My ATLUS binge has been progressing about as well as I expected. Since the games on my list are JRPGs, and I am now balancing a work and school schedule, I knew that playing through any one game would take some time. To not suspect that to be the case would be folly. Still, though it may have taken some doing, I have finally completed Digital Devil Saga. Released in 2005 for the PS2 in North America, Digital Devil Saga is much more of a traditional Shin Megami Tensei game than its Devil Summoner cousins. At the same time, it also sets itself apart in its own way.
One of the most unique aspects of the game is its story. Digital Devil Saga takes place in a post-apocalyptic hellscape known as The Junkyard. The player is handed the role of Serph, leader of the Embryon tribe, one of 6 large warring tribes in the junkyard. Devoid of emotions, the tribes fight one another in an attempt to kill the leaders of the other tribes. The last remaining tribe earns the right to ascend to the paradise of Nirvana. However, on one day, a bright light hits the bodies of every person in The Junkyard, branding them with special symbols. These symbols give the people human emotions and the ability to transform into demonic Atma Avatars, representing their inner selves. In exchange, they are given a compulsion to devour the flesh of other demons in order to strengthen their karma and gain additional powers. A mysterious girl appears at the same time, with the ability to suppress this innate hunger with her singing. With their world changed, Serph has to lead his tribe and attempt to reach Nirvana.
The setup is an incredibly intriguing one. The fact that the world is so incredibly different from our own, or any of the standard lists of typical RPG settings, can be off-putting at first. However, persistence through the game is rewarded with a very interesting character exploration. Since the characters are only just now starting to feel emotions, the player gets to see them grow and learn how and why they respond to certain stimuli. It is not something that many writers would dare to try, and fewer of which would get right. However, ATLUS does this job incredibly well.
Furthermore, there is an element of mystery to the story. Nobody knows who unleashed the light and why. The origins of the girl who can suppress the hunger are also unknown to the party. It is hinted that there are answers to these question, but the game does not outright state those answers. Presumably, this is because those answers will be made clear in Digital Devil Saga 2, the direct continuation of the story. Yes, the game is essentially a two-parter. As the first half of a two-part plot, the game does well enough to both be satisfying on its own and leave its sequel enough room to wrap up all of the loose ends. Although, I get the feeling that if I was not already aware that there was a direct sequel, I might be pretty peeved at the lack of a true denouement
Now, as far as combat goes, this game borrows a lot from other Shin Megami Tensei games, specifically Nocturne. Digital Devil Saga has adapted the Press Turn System from that game for its own use. Battles occur alternating between player and enemy turns. On the player's turn, they get one action for each ally character. Each character acts in a sequence determined by the player prior to the fight. In most circumstances, an action will consume an entire turn. However, if an attack manages to exploit an enemy weakness (or if a physical attacks becomes a critical hit), then only half of a turn will be expended. Should other half-turns be in play, then the half-turn will be taken from a full-turn instead. Alternatively, should an attack miss or get nullified by the foe's innate resistances, then the attack will expend two turns. A repelled or absorbed attacked will end the round entirely, as will running out of turns. A player can also strategically make the decision to pass the character's turn, only expending a half-turn, to give other teammates the chance to attack weaknesses. Enemies are just as beholden to these rules as players are during their phase, though they cannot pass turns.
This system is ultimately the crux of why the game can be either one of hardest or one of the easiest games out there. With the right skill-sets, parties can absolutely crush the opposition by mercilessly going after vulnerabilities and gaining many extra turns. However, an incorrect setup can quickly leave the party overwhelmed by wasted turns, leaving enemies the chance to capitalize on their misfortune. It is up to the player to make sure that they remain fully aware of the elemental properties of their enemies and adjust their setup accordingly, else they will not succeed. Particularly on bosses, it was not atypical for me to spend my first attempt just trying to figure out what attacks will/won't work on an enemy in order to adjust my build for the second attempt. Ultimately, this means that the early game can be brutal, simply due to a lack of skills. At the same time, the end game can be shockingly easy if the player has spent their time diversifying their party's abilities, given them a wide variety to select from.
Speaking of which, skill and character development is handled differently in Digital Devil Saga than they are in most Shin Megami Tensei games. In most SMT games, the player character must capture demons to add to their party. Those demons come with skills, strengths, and weaknesses, forming the basis of their setups. Though fusion, players have another way to customize their demons and further refine their party build.
This is not the case in Digital Devil Saga. Each character only has a single demon form, which will not change at all for the duration of the game. Unless the party is ambushed, they will transform into demons at the start of the fight and begin battle. Since no extra demons are obtained, skills are acquired in a different way. Instead, the players spend money (called “Macca”) in order to purchase Mantra at Karma Terminals (aka Save Points). With an unmastered Mantra, a party member will gain Atma Points towards the mastery of it. When enough Atma is acquired, the Mantra is mastered, new Mantra that required it as a pre-requisite are unlocked, and the skills the are governed by that Mantra are taught to the player character. All characters have access to the same mantra list, regardless of the statistical or elemental affinities. Therefore, each character can learn every skill in the game, given enough time and investment.
But gaining Atma just by fighting battles is a slow process, even with certain skills speeding it up. Having said that, there is a way to make it quicker. Certain skills, referred to as “Hunt” skills, exist in the game. If an enemy is defeated by a “Hunt” skill, then the character who delivered the attack will devour them, gaining much more Atma than they normally would. However, there is always a chance that the party member will suffer a stomachache, preventing them from gaining any Atma and giving them a chance to pass a turn. These “Hunt” skills are normally very impotent on their own. However, if any enemy has their weakness exploited, there is a chance that they will become “frightened”, which triples the damage of a Hunt attack. Should the attack also have an instant death chance, that chance rises to 100% on a frightened foe.
In order to stay ahead of enemies, it is important to constantly devour as many foes as possible in the game. The mechanics of these actions reinforce the characters constant need to eat in order to satiate their hunger, without burdening the player with any needless status ailments. Further, it fits right into the combat system by given the player additional reasons to play well and exploit weaknesses. It can even result in interesting scenarios where the player needs to choose between ending a battle swiftly or deliberately prolonging it in order to get a shot at a successful hunt. The chance to successfully hunt an enemy can even make some players look forward to the next battle, despite the needlessly high encounter rate. Overall, the hunting mechanic feeds well into the rest of the game.
Digital Devil Saga did a great job of reiterating on the core themes and mechanics of Shin Megami Tensei in what was, at the time, a new and interesting way. For this reason, it still holds up well at the time of writing, 9 years later. Though I did not attempt it in my playthrough, I should also make mention of the fact that this game is infamous for having one of the most difficult optional boss fights in the history of JRPGs. It exists for players who, unlike me, exist solely to keep challenging themselves with more and more brutal obstacles. For this reason, I can recommend the game to any JRPG fan. Those who like it easy will just need to be aware of a need to grind (though I finished the main story in only 35 hours), but players looking for a challenge will be well served by the optional content scattered throughout the game.