Saturday, October 4, 2014

Impressions #15: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2

Life has been pretty busy. Balancing school, work, and personal responsibilities/hobbies can get quite tiring at times. This is why I have been so slow in staying up-to-date lately, straying slightly from the 1 article per-week goal I set for myself. Having said that, I did manage to set aside the almost 40 hours necessary to complete Digital Devil Saga 2. Thus, my season of ATLUS continues relatively unhindered given the circumstances. Released in the second half of the same year as the first game, Digital Devil Saga 2 is a direct continuation. For the purpose of this article, I am going to assume that you have either already read my impressions of the first game or played it yourself.

As the word “Saga” might imply in the titles, both games are made to strongly compliment each other, best enjoyed in order. One of the things that I noticed when starting Digital Devil Saga 2 is that writers assume that the player beat the first game when they wrote the script for the sequel. Should that not be the case, the game will mostly just assume that the player will gleam most of that information from character interactions. Though not many things happened in the first Digital Devil Saga, it was an important piece of the puzzle because it helped to established the main cast of characters and the major plot points which would be capitalized on and explained in the sequel. Without that knowledge, players might still be able to follow the basic plot, but they will miss much of the subtext and background behind interactions between characters. Even at the start of the game, the story does not stop to establish the characters in the player party, their powers, and why they act the way they do. It is assumed that the player already knows this because of their time with the first game, and thus no further explanation is required.
Many of the mysteries established in the first game, such as Sera's mysterious origins and powers, why the Embryon and other characters from the Junkyard seem to remember pasts which they could not possibly have experienced, and what the Junkyard and Nirvana truly are get explained and expanded on. Again, though this information can be followed by someone who does not have experience with the first Digital Devil Saga, not having this pretense severely reduces the impact these reveals have. Eventually, everything is explained and the whole story comes together very nicely, with most loose ends tied together in a surprising denouement.

As far as the combat goes, the general gist of it is the same as it was in the first game, which I talked about in my last article. Having said that, I want to expound upon something I discussed in previously. In the Digital Devil Saga impressions piece, I mentioned that the game has an interesting difficulty curve where the beginning is very difficult because of your lack of skills, something which I have since taken to calling “Yukiko's Syndrome” after the legendarily difficult first boss fight of Persona 4. Without a variety of skills, it becomes difficult to exploit weakness and gain the extra turns needed to turn the tides in the player's favor. In fact, sometimes the lack of early-game abilities can mean that the player will be blocked and lose turns as a result. For this reason, some players might find it difficult to really dig into DDS and similar games. However, if they stick with it, they can often find that the game gets a lot easier, since they unlock more abilities. Ultimately, the ability selection unlocked will often be the primary factor determining player success, even moreso than character level. It is a interesting dynamic that is often present in Shin Megami Tensei games.
Aside from how combat previously went down, the game presents some new refinements to the mechanics. One of the biggest additions is Berserk Mode. In the original DDS, there was a Solar Noise meter that acted like the phases of the moon of a tradition SMT game, changing from 0 (MIN) to 8 (MAX) and back as players advanced in the dungeon. This meter represents the amount of solar data flowing out from the sun at a given point in time. In the original game, this had no real effect on anything besides the prices for vendor trash and very specific skills, so I did not comment on it. In this game, a new mechanic relies on Solar Noise. Should the player run into a random encounter during the state of MAX Solar Noise, there is a chance they will enter battle in a berserk state.
In these special battles, the party will be in unable to control their demon powers, entering a half-human, half-demon state. This state greatly enhances critical hit rate and allows all physical attacks to ignore resistances from enemies who can absorb/repel them. However, the accuracy of the party will greatly decrease and they can only use physical attacks, hunt attacks, and items. Further, defense is greatly reduced and no magic can be used in a berserk state. Should the party win a battle in Berserk Mode, the experience gained will be double the normal experience. Alternatively, if the player feels like they cannot win a fight, the rate of success for escaping battle rises to 100%. It is an interesting risk vs reward mechanic that can be both a blessing and a curse to the player.

One more thing that differentiates combat in DDS 2 from DDS 1 is party configurations. In the previous game, players could often get away with only having 3 characters that were their main fighters, leaving the rest to just faff about on the sidelines. Since party members would rarely ever leave the group for long periods of time, players could generally keep the same three party members for the whole game and experience no downsides. In Digital Devil Saga 2, this is much less safe, especially towards the end of the game. Towards the end, the game is much more willing to play around with party formations, and members will often leave for long stretches of time or force themselves onto the front-lines for a single boss battle, like the infamous Kimahri-only boss fight in Final Fantasy X. As a result, it is much more necessary to keep every character developing their skills at a steady rate. This can be difficult since reserve members do not gain experience (called Karma in-game) during a fight. However, there is a skill which can allow them to do so, which can help combat this problem. Since it is a fairly inexpensive skill that can be purchased early on in the game, most players will not feel the pinch. Still, that is a equipped skill slot going to waste to fix a problem that really should not be a problem in the first place.

In terms of character development, the Mantra system from DDS 1 returns, but with a twist. Previously, the mantra system resembled more of a chart, like the perk system in Skyrim. To unlock a given Mantra, it was mandatory to master all of the Mantra below it on the chart, getting all of those skills beforehand. Now, the Mantra system is much more of a grid, along the lines of the License Board system in Final Fantasy XII (although DDS 2 came first). When a given Mantra is mastered, every Mantra around it on the grid is unlocked for the character to purchase. There are even special Sealed Mantra on the grid that can only be unlocked when every Mantra around them is mastered by at least one member of the current party. All characters start somewhere close to the center, and have the ability to branch out from there in whatever way they choose. This results in much less restrictive system. Rather than having to expressly master every Earth-element spell to get to the more powerful ones, players can just find a path to a high-level Mantra around it, and master that one instead. This gives an incredible freedom when choosing how characters develop that is rarely seen in JRPGs.

And that freedom is required, because boss battles are even tougher this time around. In the first game, even if the player did not know what a (mini-)boss could do, they still might fare a decent chance against them with a generalized build designed to take down random encounters. While this is still true about half of the time in DDS 2, there are also many boss fights where it is necessary to either look them up in a walkthrough, or lose against them multiple times in order to figure out exactly how to handle them. Without the right ability setups, many boss fights can be said to be nearly impossible, particularly towards the end. The game trusts that by that point, the player has strongly diversified their skillset and has the tools to counter whatever comes their way. As a result, it has no qualms about throwing monsters with very specific weaknesses and attacks at the player. Every skill can be important at some point in the game, and keeping this in mind will make a huge difference in the long run.

At the end of the day, Digital Devil Saga 2 is a good game in its own right, but heavily relies on the previous entry in order to truly get the most out of it. It just barely has enough exposition to explain its story on its own, assisted in part with flashbacks to cutscenes from DDS 1. Having said that, the game plays well, and challenge remains constant, because a single battle can prove lethal to the unprepared. Fans of the Shin Megami Tensei games, or of difficult RPGs will find themselves welcome to the party. Others might struggle to enjoy it to the same degree.

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