Release Date: April 5, 2005
Buy 'SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: Digital Devil Saga': PlayStation 2
Light on Earth comes mostly from the sun, and from light bulbs, and from halogen lamps.
The first day of work or school in any given week is the most excruciating.
Lack of food causes human beings and other animals to die.
Popular Japanese RPG franchises get spin-offs.
Atlus, proprietors of the Shin Megami Tensei series (or MegaTen, as the fans like to call it) has not tried to break through the rules of reality. SMT has spin-offs. Lots of spin-offs. We’re talking a main-series-to-spin-off ratio equivalent to that damned red-capped plumber from our childhoods, what with his kart-racing, tennis-playing, golf club-swinging, and role-playing; and that’s to say nothing of his upcoming baseball bat-swinging and dance-dance-fevering. We’re talking about a lot of spin-offs, if you haven’t caught the idea just yet. So many that the non-main series MegaTen games -- Persona, Maken X, and Demi Kids – found releases outside of Japan, while a proper SMT was even a twinkle in the eyes of the Atlus localization team. Fans without the ability to roll out the nihon-speak became increasingly frustrated.
It’s hard to blame them. The RPG fare in the U.S. has been fairly lackluster this generation. The top sellers both had Final Fantasy X in the title, giving players two of the most overly-stylized, over-produced, over-boiled FF games yet. The hardcore market was tossed a very bare bone to cull sustenance from in the form of disappointing releases like Unlimited Saga and Star Ocean 3. More experimental fare came in the form of Baten Kaitos and Xenosaga, but both were far too contrived in their uniqueness to have any long-lasting appeal. Fans of interesting but traditional gameplay with a strong difficulty curve had nowhere to look. Then Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, (only) the third game in the series, managed to make it stateside. Its production costs were millions of dollars below FFX, it wasn’t as complex as Unlimited Saga, and nowhere near as experimental as Baten Kaitos, but it was easy to pick up and hard to master – often the best formula for a successful game, at least critically – and packed brilliant art design to rival Xenosaga and an unorthodox cult-driven story to make the contrived futuristic antics of Star Ocean 3 seem little more than irrelevant. Hardcore RPG fans were enthralled. Everybody else didn’t notice.
The admirable folks over at Atlus must have looked at the sales and said, “We didn’t make any money.”
They probably followed that up with:
“Let’s do it again. And cut a little bit of a profit this time, eh?”, adding a wink to punctuate. That’s how Digital Devil Saga was born: a compromise with fans and the mass market, separated from the main series despite having more money put into it. The result is something like Nocturne and Final Fantasy X being mashed together into a tiny, bright little cube, with all the excess material being tossed into the nearest wastebasket. DDS’s identity pulls from both games equally, but with certain defining characteristics left by the wayside. It improves on neither release, but is a worthy RPG on its own, as it should be, since its simultaneously-developed sequel will be coming up in just a few months.
From the very first minute of gameplay, DDS flaunts its differences when compared to Nocturne. The color palette is full of light grays, bright greens, and dark blacks, with stylishly-patterned neon hues sprinkled about to taste, thanks to the creative work of Zone of the Enders: 2nd Runner artist Kazuma Kaneko. A glance back to the drab reds and heavilly stylized but dark textiles of Nocturne, and the change is shocking. Equally shocking is the backdrop of this colorful world: a post-apocalyptic place known as “The Junkyard,” where six warring clans fight to be the last group standing, following the belief that the victors will enter “Nirvana,” an aptly-named place where a perfect life can finally be had for these war-torn people. (The war causes unhappiness, which inspires them to fight harder to make their way to Nirvana, thus perpetuating the war.) The violence is corrupted when a strange event causes every last man, woman, and child on the planet to transform into cannibalistic demons who can only advance in power by devouring their victims. Clearly, a strange path is in store for our heroes, led by Serph, commander of the Vanguard Clan.
This story could have been set in any given SMT game. What makes it so different is how it is told. Voiced movie sequences are the main method throughout, moving away from the long, muted text sessions Nocturne was so full of. This is where the lean towards the FFX side of things comes into play the most. But, ignoring a few isolated moments, DDS never reaches the ludicrous amount of idle watching time exhibited in every other Square-Enix RPG since 1997. The story remains fresh, although it does have an anti-climactic ending (which is not much of a spoiler, since it is well known that a sequel will release very soon, picking up right where the first leaves off, a la Golden Sun: Lost Age).
As with any proper SMT game, main-series or not, the biggest draws are the interactive parts of the gameplay, namely the battle system. Once again, a melange of Nocturne and FFX is devised. On a combative level, it plays exactly like Nocturne, with three member parties and the spectacular “press turn” system (where the most efficient actions are rewarded with extra turns before the enemy’s round) rounding out the turn-based affair. In the spirit of MegaTen, the battles are frequent; knowing the most efficient ways to take out each specific enemy is imperative. Equally important is learning the FFX-esque “Mantra” system, which allows players to upgrade their stats using energy siphoned from eaten foes. I was never a big supporter of the Sphere Grid replacing standard leveling in Final Fantasy, but I do support its (dumbed-down) use in the normally micromanagement-filled SMT series. The battles in Nocturne were difficult enough as it was; while I did prefer the atmosphere of collecting a team of demons and working them as I pleased, it was hard to keep my patience when managing each and every creature I had. Nocturne fans will surely see this change as a massive blow to the credibilty of DDS, but for a game that is trying too hard for a more palatable appeal, I see it as completely understandable and appropriate to use in this case.
Despite the change in color palette, however, DDS is running on technology that is barely, if at all, improved upon after Nocturne. The same level of animation and even the way polygons are placed, are identical from one game to the next. Thankfully, the cut scenes are so artfully shot that this does feel like a very different game, but the battles stink of déjà vu. The major improvement is the smaller amount of monochromatic dungeons, which for some reason plagued Nocturne thoroughly. DDS is much more of a fully realized world than that game ever was.
The introduction of voice acting of course further separates the two U.S. SMT games, and thankfully, not in the way Resident Evil did back in the '90s, but more on the Metal Gear side of things – a shock, coming from the tight wallet of Atlus. Of course, the same boring, halfway-embarrassing butt-rock tunes permeate this game like the death-stink of a fish on your freshly-washed linens; it’s a shame something so horrible had to muss up something so pristine, except butt-rock is much more charming in a b-movie kind of way, while a dead fish is... a dead fish.
Bad simile aside, DDS does not stink like a fish, or even a badly produced RPG for the Playstation 2. Quite on the contrary, it is one of the two best recent RPGs to hit the system, both with Shin, Megami, and Tensei in their titles. It may be the least promising of the two sequels, but it is just as worthy an addition if you have the money to spare. At the very least, who wouldn’t want to own one of the most beautiful videogame boxes ever to release? The review copy Atlus sent didn’t come with it, and I’m already thinking of five-fingering it for myself off a friend or two. (It really is that nice!) Just be aware that owning this game requires the future purchase of a sequel. Hopefully, said sequel will not disappoint because its predecessor most definitely did not.
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