Atlus has a reputation for releasing games that appreciate in value. They print a bunch of copies, but they sell slowly at first but eventually you’ll need to trade in a console or two to have enough credit to pick them up.
Recently, they have been trying to curb that reputation – partly by printing more copies of new titles, but also by reprinting old games. Shortly before the ultimate demise of the PS1, they reprinted Persona 2, for example. More recently, they reprinted three Shin Megami Tensei PS2 games: Nocturne and the two Digital Devil Saga games, each of which had been selling for more than $60 for a good while.
Being the dedicated RPG enthusiast I am, I completed my PS2 SMT collection with the two DDSes when I heard the news. Being a slightly less dedicated collector than Jay (he doesn’t spend time playing games) I started up the first Digital Devil Saga a couple of weeks ago.
The first thing that struck me about the first Digital Devil Saga is the atmosphere. It is deliberately sparse and somewhat depressing; everyone wears the same gray clothes, although their multicolored hair makes up for it (in a wonderful little piece of dialogue, on seeing a person with black hair someone exclaims “I’ve never seen that hair color before!”). It never stops raining, and even the building designs are drab and colorless. This adds to the game’s overall style and leads into some of the game’s major story events, but it also makes DDS feel pretty bland, even in comparison to Persona 3’s Tartarus.
That’s what Argilla gets for not being in demon form.
DDS’ storyline is similarly depressing. While it’s tinged with humor every so often, the bulk of the game is people killing and eating each other (most often, you killing and eating other people). The background is that six rival gangs strive for domination of the world – called the Junkyard – to fulfill their end of a promise to a central authority. This authority says that when one gang has emerged victorious, they may ascend to Nirvana. Naturally, no hints are given as to what Nirvana is or even whether it’s better than the Junkyard. Shortly after the game begins, another otherworldly being appears – along with a mysterious black-haired girl – and the denizens of the junkyard are simultaneously afflicted with semi-demonic powers (fueled by a need to eat other people-demons) and the previously-unknown concept of emotion.
Much of DDS, though, is light on story. While you’ll get a nice 5-10 minute cutscene every so often, this will only be a break between multiple-hour dungeons filled with frequent (though quick) random battles. This might seem crushingly difficult, especially when there’s a chance of an ambush that may well annihilate your party before you can do anything, but save points are likewise frequent. DDS thereby is a game that retains a tough facade, being primarily about surviving a gauntlet of random battles, but is not as unfriendly as other games that occupy this niche.
Battling itself should be familiar to anyone who played any of the PS2 Shin Megami Tensei games (or the more recent SMT Devil Survivor). Each side gets X attacks (where X is usually how many demons/humans they have), and by striking an enemy weakness they get another half-turn. Once you’re down to only half-turns, you can’t get any more, so you can only get a maximum of six attacks in per round (unless you cheat, like some bosses occasionally do). On the other hand, though, hit an enemy with something they absorb or reflect and you’ll get turns (often however many you have left) taken away.
About as gray as you can get.
The growth system for characters is both interesting and different. In a sort of hybrid between a skill-tree approach and a Job system, your characters buy and equip skill-sets. By eating enough enemy demons (which may be expedited using special moves), characters master that skill-set and may then equip the skills involved. Likewise, they gain access to other skill-sets further up the tree. Characters are restricted to 8 skills, and defensive skills (many unique to this game) are very important. For example, if you’re fighting a boss that uses fire skills frequently, you would want to use the Null Fire defensive skill, which sets up a barrier against that element. If the boss uses a fire skill that round, not only does he waste a turn, but he also loses whatever extra turns he might have had. Since defensive skills play such a large role, it requires a balancing act to stay within the 8-skill limit for your characters and keep all of them effective. In the end this system feels in many ways better designed than the Magatama system in Nocturne or the static Persona-skillsets in P3 and P4. It allows for better customization of characters, but diversifying remains important.
Digital Devil Saga may not be as polished or story-heavy as the Persona games, but neither is it as empty nor as difficult as the core SMT games like Nocturne. It occupies a sort of niche between niches; no hour-long cutscenes, but no complete lack thereof. In the end, it’s a satisfying game, a quick play for a JRPG (20 hours), and has an interesting Hinduism-inspired story. The worst thing about DDS is that it ends on a significant cliffhanger, leaving the door open for Digital Devil Saga 2.