Release Date: November 10, 2005
Buy 'SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI: Digital Devil Saga 2': PlayStation 2
This review may contain spoilers, particularly for Digital Devil Saga 1. It is virtually unavoidable, and you have been suitably warned.
Have you ever had one of those days, the kind where you swear you do everything right – and I do mean everything – and it's like you've poured vinegar in some unnameable deity's Cheerios? Some people have them often. Some people call them "life," and for other folks, it's the culmination of an entire life spent clawing at the dirt to find the exit from eternal damnation into pure utopian bliss only to find out ... you've won nothing. That is where Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 starts ....
When we left the Embryon Tribe at the end of Digital Devil Saga, Serph and his motley bunch of cannibalistically inclined fighters had managed to find the gate to Nirvana and were prepared to ascend. However, the end of that last fight left more questions than answers, revealing to all involved that The Junkyard was just a never-ending simulation, a world where entities fought for no specific purpose. Nirvana was the real world, but instead of hope and freedom, it is a world destroyed, where a merciless black sun beats down upon the ruins of a civilization. Those who stayed on the surface have become statues, caught somewhere between the realms of life and death. The rest of the survivors hide in dark, decaying tunnels and warrens, hiding from the twisted Karma Church and their soldiers, who seem to have the same Tuning ability as Serph and the rest. With many of the Embryon missing, their abilities reduced to nearly nothing, and the Karma Church hot on their heels, the only way out of this dire situation is going to be a bloody one.
While it has virtually no position in the Western world outside of a few niche releases in the 1990s – Revelations: Persona, Persona 2.2: Innocent Sin, and the virtually ignored DemiKids series – Megami Tensei (literally "Goddess Rebirth" from the original storyline; "Shin" can be equated to "Super") is considered amongst Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest in Japan. Spanning over two dozen titles and covering nearly every major platform since 1987, "MegaTen" has always been based on the concept of demons entering into the human realm and humans finding their "inner demons" and fighting back. From computer programmers to high school students (a recurring theme), each group of would-be saviors has found their own way to secure humanity's future – even if it means being a demon yourself. Serph and his team were unexpectedly blessed with the ability to "tune" into their inner demons during a fight, with shocking and grotesque results. While they can use these new forms to maneuver their way through enemies with a violent ease, each of the Embryon tribe must now eat their enemies whole to grow even stronger.
Jumping into plot and backstory for DDS2 is a difficult matter. The sequel picks up virtually moments after the original ended, leaving any player who has not yet finished the original (myself included, sadly) stumbling about for a bit of plot thread. There isn't much given before the story darts off to one side, sending the remaining three Embryon after a man who may know how to find their missing colleagues. It's never that easy, of course, and after a brief tutorial segment, the new adventure is well underway.
Combat is, and has often been in the "MegaTen" universe, the lynchpin of the entire game. It's all about fighting here, with a few smatterings of puzzles and exploration placed about for good measure. None of that D&D "swords 'n' sorcery" action will be found here: the brunt of combat is about demons fighting demons. While not extremely deep, some degree of strategy must be brought out during much of the fighting. Each round is built on the concept of "action points," where one attack generally equals one AP. Each character can using an AP, or pass and only use one-half of an AP. Going deeper, there are a long litany of skills and abilities, many of which are elementally themed. Enemies often have weaknesses to some sort of attack type, and using the right move at the right time can earn more APs, allowing your side to keep up the assault. It works in reverse as well – if any enemy is strong against your attack, you can lose an extra AP, and if they cancel it entirely, it can cost you two or three APs. There is also the "Revert" function, which brings the human character back in place of the demon; while humans are not strong physically, they are equipped with various firearms which can significantly damage some enemies.
As is often the argument, it is rather unfair to judge DDS2's audio-video engine too harshly. All characters use the ever-maligned cel shading technique, though with some modifications to the norm (i.e., instead of thick black lines a la Viewtiful Joe, objects here use lines that blend with the surface they're on). Models are nicely designed and detailed, are animated well though sparsely, and are more than varied enough. Enemy design, often a strong point of "MegaTen" games, is in full effect here. Environments are the opposite, the sort of mazes where if you get turned about, it's very difficult to tell where you are without use of the mapping functions. In the sound category, the music tends to repeat every bit as much as the environments (you'll hear that same guitar-driven song enough in an hour to make you wish this were on XBox); the voice acting is capable but nothing beyond the norm, and sound effects are pretty generic and often overused. Once in a while, an effect like a demon's scream will hit home, but otherwise, it's unmemorable.
Like all role-playing games, the presentation often becomes the crust on the Story Pot Pie: something very secondary to the meat of the matter. Digital Devil Saga 2 is not exceedingly pretty, nor does it find itself being extremely innovative on the inside. What it does do is present an extremely tight story – the second half of a story, even, that manages to maintain the level presented by the original after throwing a World Series-grade curveball right into the player's mouth. This is a story that is far more intriguing than anything brought forth by its US competitors in the last several years and deserves a spot on every RPG fan's shelf, right next to the original. I hope that this is an indication that Atlus is ready to bring the demon-fest of Megami Tensei to these shores properly – I can't wait to get possessed again.
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