After a slight delay, the latest game in the long running Japanese series, Shin Megami Tensei, has finally been released. Developed by the same team that worked on the most recent game in the series, SMT: Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga is a deep, mature-themed RPG that will please fans of the series, as well as hardcore RPG players that haven't yet been introduced to the series. More casual gamers may be intimidated by the game's length, frequency of combat, and mature storyline.
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. While you and your group start off with the mindset of "kill everyone" the plot quickly becomes more complex with numerous betrayals, twists, turns, and surprises keeping you engrossed. The game does a nice job of focusing on individual characters as well as the story of the group, which keeps the story moving throughout the game.
The combat is standard RPG fare, other than the fact that you and your party members turn into demons when entering a fight. Enemy encounters occur at random and are quite frequent. You never know when you're about to be attacked, but the game does let you know when a big fight looms behind a closed door, which is a nice touch since it gives you a chance to double check your parties' status before a big fight. The battle system is turn based and each character is capable of using physical attacks as well as magic. You can gain the upper hand in battle by learning and exploiting the weaknesses of each foe you face. They've all got something they're weak against, and taking advantage of said weakness earns you an extra turn, so paying attention and experimenting with various attacks will benefit you greatly. 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. These combos can also be used to heal your entire party as well.
Each party member can learn new skills and magic, which must be mastered by equipping a mantra and obtaining a certain amount of experience points. Every character in your party can learn anything the game offers, but learning new things comes with a heavy price tag so you'll want to pay close attention to how you upgrade your party. 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, but when you start out, you'll have to carefully balance what each character does, changing things up as you encounter different enemies. The only problem with this system is that you stand a great chance of running into a strong enemy or boss without the proper skills equipped. Not being able to cure a status ailment or not being able to protect against a particular attack can lead to many battles being near-impossible, or simply taking too long. As you progress further in the game, you'll be able to equip more skills, which allows you greater flexibility by letting you double up skills so you're not totally out of luck if your "healer" dies in the midst of a battle, but it is still limiting.
Occasionally your party will be ambushed before they can turn into demons, so you must decide between running away, 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, it's not very smart, and unless you're fighting someone very weak, chances are you'll not fare too well since the A. I. doesn't attack the most dangerous foe first, exploit weaknesses, or heal your party members for you. It's nice that Atlus recognized that people don't like fighting the same weak enemies over and over, but perhaps the better decision would have been to make those battles less frequent. The auto attack is also mapped to the triangle button, and a single button press is all it takes to instantaneously activate it. This results in a lot of wasted turns, especially early on when you hit it on accident. Perhaps mapping it to the select or shoulder buttons would have been a better idea.
Traveling is made simple by teleporting from area to area, which saves lots of time traveling back and forth in boring overworld environments. Unfortunately the save systems isn't quite as friendly. Allowing you to heal your characters (it costs you money), purchase new mantra, teleport, and save your game from the same location is a great idea, but the location of the save points is questionable. Once you find them, they're shown on the map, but sometimes they are just too far apart, or there are two save points that are far too close for no good reason. This is really a problem when you have to backtrack after big boss fights because you can't be guaranteed there's a place to save your game if you forge ahead. Needless to say, pointless backtracking in a game that is already 50 hours long is a bad thing.
Digital Devil Saga has a manga visual style with cel-shaded graphics, though it's fairly realistic looking. so don't think Wind Waker. The character models are all large, and each character has a unique look that makes them easy to distinguish (Yes, a character that has two mouths with sharp teeth for breasts qualifies them as easy to distinguish). While not quite as unique as the main cast, the game's many enemies are varied and well-designed. If you've played a ton of role-playing-games you've probably seen similar characters in other games, but their design isn't terribly derivative. 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 levels themselves, particularly the outdoor areas look fairly nice and the visual style fits the tone of the game. Once indoors, however, the textures are simple, and there's not a whole lot of detail to help you tell one room from the next.
To put it kindly, the camera is a bit unwieldy indoors, and it's extremely frustrating in the early going. Once you get a hang of the map system, and figure out its limitations, it becomes less of an issue, but it's never going to be described as friendly.
The game features English voice acting in all of its cut scenes, but it's not going to win any awards. Hardcore fans may have preferred Japanese voice acting with subtitles, but that option is unavailable. The music is modern and pretty catchy, but the songs are rather short and loop a bit too frequently. It features mellow electric guitar when you're just walking around, but picks up and gets much more intense during battle.
Digital Devil Saga is quite a bit different from the standard RPG that's released in the United States, which is a reason to give it a look. Its interesting story and deep, yet easy to learn mechanics make it an enjoyable, and yes, lengthy experience. It's not for casual gamers. but if you're into RPG's, it's worth a look, and it's not likely to leave you disappointed.