Digital Devil Saga is the first Shin Megami Tensei game I’ve spent much time playing.  It apparently is known for marrying the traditional SMT gameplay with a more character-centered and developed story.  Having finished it, I can easily see how it could be a gateway drug for the rest of the SMT series.

Story

What if the world you lived in wasn’t the real world?  That’s the intriguing question posed by DDS as we follow Serph and his companions through a series of unfortunate events.  They are members of a clan living in the Junkyard where it always rains, and they are forced to battle other clans for domination.  The winner gets to ascend to Nirvana, though no one really knows what that means.  As the story progresses and Serph’s group defeats the other clans we receive hints and occasional glimpses of another reality which raises more questions.  Why is there a cat around?  Why are there no children?  Why do the characters have no emotions and later why do they begin to have emotions?  Who is Sera, the mysterious girl dropped into the middle of all this?

I really liked the story in DDS.  As I was playing I kept trying to figure out what was going on and what was behind this strangeness.  The characters were also intriguing and though they were somewhat one-dimensional, this was explained as the game’s story progressed.  I do wish Serph wasn’t the stereotypical Silent Protagonist and I also found Cielo seriously annoying but otherwise I wanted to know more about these characters.

Obviously DDS is the first part of a two-part series of games.  The story will be completed (hopefully!) in the sequel so many of my questions are still unanswered.  Presumably the second game will need to spend more time developing the story as there seems like quite a bit to wrap up.

The major complaint could be that there wasn’t enough of the story.  DDS is primarily set up as a dungeon crawler so the story is typically not a prominent feature.  Going into the game I knew this and appreciated not being taken out of the game every 10 minutes with a cutscene (hello Grandia III!).  The story elements usually arrived between dungeons and always left me hooked with more questions.  Someone looking for a very plot-heavy game filled with cinematics and overflowing with emotional scenes might be disappointed.  There is a story, and it is a strong story.  It’s just not thrown in your face as much as other RPG’s.

Rating: 8.0

Gameplay

Digital Devil Saga is a difficult game.  Though the difficulty was toned down a bit from Nocturne by all accounts, DDS nevertheless presents quite a challenge.  I’m happy to say that I saw the game over screen many times.  What makes it difficult?  First, the encounter rate is set relatively high.  There were times in dungeons where I would literally take the equivalent of two or three steps and be hit by another random battle.  Second, the game relies heavily on enemies who use status attacks as well as elemental attacks that target your characters’ weaknesses.  To succeed, you need to have a phenomenal memory or else write down what monsters repel ice attacks, what ones are weak to force attacks and so on.  Third, the dungeons are long and frequently set you up with surprise encounters, dead ends and confusing layouts.  Last, there are just some encounters that will kick your ass.  Several times I had full health and was feeling cocky when I ran into an enemy that hit my party with sleep spells and then the next turn hit me with Calm Death which kills sleeping characters.  It’s the nature of the game and you adjust to it quickly.

These things would ordinarily make the game irritating but I found I didn’t mind, in part, because the battles are over so quickly.  Combat is a snappy affair, though it is definitely turn-based.  And battles not only give you experience but also Atma (skill points) which are used to level up your Mantras (skills).  This makes each battle significant as it draws you closer to that more powerful healing spell or nifty attack.

Also, I found that I had to change my playstyle to be successful at this game.  I don’t tend to buff, use items much or exploit enemy weaknesses unless I get lucky.  DDS requires you to think carefully about the game you are playing.  Let your mind wander too often, or become stubborn and try to push to the next save point without fully healing your party and the game will spank you.  But when you do play the game, paying attention to what’s in front of you, accepting what needs to be done and “going with the flow” it becomes a very addictive Zen-like experience.

The game is certainly frustrating at times, but it also goes out of its way to help you along.  You’ll almost never find a boss battle where you don’t find a save point first and a warning that “Behind this door there appears to be an evil presence.  Do you still want to go in?”  As you level up your characters will sometimes spontaneously recover HP or MP and save points are generously spaced and some will let you teleport back to various points in the dungeon.

It’s a well-designed game and obviously the system has been tweaked and honed since Nocturne.  I spent a very enjoyable 30 hours with it and there was a lot of optional content I didn’t explore.

Rating: 9.0

Presentation

Let’s start with the character and monster design of Kazuma Kaneko which is nothing short of phenomenal.  He has the ability to create characters that are stylish and otherworldly at the same time.  It suits the game perfectly and the monster design is nearly as good.  Some of the creatures are just bizarre.  I’m still not sure why Argilla’s demon form has sharp-toothed jaws on her breasts but it seems to fit with the game for some reason.

Other visuals continue the trend of being otherworldly and stylish.  While most of the locations are stark and not particularly jaw-dropping, they all maintain a cohesiveness that suits the strange game world of the Junkyard.  While other games have made my Playstation 2 work harder, DDS is no slouch and I never found myself thinking “Boy, I wish this game looked nicer.”  The framerate is solid throughout and there were no visual glitches.  Graphically, the game is very polished.

Voice acting is also particularly strong.  Withe the exception of Cielo’s annoying accent and Serph’s silence, the actors all turned in great performances.  It’s nice to see how far game production has come since Final Fantasy X’s voice acting.  Equally strong is the soundtrack by Shoji Meguro.  Several times I would pause in a particular area just to continue listening to a song.  I’d buy the soundtrack if I could find it without spending a fortune.

Rating: 9.0

Conclusion

I’m glad this is the first part of two as I have another whole game to look forward to.  I’m anxious to spend more time with Serph, Heat and Argilla, particularly after the cliffhanger ending and teaser scene after the credits of DDS.  From start to finish this has been a challenging, intriguing and lovely game.

Final score: 8.7

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