Megami Tensei is probably one of those under-rated series you have never heard about. Compared to the marketing budget that series like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Star Ocean, Tales Of, Suikoden or even .Hack can afford, the developer/publisher Atlus are very well known for producing very limited numbers of their games, in order to minimise losses (remember the E.T. scandal?) as well as recognizing that the the Japanese role-playing games genre belongs to a small niche market, dominated only by a single franchise; Final Fantasy. Perhaps it makes sense from a marketing point of view, but it doesn’t help in introducing a great series to people.
The original Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga spin-off was one of my favorite RPGs when I first got the ps2, at least in terms of tactical gameplay – particularly the Press Turn combat system. It was actually the third Megami Tensei game I ever played. Since then I have also gone through Shin Megami Tensei III: Lucifer’s Call (Nocturne in North America.), the third game in the canonical Shin Megami numbered series. The games are so fucking rare, especially in the Europe, it makes me want to clutch my copy of these future collectors even harder.
Digital Devil Saga 2 is a direct sequel to Digital Devil Saga and it is probably essential to be able to play the predecessor rather than jumping straight into this game. You will also get to import the save file from Digital Devil Saga for bonuses. I won’t explain any plot details here out of fear of spoilers (plus the plot is complicated enough to try to fit into a small essay, but it essentially revolves around a band of tribe called Embryon lead by this guy called Serph and their constant war with other tribes in order to ascend to Nirvana). Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 attempts to tie up any loose-ends from the first game (in which there are plenty) and providing more back story to each factions, then expanding those into a story worthy of a singular standalone game.
One of my favorite aspect of both Shin Megami Tensei III: Lucifer’s Call and Digital Devil Saga are the stunning visual style of the games. As Digital Devil Saga 2 uses the same engine, Kazuma Kaneko’s demonic character design is once again the highlight, as a unique visual characteristic of the game. Have always been a fan of these demonic art style and just the classic SMT character design in general. The visuals are rendered in 3D (naturally) with cel-shaded look and simple textures. The original bleak and post-apocalyptic cyber-punk look of the original has been retained and the environment effect has been improved. There is also the distinct voice acting which is in my opinion really good, and underrated.
Digital Devil Saga was awfully difficult and challenging, and Digital Devil Saga 2 was no different. It is unfortunate that such great games often goes overlooked by the public. Looking at the rather depressing EU game charts you can’t blame Atlus for the lack of care when it comes to promoting this (and their other titles). The game is available at most stores for a low price of £15 (or £25 with a limited edition soundtrack, either that or you going to have to look for it a really long time on the internet market. (Seriously, Lucifer’s call and Star Ocean 3 took me like 4 years to find, not kidding.)
Let’s start with the review.
Technically this game is only the first of two, as it does end on a bit of a cliff hanger which is resolved in the sequel. However I did not know this when I first played it and I have to say that it holds up rather well by itself. And in my opinion that’s a mark of a great game, as even though it isn’t meant to stand by itself DDS doesn’t take the easy way out like a lot of modern games. Instead it closes on a note where the events of the game were, in my opinion, tied up rather nicely. Heck, if you cut out the bit after the credits then I could almost see the story ending like that, with the characters transitioning into the unknown as a sort of dramatic cliffhanger.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, so what do you say we actually look at the story as a whole before I spoil it? It’s actually a fairly interesting premise, as the game opens up on a scene of your party members in a heated battle with a rival faction, when all of a sudden the mysterious object that they were fighting over activates. This has two interesting effects: one, it turns all of the game’s characters into monsters, with all of the important characters having the ability to change between their human and monster forms (to an extent), and two, it reveals a strange girl who can calm down said monsters, allowing the party to largely retain its sanity. This turns into a quest to either team up with or kill all of the other factions so that you can escape from the Junkyard, though in the end only one faction can remain.
The reason why I find this premise so interesting is because it raises so many questions in the player early on. Where is this strange wasteland where these people are fighting? Why are they turning into monsters all of a sudden? Is this world even real? How are you supposed to overcome all of the other factions? Why does no one seem to have any emotions until this event occurred? By raising all of these questions early on the game manages to draw the player in, keeping them focused on the game world right up until the end when most of the pieces finally fall into place. This is the kind of storytelling I’d like to see more of in the gaming industry, where you are just dropped into the action without warning and it is up to you to put together the pieces as you play. Flashbacks and narratives introductions may provide helpful tools for setting up a game, but they can be as much of hindrance as they are a help.
The game’s sense of mystery is only compounded by its artistic direction, which consists almost entirely of drab and dull colors. Which makes sense, as the entire game takes place in a wasteland known only as the Junkyard, with the only real color being the demons that have been introduced. This contrast gives the game both a sense of tension and despair, as you wonder whether or not it is even possible to survive in this bleak and now thoroughly corrupted world. But the beautiful part is how the musical score counterbalances this with high energy tracks that prevent the world’s gloom from affecting the player farther than fostering the sense of mystery. I actually found myself rocking out during some of the boss fights, as I got caught up by the awesome musical score even as my party was struggling to survive.
And yes, I mean struggling. This game, while not the hardest in the Megaten roster (that honor goes to Lucifer’s Call/Nocturne), is by no means a cakewalk, with the majority of the boss fights putting up a respectable challenge. In fact, several of them will require more than one try in order to figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are for the next time. And that’s really the trick to this game, as while all of your party members have their own strengths and weaknesses they can all be modified to have whatever abilities you choose, to the point where by end game you can switch between character types between major fights.
This is a good thing, as without this ability to customize your ability layout some of the earlier bosses would be next to impossible. A great example of this difficulty is the fact that this is one of the few games in which I have not only reached max level but have also maxed out all of my characters stats, and yet some of the bosses still provided a significant challenge to me. So yes, this is a difficult game and if you’re not a fan of RPG games then this may not be a good game with which to introduce you to the genre. But the game play is solid, and by utilizing the press turn system you can shift the tide of battle your way by exploiting your enemies’ weaknesses.
And if you can overcome this difficulty curve then this is one of the more enjoyable and involved RPGs available for the Playstation 2. The game manages to combine the elements of individual character builds with fully customizable skill trees so as to give both a sense of control while still retaining the characters’ sense of self. And when you add this dynamic to the overall quality of the art direction and interesting story you have an RPG that is really worth looking into. If you’ve either played other Megaten games and are looking for more or are just looking for a quality RPG that will give you a bit of a challenge, then I cannot recommend this title highly enough. It can be a bit tricky to find nowadays, but I’ve seen a few used copies online for below average, so if you’re interested it shouldn’t be too difficult to give this game a shot.