Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga
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Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei series is one of those rare videogame franchises where the spinoff titles actually outnumber main entries. On the heels of the acclaimed Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, just the third game in the main Shin Megami Tensei franchise and the first of the main series to see a release outside Japan, came a new spinoff series, Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner, with the first game in the duology localized as Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, proving to be an all-around solid experience and a feather in the franchise’s cap.

Digital Devil Saga, however, does have some annoyances, among them being a schizophrenic random encounter rate worsened by the lack of the encounter indicator present in Nocturne, although the rate is mercifully adjustable with certain consumable items. Upon encountering enemies, the player’s party of up to three participating characters, with five total playable companions, start in their demon forms, although there are some instances in which the enemy may take the player off guard, and the three active Avatar Tuners begin in their human forms, needing to spend their turns if the player wishes to transform them into their default demon forms.

In their human forms, characters can attack with their firearms, although since there aren’t many foes weak against guns, odds are that players will spend much more time with their characters in demon form, and thus, upgrading firearm ammunition is generally avoidable without any real impact on the player’s progress. In either human or demon form, characters can use items, with some items buyable from shops having unlimited use, such as the Spyglass, which can show an enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, although scanning bosses and other story battles yields a table of question marks, players therefore needing to find out their weaknesses by trial and error.

Digital Devil Saga uses the Press Turn Icon system present in Nocturne, albeit with three playable characters instead of four, and as many turn icons being present for either side as characters and enemies alive on the battlefield. Commands normally consume one turn icon, although if the player’s characters or the enemy exploit a weakness (with the playable characters having strength and weakness against certain elements), only half a turn icon is consumed. However, using an ability that one side nullifies (with the player’s characters having access to skills that do so, in case they need to cover up their own weaknesses), wastes turn icons, with a nullified spell wasting away two icons and a reflected or drained skill using up all turn icons. If a character uses a spell that some enemies are weak against but others nullify, reflect, or drain, then the latter events take precedence in terms of icon use.

Winning a battle nets the three active characters Karma, basically experience points, along with money and occasional items. All characters, however, gain Atma Points necessary to mastering their current Mantras, which function much like Espers from Final Fantasy VI, and allow each character to learn new abilities. Outside battle, each character can access the Mantra grid to purchase and equip new Mantras, whose mastery allows access to more expensive Mantras with better skills. Throughout the game, the player must maintain the balance between regularly learning new skills through Mantras while keeping a decent stash of consumable items, which can certainly be difficult, although some skills can be decent substitutes for items, and vice versa.

The battle system largely flows well, with most fights moving at a brisk pace, although some battles can be cheap and grueling, and in these instances there’s no shame in running away. It would have also been nice were there a faster way to get back into the game’s action after death (which can be fairly common) since dying results in having to slog through the game’s many unskippable company logos over and over, and it gets old quickly. Still, the battle system helps the game more than hurts.

The game’s controls are perhaps the spinoff’s weakest link, although things aren’t completely bad, what particularly with the welcome feature of in-game automaps, a feature seemingly and inexcusably absent from many other role-playing games. The menus and shopping are generally easy, although if a player wishes to use a character’s MP-consuming skills to heal instead of items, but don’t have them equipped, then the player must spend some time equipping the skill to use it, before setting skills back to the way they were. The spacing of save points is also poor at times, with the system of saving resembling that in Nocturne, with Large Karma Terminals allowing players to teleport to other Large Karma Terminals within the same dungeon, and Small Karma Terminals allowing players one-way teleportation to Large Karma Terminals. Given the stinginess at times of the save system, there exists the potential to lose plenty of progress through dungeons, although interaction in the end is fairly decent.

Digital Devil Saga tells a better story than the main Shin Megami Tensei titles, particularly Nocturne, with better-developed scenes and characters, a twist being present that provides sufficient backstory for the playable heroes. Some have suggested that the events of Coordinate 136 are detrimental to the story, although they actually foreshadow scenes in the game’s sequel. Although the game ends in a cliffhanger, furthermore, the story mercifully sees its conclusion in the spinoff’s sequel, unlike some other incomplete RPG series such as Shenmue and Suikoden. The translation is mostly solid, as is expectant from Atlus, although there are some occasions where contractions would have made the dialogue sound more natural. Ultimately, great story and translation.

The aurals are solid, as well, with Shoji Meguro composing a catchy techno soundtrack, and the voice acting being among the best on the PlayStation 2, although there are some areas that somewhat depend on ambience rather than actual music.

Much like Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga features beautiful cel-shaded visuals that border on perfection, with bland texturing largely being a non-issue, although jaggies can be fairly common.

Finally, the game is fairly short, taking somewhere from twenty to thirty hours to complete in a straightforward playthrough, although after beating the game, the player can start a New Cycle with mastered skills from the previous playthrough retained. All in all, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is an overall solid experience, with strategic combat, an excellent plotline, and superb audio and music, although it does have some annoyances in terms of interaction, such as the repetitive nature of constantly slogging through the company screens upon dying. In spite of the minor flaws, the game and its successor stand as solid Shin Megami Tensei titles even today.

The Good:
+Strategic and fast battles.
+Useful automaps.
+Excellent storyline.
+Solid audio.
+Gorgeous cel-shaded visuals.
+Superb replay value.

The Bad:
-Some interface issues.

The Bottom Line:
Great start to the Digital Devil Saga duology.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 10/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 9/10
Localization: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Depends on Skills
Playing Time: 20-30 Hours

Overall: 9/10

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