Digital Devil Saga 2 (PS2)

Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner 2
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Release Date: 10/5/05

A little over 7 months ago, I wrote that Digital Devil Saga 1 was “hands down the best RPG on this generation of consoles.” I still stand by that statement. There’s not a better RPG that I’ve played for the PS2, Game Cube, or Xbox. And so that’s what made me a little hesitant to review DDS2. After all, it had some pretty huge shoes to fill.

On one hand I was happy to revisit characters like Serph, Heat, and the rest of the DDS crew. I was excited to see how the story would finally end. On the other hand, I was wondering how I could really judge this game on its own, as a stand-alone. I don’t feel DDS2 is one of those games you can play by itself. Let’s take the Persona series (another Megaten spinoff) as an example. You do not need to play Revelations Persona to get Innocent Sin or Eternal Punishment. And even though Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment are intertwined, one doesn’t even need to play both to understand either one. They CAN stand alone. Eternal Punishment even includes flashbacks which helps US gamers, who don’t have Innocent Sin in English, to understand what they might be missing in the other game.

DDS2 though? I dunno. I really feel a gamer needs to play through all of DDS1 to really get what is going on in DDS2. Everything about the game implies you need both. Even Atlus’ manual for the game focuses 3 paragraphs on DDS and then gives two new bios and doesn’t touch on the older characters.

So even though I enjoy DDS2 a lot, I have to state before I even get into the review that I CAN’T recommend this game to someone who hasn’t played DDS1 first. And yes, that does mean you’ll be dropping a C-note on two games. But they are very good games! However knowing the average Atlus gamer, if you’re at all considering DDS2, you almost certainly own DDS1 and possibly imported Avatar Tuner 2 because you couldn’t wait for the English version of DDS1 to hit our fair shores. Not that I did that or anything…

SO basically if you’re looking for a foaming at the mouth “Two thumbs up,” endorsement of DDS2 with the same 8.5 score I gave the original, I’m sorry. You won’t find it here. You will find a review saying “Hey, I like DDS2,” but you’ll also see why I don’t think it’s as good as the first game. I am going to insist now that if you haven’t played the first game, you probably should read this review as there will be some very minor spoilers, as you can’t talk about the plot of DDS2 without going to the ending of DDS. SO STOP NOW!

Let’s Review

1. Story

From my DDS1 review:

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.

Well guess what, the Tribe known as the Embryon, who you played as in the first game, won! I better you never saw that coming, did you? Well what you probably didn’t expect was to learn that the Nirvana the Embryons were lead to believe awaited them…was in fact a lie. Or at the very least, quite different from their original expectations.

Now I don’t know about you, but my idea of eternal paradise is not one where the world I inhabit is a veritable wasteland, and there are what appear to be human statues every so often. Serph finds himself alone here and hunted by people who refer to him as an “Avatar Tuner.” He also finds that those that hunt him also possess the ability to transform themselves into demons as well.

So is the Promised Land a lie? Or are have the Embryons ended up someplace different.

As I don’t want to spoil the plot, I’m going to have to be vague from here on. So if the rest of this section of the review sounds like doubletalk, that’s why.

DDS2 goes in a very different direction not just plotwise, but stylewise as well. Where DDS1 really had its roots in European Existentialism, DDS2 harkens back to a lot of the same running themes of the main Megaten series. This isn’t to say it is a rehash however, as there are other subplots and an overall theme running through DDS that really doesn’t fully reveal itself until you’ve beaten the game.

The characters of DDS2 are amazingly well written, and you will become attached to them, ESPECIALLY if you played through the original game. Which makes the eventual outcome of this game so melancholic and disheartening. It’s also amazing how emotive and deep the character of Serph is, when he harkens back to the days of the “silent protagonist” from the 8 and 16 bit eras of RPG’s.

Overall the entire game is amazingly well written in regards to both the plot and dialogue. However there’s one gigantic icky black stain on the game in my opinion that takes the game from getting a perfect score here down to just getting a good one. And that is how the game ends/the resolution of the plot when everything is finally tied together. I absolutely hate these type of endings as I feel they are cheap and show the writer/designers have written themselves into a corner. It’s not a “deus ex machina,” ending, but it’s close to that level of groaning. I seriously haven’t loved a game’s story and been that into a plot, only to put my control down and hit my head against the wall since the “big reveal” in the game, D. I’m sure some people are very cool with the ending, and hey, it’s all preference, right? But for me, I feel this sort of ending was done better as the bad ending of Persona: Be Your True Mind, then here. And yes, for those of you who have beaten both, I realize they’re not the exact same thing, but there’s a lot of parallels that can be made here.

As mentioned earlier, DDS2 takes a paradigm shift in mood and theme. Where DDS1 felt like it was the electronic love child of Kafka and Camus, DDS2 feels like it has sprung from the Ridley Scott, Phillip K Dick, and other such masters of that genre. Allusions can also be made to things like, “His Silicon Soul” from Batman: TAS, the Mega Man Battle Network games (thanks to fellow Kliq member Liquidcross for pointing that out), and even Super Mario Bros 2 (Us version. And I’m sure some of you will be wondering how that fits into the above list).

What’s here is wonderful. It’s well-written, it’s very tragic, and it continues the Megaten tradition of being some of the most thought out and designed stories in all of video gaming. I guess that’s why the end makes me wince like being forced to watch furrie porn.

As much as I hate the last bits of the game, I can’t let it drag down the love I have for the other 85% of the story. So what we’re left with is a good plot, dragged down by a disappointing end to the series (as I can’t see how they’d do a third game, but I said that about the Suffering and now look…) and the fact you do need DDS1 to fully grasp what is going on.

Story Rating: 7/10

2. Graphics

The visuals of DDS2 are as great as its predecessor. The character designs are excellent, and are very reminiscent of older Megaten games, but also have a style all their own. There’s only one character model I wasn’t found of, and that was Seraph (not to be confused with your main character Serph), but he/she/it/whatever is supposed to be a bit off, so it’s not really a complaint worth making.

The designs of monsters and demons are some of the best looking opponents I’ve seen in an RPG. You’ve got your old faithfuls from Megaten games like Jack Frost, to some very original new bosses. Half the fun of entering a new area where you can fight is simply to see what new monsters you’ll come across. Of course about five seconds after going “Oooh” and “Ewwww!” your character’s tummies will be rumbling and it’ll be time to devour your opponents.

I really enjoy the background and level designs as well. HOW MANY post apocalyptic/dark future games have we had over the years? Well, DDS2 is really the only one that captures that ill portent visually.

Although stylistic with its macabre rendition of what awaits mankind, DDS2 isn’t the best looking game I’ve ever seen on the PS2. It’s still great in regards to what unfolds upon your TV screen, and I can’t imagine any gamer being disappointed with any of the designs.

Graphics Rating: 8/10

3. Sound

Good news: If you preordered Digital Devil Saga 2, you got a free CD Soundtrack as a bonus.

Bad news: They still don’t appear to have been shipped, even a week after the game has been released.

Great news: you own the game. Listen to the amazing soundtrack on that until Atlus ships them out!

I fell in love with the music and voice acting of DDS 1, and this tawdry affair continues over to its sibling. The voice actors continue their incredible job of conveying the emotion and internal struggle each of these characters is filled with. Whereas a lot of game have wooden of badly done voice acting, DDS2 even more than DDS1 due to the characters being a lot more actualized this time around.

The soundtrack is truly worth finding a copy of. This is one of the best games Atlus has ever released aurally, but I don’t think there’s ever going to be a song that replaces the Velvet Room Operetta from the Persona games as my favorite track from any video game. Still, DDS’s score achieves a level of excellent most games wish was available in even a tenth of their tracks. To have this level of sublimity running nonstop throughout a game makes me very optimistic to see what the next Devil Summoner or Shin Megami Tensei will sound like.

Write Atlus emails to have them mass release the sound track. Fill up their inbox people. I know you can do it. Or you know, once the US preorder copies have run out, you can import the soundtrack from Japan or something. But I like my idea better.

Sound rating: 10/10

4. Control and Gameplay

There is very little changes from Digital Devil Saga One. Let me again cut from that review because it saves me from having to retype that whole damn thing as it is two pages long You don’t really want your beloved Icon to get carpel tunnel, now do you? :

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.

So what IS different about these two games? There’s two things. And they’re big ones.

1) There’s a new Berserk form for your characters when the Solar cycle is at Max. What happens here is your character is caught halfway between demon and human. In Berserk mode your attack and chance of scoring a critical hit goes way up. You’ll also be collecting a lot more Karma (i.e., XP). However there’s a lot of drawback to this mode as well. Your defense has plummeted. You can’t access combos or magic, and you’re stuck with items for healing. The good thing is that you have a 100% escape rate in Berserk mode, so you have a very slim chance of dying in case the enemy is kicking your booty all over Karma City. It’s a nice idea, but I don’t like the lack of control here. Still, it’s something that helps differentiate from the original title.

2) The old straight forward way of obtaining mantras (Skills and powers) is history. Above in italics is my description of the flowchart method used in DDS1. DDS 2 uses a a “Mantra Grid” instead.

The best way to describe the grid is you have a great deal more regarding customization of your characters. Heat no longer has to be mainly Fire and Hunt skill based. You can bypass any mantra you just don’t feel like learning and go straight for the skills you consider nifty keen. However, there are secret Mantras you can unlock by mastering Mantra circles. Mantras also now have default stats and subtle bonuses they give characters besides the powers they unlock. Not too shabby. Like DDS1 though, if you just run around haphazardly giving characters powers, they will end up not being as effective as if you specialize in 1-2 types of powers. Overall it’s your call.

With an excellent interface system, tight controls that are easy to learn after just a few powers, and a comprehensive new mantra system, the setup and gameplay of DDS2 is even tighter than DDS1, which is a pleasant surprise.

This is as close to perfection as a turn based game is going to get.

Control & Gameplay Rating: 10/10

5. Replayability

Well there’s several things to increase the replayability of this game. The first is the multitude of ways to customize your characters. The second involves you having to beat DDS1. When you do so, certain choices and potential bonuses are unlocked. Make sure you have a PS2 memory card with a finished save file of DDS1 on your card so that you have access to things like extra stat points or bonus items.

The third is pretty evil, but it involves you getting to use a certain character in the final dungeon instead of the choice you’re 95% likely to get. And that involves making dialogue choices in both DDS1 AND 2 to get them. So really this is an option for the masochist/Avatar Tuner fanatic.

There’s also secret bosses and things to deal with on your second playthrough of the game.

In the end though my comments about “needing to play and beat DDS1” ring true louder than ever in regards to playing through DDS2 more than once. A lot of the extras you get involve the DDS1 save data. And only a niche group of gamers are going to want the really play the game without that data. And an equal number are about as likely to replay DDS2 a second time for the hidden stuff. These are nice options Atlus has provided us, but in the end, not too many people are going to take advantage of them.

As much as I love DDS 1 & 2, I realize playing through 2 several times isn’t going to be an option for a lot of gamers. It’s shorter (or at least it feels like it) than most RPG’s nowadays, but to really get EVERYTHING out of DDS2, you’re going to have to play DDS1 JUST RIGHT, and that takes a little fun out of both.

Replayability Rating: 5/10

6. Balance

DDS2 is almost as well balanced as the first. New enemies remain challenging, until you learn what they are weak against, and then they become a lot easier. But before you think the monsters are ones you can walk all over simply by learning an ice or holy attack, you’ll find that if you devour your enemies too much, your characters will end up with stomachaches, which prevent them from attacking or be able to gain AP.

And just because you know the attacks that can take your enemy down hard and fast doesn’t mean you still can’t have a rough time with them. If that enemy gets to go first and also has the ability to charm your entire party, you’re hurting. If the entire enemy team has a charm all attack, you’re going to be using some choice four letter words.

You do seem to level up faster in DDS2 compared to the first game. And the enemies do seem a lot easier. But this may be just because I’ve gotten used to the DDS setup and battle style from the first of these games, as well as SMT Nocturne Maniacs.

if you’re looking for an RPG where you’ll have a degree of challenge from the moment you turn it on, until the final credits roll, DDS2 is a good choice. The random battles are frequent and thus can be annoying, but they’re a lot more fun than in most games where you take about five steps and then have to fight again.

Balance Rating: 8/10

7. Originality

Well the problem here is that the game, aside from plot and the new Mantra learning grid, plays almost exactly like DDS1. One even gets the feeling at times, that much like the Soul Reaver games, that DDS was originally supposed to be one game, but it became to big for the developers and now we have two. That’s probably not true, but when a lot of the monsters repeat, and you’re using the same exact attacks, you’re going to have a major sense of Deja Vu throughout the entire game. What’s more, this is the fourth Megaten game in a row to use the Press Engine, so there is some repetitiveness there as well.

I would have really preferred to see some more differences between the two Digital Devil Saga games. If you ignore the plots, DDS2 is very much a carbon copy of the first. Even with the plots, DDS2 relies on some hackneyed contrivances and takes what I feel the cheap way out following in the footsteps of a certain plot device most people seem to really dislike.

The DDS series is still different not just from the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei juggernaut, but from most turn based RPG’s as well. It’s just too bad there wasn’t more variance between the two games.

Originality Rating: 5/10

8. Addictiveness

Even with the story bits I don’t like, Atlus has created a game that really sucks a person in. Excellent story telling, superb voice acting, and an enjoyable turn based RPG battle system really helps to keep the game invigorated in regards to solving the mystery that is the Avatar Tuner series. It was very hard for me to put the joystick down, even though I’d already played through the Japanese version a few months ago. That’s impressive, as there are very few RPG’s I enjoying going through all the motions with again if they only have a single ending.

If you loved the first one, you’re going to be just as sucked into the sequel.

Addictiveness Rating: 8/10

9. Appeal Factor

If DDS2 has any one Achilles Heel, it’s right here. DDS2 has been designed in such a way, even calling it a niche title is a bit nice. This game is geared solely for people who have already beaten DDS1 and really enjoyed the game. Because there’s a lot that I feel that a gamer will miss if they haven’t played DDS1, I can’t see too many gamers getting as much as they should out of this title otherwise. And when certain options and bonuses are only available to those that have completed DDS1, well that just reinforces my point.

If you didn’t like DDS1, you’re certainly not going to have a reason to pick this up. If you don’t really want to pay attention to story or subtle intricacies of a plot, this game is probably going to go over your head.

This doesn’t mean this is a bad game by any mean. Indeed, DDS2 is a GOOD game. It’s just very few US gamers are going to enjoy this game. It’s funny because the Megaten series really highlights how one series can be crazy popular in Japan, and not very popular at all Stateside. Much like how FPS’s are far more popular here than abroad. Neither taste is right nor wrong. It’s just a culture thing. And most people I know are going to put down DDS2 in the first few hours, especially if they haven’t played the first. That’s the breaks.

Appeal Factor: 3/10

10. Miscellaneous

As long as I’m thinking about this, I want to get this out of the way first. If you have NOT received your soundtrack, as s lot of people I’ve spoken to have not, here’s what you do. Take your sales receipt or invoice and mail it to:

Atlus USA (DDS2 Soundtrack)
15255 Alton Parkway, Suite 100
Irvine, CA 92618

Atlus will be more than happy to ship that CD out to gamers who preordered. That’s some excellent customer service right there.

Miscellaneous, for those of you new to the IP comprehensive (anal retentive) rating system, is where we cover everything that can’t fit into other categories. There’s 3 things worth touching on here in DDS 2.

1. It’s nice to see bonuses that carry over from DDS1 to this game. Yes, you’ll be scratching your head at first, wondering why you’re back down to level1 and have lost all your Mantras, but that will be explained with time. The bonuses may be a negative regarding accessibility of this game to a newcomer to the series (Heat > Roland!), but for the hardcore Megaten groupie, it’s a lovely treat. Atlus rewards the flock instead of expanding the base. There’s both good and bad to that thinking, but I’ve touched on the bad aspects of this for the past 10 pages, so here I say YAY for getting an extra bonus from sitting around for a few months waiting for a decisive end to DDS 1.

2. I am a bit troubled that the game was a full fifty dollars, considering it’s a shorter game and a lot of the game needs to be fleshed out by playing the first. It’s the same problem I have with a lot of games that follow this style. It’s basically playing $100 for two games that force the consumer to purchase them both if you want to get what’s going on. I guess I would have preferred to have them both packages together for a single price, like what Working Designs has done with the Arc the Lad and Growlanser games, but that’s purely conjecture and opinion. I still view 50 dollars for DDS1 as a bargain. But not so much with DDS2.

3. I enjoyed how differently one ends up playing DDS1 from DDS2. In DDS1, aside from the secret boss you fight on your second playthrough, my team was constantly Serph, Heat, and Argilla. And well, without spoiling things, that option didn’t work out for me as well in DDS2, so you really end up adjusting your play strategy, even if only slightly. This was a nice touch.

Atlus did a pretty decent job with DDS2 and I’m happy with the end result. it may not be able to work as a standalone, but what’s here is still quality.

Miscellaneous Rating: 7/10

The Scores

Story: 7/10
Graphics: 8/10
Sound: 10/10
Control and Gameplay: 10/10
Replayability: 5/10
Balance: 8/10
Originality: 5/10
Addictiveness: 8/10
Appeal Factor: 3/10
Miscellaneous: 7/10

Overall Score: 71/100
FINAL SCORE: 7.0 (Good!)

Short Attention Span Summary
DDS2 is a good game. Yes, I gave DDS1 an 8.5 compared to DDS2’s 7.0, but there’s some definite drawbacks to DDS2 that can’t be overlooked. The game still looks, sounds, and plays as great as DDS1. But DDS2 is a clear cut case of intangibles coming into play. My suggestion is to get DDS1 first. DDS1 is a wonderful game and still my pick for GOTY. If you enjoy DDS1 at all, then by all means, rush out and buy DDS2, as you will have a lot of fun with this. But you need to play the first of the Avatar Tuner games to really get all you can out of DDS2. Digital Devil Saga 2 is a good game and worth owning, but I can’t stress enough that snagging DDS1 should be your priority.