to think. You have to pay attention to what your enemies did last round. Sure they may be weak against Ice, but one may have used an ice shield that reflects or absorbs an attack and then…BAM! Instead of getting an extra attack, your turn is done and now the computer gets to go. I love that. I really do love that and it actually makes me pay attention to what is going on. Usually the battle engine is the weakest part of a turn based RPG, but here in DDS, it’s an excellent part of the game.

Then we have exploration mode. You know, where you run through bases and towns and dungeons. It’s such a change from the early first person dungeon crawling mode that the first Megaten games had. It wasn’t until Persona 2 IS/EP the change was made to full on third person exploration was made, and I’m actually a fan of it in this game, whereas I normally really miss first person RPG’s like the SSI D&D games or Persona: Be Your True Mind. Normally in an RPG, and especially turn based RPG’s, the graphics take a downturn in exploration mode, but not here. The graphical quality stays just as high a caliber. I bring this up under game play because this is a significant deviation from most RPG’s and I’m glad to see game play and graphics are symbiotic instead of one going up while the other goes down.

They’re a few other modes to touch on. First up is part of the Press Engine where you can devour your opponents. By using attacks that cause critical damage or that the opponent is weak to, they become afraid and in this mode you can use hunt skills to devour your opponent. This is the gimmick aspect of the game, and it plays beautiful. When you eat the opponent successfully, you gain a great deal of what would be best described as your magic experience points in addition to your normal leveling up experience points. This allows you to master more Mantras faster.

And let’s use Mantras as a segue way into the leveling up aspect of the game. Like in Persona every time you level up you get three skill points to put into your character’s stats. Those stats are Strength (attack power), Vitality (hit points), Magic (Magic power), Agility (Speed) and Luck (usually random category). With Serph, I ignored Agility and Luck as more often than not they were useless and just put everything into magic, vitality and Strength, and he ended up being a tank for the entire game. The non main characters assign their points however their AI chooses for them, meaning Heat is a pure physical character, Argilla is the Mage of the party, Gale puts points into everything equally, and Ceilo is just speed. I recommend just staying with the main three characters throughout the game because of this, although the latter two are excellent characters for story reasons, but in game play, you’re better off with what I labeled above.

In addition to this are the mantras. Every time you fill up a Mantra, you can buy a new one (and do this as you don’t really need ammo or items. You need every last dollar you can get for skills.) When you go to buy a new Mantra, there is a flowchart that allows you to buy certain skills according to what you bought already. With Serph for example you have Ice to start with. You get a small ice attack and an ice shield that you can use once you have mastered the Mantra. Then you can download a different level 1 mantra like Fire or Hunt or Heal or whatever, or you can get a level 2 Ice Mantra which costs more and takes longer to master, but you get an “attack everything on the screen with ice” spell. Level 3 is a more powerful Ice attack spell and so on. It’s a lot of fun and you find yourself wondering what will open up next and what you’ll get out of it if you take it as every spell and most attacks have strange names that mean nothing to you. It’s like a demonic treasure hunt.

Man, am I on a roll here. Now let’s talk about the Field Hunt Mini-Game. Throughout the battle maps you go through, there is usually one Field Hunt bit of the map per game. The computer will ask you if you want to compete and if so, Field Hunt mode will be activated. It can be activated as many times as you want until you beat it, then it is dead for the rest of the game in that particular dungeon. In Field Hunt Mode you have a time limit to collect all these “Power Pellets” that appear. If you can do that and then strike the enemy that appears, you can battle it. These enemies are often only weak to one attack, such as the first two Field Hunt Mitama, which are weak to ice. Devouring or killing these gets your team a great deal of AP (Magic experience). These little mini games give you a great boost into getting the super expensive Mantras and I heartily suggest going for them. But don’t wait too long, as the higher you are, the harder it actually is to devour and kill them as they will run away from you if you are too strong.

Okay, wow. That was long. But I think I covered everything. Simply put, this game is amazing. Totally and utterly amazing, and is nigh-perfect in this aspect as it has been across the board so far in this review. It’s up there with Shadow Hearts 1 and 2 in terms of the best game play ever in a turn based RPG, but I give the nod more to DDS due to the fact it’s not as random and roulette wheel-like as SH.

Control and Gameplay: 10/10


5. Replayability.

Contrary to what the game might make you think, there’s only one ending to the game (although when you play through a second time a Nocturne familiar face shows up), but the game doesn’t need multiple endings. Due to one of the best stories in gaming, along with multiple playable characters to comprise your team and total customization in anyway you choose, from make a super lucky but screw everything else character to someone specializing only in healing and hunting, this game has a great deal of replayability. Every time you play this game, it will be a new experience. Yes the story and characters will be familiar, but an RPG is first and foremost about character development, and DDS has the best form of that I have seen in a very long time. Man, am I making statements that sound a lot like that throughout this review, aren’t I? Well, good. Listen to them.

DDS is amazing. Yes not having multiple endings or anything hidden or fancy drags it down a bit in this category, but the fun you will have with designing your characters and watching a wonderful story unfold is really all you need. After all, a lot of the best RPG’s ever made only had one ending. Shadowrun, Pokemon, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy 1, and Shining Force 2 are just a few examples, no?

Replayability Rating: 7/10


6. Balance

Due to the customization aspects of all your characters, the game is as hard or as easy as you want it to be. If you decide to go for only level 1 mantras for all your characters and give Serph only points in Agility and Vitality for example, it will play much differently than if you focus on one set of Mantras and give Serph Magic and only magic for stats skills when he levels up.

The game is never supremely hard until the end, and those last few battles are either very hard, or nigh impossible depending on what you did to your characters and gave them for skills and mantras. But that’s how a good game should be, an ever climbing difficulty level in which the game grows harder as you get better to ensure a constant challenge.

<img src=”http://media.insidepulse.com/old/columnImages/image7937.jpg” align=”right”There is one part that annoys me. It happens when you face a set of enemies that all have and use charm skills. If they get first attack, often times your team is pretty much dead. Charm makes your guys attack each other, and if you fight a team of say 3-4 enemies who all use a skill that can charm your entire party, odds are your entire team will be killing each other while they attack you and you will die. That’s it. That is my one annoyance. Yes you can learn a void charm attack, but what good is it if you can’t use it, eh?

Still, aside from that one super frustrating part of the game that suffers as DDS’ only real weak spot, I enjoy this game a lot. Oh, there are a lot of random battles. All combat is random battles aside from boss fights, but DDS feels like it has more than most. There’s an item that increases your random battle percentage and oy vey, if you use it, you might as well be playing Thousand Arms in terms of step step, battle, step battle, step step battle step.

Still, a great game that is for the most part pretty balanced, and more so than other Megaten games, and especially other turn based, random battle filled RPG’s.

Balance rating: 8/10


7. Originality

There are so many new things in DDS that separate it from other RPG’s. The Field Hunt, the devouring of enemies, the combining of Persona and Megaten aspects into one new game, the incredible story and characters, the flowchart for powers. The game feels like nothing I’ve ever played before while still holding onto many fundamentals of turn based RPG gaming.

It’s again up there, and I know I keep linking these two games, with Shadow Hearts in terms of all around excellence. But DDS manages to go one step further. If you’ve never played a Megaten game, I endorse this over Nocturne Maniacs. You will not be disappointed, and you will experience a game like you’ve never played before.

Originality Rating: 8/10


8. Addictiveness

I. Love. This. Game. I had a very hard time putting down the controller. I just wanted to keep playing. I wanted to solve wacky giant Easter Island head puzzles. I wanted to see if my guesses about Sera (Last name Phimm?) and Serph were correct. I wanted to see who the cat with the creepy bells was. I wanted to see the true nature of angel and to learn what the Junkyard and Nirvana really were. Completely and totally enticed. I also kept going “Ooh, only 8 more battles and I can learn a new Mantra.” I’d swear and laugh when I’d missed a field hunt by a fraction of a second.

This game will suck you in and devour your soul as if it was one of the many countless demons the Embryons must defeat in order to achieve Nirvana.

I can’t think of too much more to say about it other than to say I know this category might seem a little biased due to my well known fanatic love of this series, but I prefer it to Nocturne and pretty much any other Megaten game save the Innocent Sin/Eternal Punishment combo. I mean, my god, I like it better than Revelations Persona and Lunacy! That’s say a lot for me.

Or maybe this would be a good explanation for long time readers of mine: If they remade Ikaruga and had Pikachu riding an Articuno instead of the Ikaruga ship and you shot down Pokemon throughout that whole game, I would STILL rather have Digital Devil Saga.

Although Nintendo, call Treasure and make that game, as I would buy it in a heartbeat. ;-)

Addictiveness Rating: 8/10


9. Appeal Factor

Okay. I love it. But then will everyone else?

Hmm. That’s a toughie. Great story, but not everyone will get it or appreciate it. Wonderful characters, but they’re not angst ridden pretty boys who you can write slash fan-fic about. And sadly that’s what a lot of RPG gamers want: Pretty vapid characters that have no personality so they can flesh them out in their horrible second rate attempts at writing.

In truth, most gamers will never hear of this game, and those that pick it up might not understand what is actually being told in the story here. However, hopefully the game play and customization will draw people in.

Atlus is really banking on this doing well, both here and abroad. In Japan, Avatar Tuner 2 has been announced and is coming out soon, and here in the US Atlus felt it was worthy of a special super package.

I implore you, buy this game. Appreciate this game. Really let this game and its message sink in. You won’t regret it. You’ll love it if you can let yourself think while doing something most people consider mindless entertainment. For every person that says Video Games are horrible and ruining the youth of America, there is a game like DDS that takes concepts like Demonology, Theology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, and Existentialism and makes you THINK about what you are playing. You’re smarter for having played SMT:DDS. And that is wonderful indeed. I just wish the majority of gamers would actually be able to get the most out of this.

Appeal Factor: 6/10


10. Miscellaneous.

Quick tangent for you. Here are my ten best RPG’s for this generation of console gaming in no particular order.

Digital Devil Saga
Disgaea
Phantom Brave
Morrowind
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 2
Shadow Hearts 1
Shadow Hearts 2
Pokemon Coliseum
Lost Kingdoms
Wizardry: Tale of the Forgotten Land

This just lets you know the company I put Digital Devil Saga under, and I do rank it higher than any of these. Yes, higher than Disgaea, our 2003 GOTY here at Inside Pulse.

This game has everything you could want in an RPG; excellent characters, beautiful graphics, a gripping story, and a character building process that has no equal.

You need this game. Yes, yes you do.

I can’t verbally praise this game any more than I already have. Just get it.

Miscellaneous Rating: 10/10


The Scores:

Story: 10/10
Graphics: 8/10
Sound: 10/10
Control and Gameplay: 10/10
Replayability: 7/10
Balance: 8/10
Originality: 8/10
Addictiveness: 8/10
Appeal Factor: 6/10
Miscellaneous: 10/10

Overall Score: 85/100
FINAL SCORE: 8.5 (BUY THIS NOW!!)

Short Attention Span Summary
God, I label this game the best RPG this generation of gaming has, and it ends up with an 8.5. At other sites, people would say I’m a harsh grader. Here at Inside Pulse, I’m sure the constant running thought with our readers is “Holy crap! Lucard gave an 8.5 to a game. An 8-point-bloody-five!” It’s nigh impossible to have a game here not in the 4.5 to 7.5 range, and that includes my second favorite fighting game of all time in KoF 2002, which got a 7.5 from me recently. So this 8.5 is like getting a 12 from another site.

Let me repeat myself: Best RPG on any current console. Possibly the best game period for any console right now. Atlus has very low print runs for their games, so you get this as soon as possible, or like many others now out of print Atlus games, you’ll be paying 100$ on Ebay for this.