Kaneko Kazuma must have some pretty interesting dreams and nightmares. The artist’s signature style has graced many a Shin Megami Tensei title and a few offshoots like Soul Hackers on the Sega Saturn and PlayStation in Japan and oddities like Maken X on the Dreamcast. Last years’ Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne brought his designs to more life than before thanks to an excellent programming job that included lifelike animation, lighting and shading. Those that though the overall look of the graphics too bland because every detail wasn‘t texture-mapped to the tiniest nose hair completely missed the beauty and perfect mixture of Kazuma’s outrageous design sense and subtle line work. Digital Devil Saga continues this visual tour de force and just like last year’s game, it also has a mature storyline as rich as the artwork making it one of the best console RPGs on the market, period.
It’s also the first of a two-part story, so there will be plot elements and character fates some who crave closure in their games may feel annoyed by. Nevertheless, that’s another thing that’s so cool about Saga; the game is so good that you’ll be dying to know what happens in the next part and haunt your favorite game shop until the sequel ships. So don’t get cranky, just plunk down the cash for a reserve and hope Atlus isn’t swallowed up by some world-ending calamity out of one of the MegaTen games so we all can dive into the conclusion. Anyway, Digital Devil Saga tells the story of some of the residents of The Junkyard, a desolate world full of massive battered cities that are constantly battling each other for the divine right to reach the top of the Karma Temple. The opening movie has one particular fight go awry after a mysterious relic opens and sends bursts of energy through anyone and everyone, changing them into fierce demons…with a hell of a nose for fashion.
The plot twists and weaves onward as a young girl found inside the relic becomes the catalyst for one tribe to do its hardest to find out the reasons behind the mass transformation of all the humans while also trying to become the final tribe of demon/humans alive, as this ensures their ascension to Karma Temple uninterrupted. There a hell of a lot more, but if you’ve made it this far, you’re either scratching your head until your scalp bleeds or you’re setting aside some cash to zip on down to your favorite game shop as soon as you finish reading this review. Like Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga’s story is deep and sprawling simultaneously and its M rating well deserved. But, for all the mature content to make younger players (who shouldn’t really be playing this because they won’t even get half the stuff here) giggle, the game is also full of actual humor. Things like the way some shopkeepers deal with you to some of the insults and taunts spat out by angry or just plain rude demons you’ll face make for some pretty cool battles.
In addition, like Nocturne, you’ll be fighting quite often and sometimes more than you’d like to. The encounter rate is just as high, if not higher than last year’s game. But I was never bothered all that much as any chance for experience points, a new demon joining up or coughing up cash or items was too tempting to try to run from. The game can get difficult if you’re not smart enough to manage your health and party members after a battle or allow yourself to get so caught up in exploration and combat that you forget to save your progress during some of the more grueling dungeons. I’ve never considered the MegaTen series to be “frustrating”, but gamers weaned on simpler RPGs with more style than substance will be in for a rough time until they get the hang of things.
If you loved Nocturne, you’ll see a number of familiar enemies and skills here and the battle system should also bring a smile to your face. Your demon powers in Saga are called Mantra, and character customization is something that takes careful planning and skills displacement. While it’s highly advisable to have all your party member learn a specific set of skills (healing and cure Mantras are a must), it’s best to have your characters learn and use Mantra based on what the game’s enemies throw at you. Defensive skills are equally as important as offensive ones here and having a great weapon or powerful Mantra in Saga means nothing if even a minor enemy is unaffected by it. Leveling up with no regard to your surroundings can actually get your party slaughtered by a group of weaker foes that your weapons and spells reflect off of or restore hit points to every turn.
The biggest differences Saga has from Nocturne is that you’re unable to talk demons into joining up with your team and you can temporarily transform into your former human body for certain team attacks. As a demon warrior, you can choose to eat enemies to gain their powers and additional Atma Points, which act as a form of experience that can be spent on learning Mantra. There’s almost too much to do here, but once you get into a groove, the game will suck many hours out of your free time. Like Nocturne, Save/Heal Karma stations are placed in some choice locations and you’ll pretty much want to use them as you come across them. There’s generally a boss or series of really tricky pathways beyond these stations and “better save than sorry” is going to become your own personal Mantra skill.
Digital Devil Saga’s sweeping, yet subdued visuals expand a bit more into a more cultural vibe in the character and environment design. The assorted slinky human forms and their twisted demonic counterparts make me shake my head and wonder what keeps Kaneko Kazuma’s creative fire going after all these years. There’s this certain sexiness to both the male and female characters in the games he’s done art for that’s not so overt as to be offensive. Yet you’d probably feel really uncomfortable (or comfortable, depending on your preferences) if one of these guys or gals walked up to you as you were waiting for a bus and asked for directions. The indoor and outdoor locations are also beautifully done with a distinct Eastern Indian influence throughout. Add some pretty freaky monsters and drop in the same beautiful lighting and lots of special effects work from Nocturne, and you have a perfectly realized, highly stylized game world.
On the sound and music front, it’s more bliss. Saga’s score is at turns haunting and energizing to listen to as the game gets into your system, the voice acting is decent, and the sound effects are pretty much the same as in Nocturne. I’d imagine that the exact same team is doing (or has already done) the chores on the second part of the game, so my hopes are high that the same level of quality found throughout both Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga will be present in the follow-up. Wrapping up the package are great typeface and menu choices, an excellent translation, and the game even comes in a great box set with a special case for part two and a 30-track game music CD.
Overall, any console RPG fan looking for a solid, more adult work to add to their collection shouldn’t hesitate to pick up Digital Devil Saga as soon as they see it. Even though the US is way behind in the MegaTen series and its spin-offs, the chance to play any of these great titles is a sheer privilege gamers should be thanking Atlus for whenever the company announces a new release.
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