Atlus has sent us a copy of Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, the upcoming RPG from the team that created SMT: Nocturne. The game is currently scheduled for release in late March, and while we will have a review for you then, we've got some hands-on impressions of the game after getting about five hours into the massive RPG.
The game begins with the main character Serf, and his party, who are members of a tribe called Embryon, setting out for Nirvana, a land that can only be reached by the champions of Junkyard. In the midst of battle, a mysterious object appears and spheres of light are emitted by the Pod and infect Serf and his comrades, awakening their demonic powers. They develop a desire to tear the flesh and shatter the bones of their enemies, who have also been transformed. Their instincts tell them to devour every being in their path. Serif and his people don't know what happened to them, but they do know they are filled not only with an insatiable hunger, but new, unexplained emotions as well.
When you take over the controls, the Embryon trying to figure out what the strange markings on their face that they received after the incident mean and just what exactly happened at the Junkyard. There's also the matter of a mysterious dark haired girl who appeared during the battle and has no recollection of her being – only that she is there to help. After speaking with various people around your base and gathering items such as rations and other remedies, you set off to get some answers. After reaching another tribe's base you find that people tremble in fear at the sight of you and run away for fear of being eaten. It turns out that when angered or in battle, you and your party transform from ordinary humans to horrible monsters with great strength. Devouring your enemies gives you power and makes you stronger, but the Embryon's inability to control their inner demons causes concern over whether or not they will simply destroy themselves.
After returning to the base, Serif finds that he has been summoned to meet with all the other tribes to meet for an unspecified reason. At this meeting the tribes are informed that one of them will get to Nirvana, but only by destroying the other tribes. It also comes to light that Sera, the girl who is helping the Embryon holds significant power and it is likely whoever holds her, holds the key to reaching Nirvana.
In the beginning the story is a bit hard to follow, but it's certainly intriguing, and even just five hours in, it's beginning to make sense. The game does feature voice acting for all cut-scenes, which really helps, since the game depends so much on its story.
The combat is standard RPG fare, other than the fact that you and your party members turn into demons when entering a fight. The battle system is turn based and each character is capable of using physical attacks as well as magic. As you progress further into the game you'll learn combo attacks that allow all three party members to attack at once, which helps against large groups, but also uses a bit of magic from each character. Each party member can learn new magic, which must be mastered by obtaining a certain amount of experience points. You can equip a limited amount of spells in each character's skill set, which gives you a large variety of spell-based attacks in battle, or it allows you to set redundant skills in case a party member dies. Occasionally your party will be ambushed before they can turn into demons, so you must decide between attacking in the weak human form or taking a turn to transform. Invariably you'll choose to transform, which wastes a turn and makes ambushes a bit cumbersome. You can activate an "auto attack" where the computer will attack for you, but at this point it's not very smart, and unless you're fighting someone very weak, chances are you'll not fare too well.
Digital Devil Saga has a manga visual style, though it's fairly realistic looking. The character models are all large, and each character has a unique look that makes them easy to distinguish. The demon models are very creative and there seems to be a huge variety of them in the game. Not only do they have unique looks, they all have unique attacks, which make it easy to remember what creature uses certain attacks, and which ones have specific weaknesses. The camera is a bit unwieldy indoors, but once you get a hang of the map system, it becomes less of an issue.
As mentioned previously, the game features English voice acting in all of its cut scenes. The music is modern and pretty catchy, but the songs are rather short and loop a bit too frequently. It feature mellow electric guitar when you're just walking around, but picks up and gets much more intense during battle.
As with any RPG, it's hard to tell how it's going to be until you get deep into the story and learn more about the characters involved. At this point, however, Digital Devil Saga has an intriguing storyline, fast-paced enjoyable combat, and great character design, so if you're an RPG fan, you might want to pre-order the special edition that's coming out for the game's release.