Review by megaman2005
A fun game, but some serious flaws hold it back from greatness.
REVIEW: Shin Megami Tensei- Digital Devil Saga 2
Anyone who knows me probably knows by now that I am in love with the game Persona 3 on the PS2. Since then, I have been on an endless search, trying to find more games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, though much to my dismay, most, if not all these games end up being extremely rare. I was lucky enough to be browsing through a game store and spotting this one. At first I was a little hesitant to grab it, since on the back cover it proclaims, "The thrilling conclusion to the Digital Devil Saga!" Well, the first game is even rarer than this one, so the odds of me finding that one lying around in a shop wasn't very good, so I picked it up anyway, and here we are.
The Tensei games have always been known for their dark themes. Persona 3 was my first run in with the series, so I had a small taste of what to expect, but this one hits you with the mood very hard as soon as you turn the game on. While Persona 3 has a dark mood, a lot of your time in that game is spent talking with friends and students, rather than fighting demons in the dark. Here, it is much different, as every moment you spend in this world is filled with dangers and enemies. It's different than most RPG's out there, as most games in the genre (say Final Fantasy) have a much brighter and postive out look. This is what makes the Mega-Ten games so appealing, because they have a much different feel. In this game, that mood works...for the most part.
As I have stated, I've never played the first game (I'll gladly take it if anyone wants to give it to me), so I can't comment too heavily on what happened in the first game, though the game does a fairly decent job and summarizing the events from the previous installment. It picks up from where the first left off, as you and your party arrive in "Nirvana," a word that, the game explains, was used often in the first game to describe what should be heaven. However, it's quickly obvious this world is anything but. The sun has turned black, causing anyone who walks into the light of day to turn to stone. The only people who can survive these conditions are those who are affected by the demon curse, which causes everyone affected the ability to transform into a demon, but in exchange they must feed on the flesh of humans or other demons in order to live. If they can not perform this task, they will lose their will to the demons power, and forever be sealed in their demon form. Luckily, or unluckily depending on how you look, you and your team have this ability, and decide to help out the citizens living below the streets of their former home, while looking for the rest of your team-mates.
The game starts out promisingly enough. The graphics are fine, the voice acting is great and plentiful, the gameplay is fun and addicting. So what could go wrong? Well, after spending a good amount of time in the game, I can say, while enjoyable, after about a dozen hours, things can become a constant grind between frustration and happiness, making for a game that will only appeal to those who have both patience and persistence.
The graphics in the game are surprisingly good, better than even it's prdecessor Persona 3. It falls into that common cliche of, "Their not great, but they fit the game," way of thinking. The character models are nice, and each person has a very distinct look and personality. The same can not be said about the environments.
At it's heart, the Mega-Ten games boil down to dungeon crawlers, which will make for some very bland and repitive environments. There a few times where things change dramticaly, which is very neat and refreshing, but most of the time you'll be wondering halls that look the same as the one before it. Atlus did a nice job of sprucing up some of the rooms though, for example an office building that is decorated with plants, and a Jack Frost doll sitting on a shelf. Good stuff. Anyone who has played a dungeon crawler is probably used to these type of environments though, so it's not a big shock, but anyone who has played only Final Fantasy games may be in for a surprise.
While there is some text reading to do in the game, most of the story is told through great cut-scenes using voice-actors who do a great job at bringing the characters to life and giving them personality. Even the latin member of your party has a nice voice, and actually reminds me of Hermes from Futurama. Even the lip-synching is matched up, a close to perfect as it could be, so you don't get that urge to look at the text instead of the action because the lip movement is so poor.
The only thing that I can knock against the game is the sound track. Other than the opening cinema song, the battle music, and the "sad music," there isn't that much memorable about it, which is unfortunate, because I was hoping I'd have some cool tunes to put on my I-Pod. I'm not joking, even my work phones ring tone is "Burn My Dread," from Persona 3, and my cell ring is the Mario Bros. tune. Instead, the soundtrack doesn't rise above much else than "video game music."
The menu design in the game is great. It's very intuitive, and it's easy to get to things quickly. Items don't clutter like they do in other games, and everything is neatly labeled. There is even a heal button on the menu which uses the most effective way to heal your characters, and you'll be healing them a lot, so it's nice to not have to go through and select spells and items.
The game uses the battle system from Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne (at least that's what I've read), and it's a great system to pick up and play, it's very original and fun, but like I said, there is a catch. The reason the system works so well, is because it provides a more tactical look at the game, rather than just simply over powering your opponent like you can in other games in the genre. The system works like this. Up in the corner, you'll notice 3 symbols, each one representing a move for one character in your three man party. Normally, acting causes you to use one of these symbols. However, if you use an enemies weakness on it, or score a critical hit, it only uses half the turn, so the next person in your party gets to act on a free turn. So pretty much, where normally you have 3 turns, should you score enough crits, and weakness hits, you can bump that up to 6 turns while your enemies just have to stand there and take it. There is a con to this though, should you miss an attack, or use an attack that the enemy is strong against, it will drain two moves, so there is a stiff penalty for doing the wrong moves. Also, the enemies run on this same system, so should they hit you with your weakness or land a crit, they will get bonus moves as well. This is a great system, but it suffers at times, which I'll elaborate on in a bit.
Along with this system, you can customize your characters to a great degree. Anyone of your allies can learn any move in the game by using a hexagonal shaped grid called the Mantra grid. It's similar to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid with a bit of differences. For one thing, you don't use orbs to fill in the spaces, you use cold hard cash. This means some of the later mantra spaces are quite expensive, so you'll sometimes have to think about whether you want to save your cash for the shop, or use it on new abilities. However, you don't gain these abilities immeadiatly, instead you have to level them through battle by gaining points, and once you gain enough, you have full access to that mantras abilities for that character, and you can swap them in and out when not in battle. You start off being able to only use 4 moves at a time, but every ten levels up until level 20 gives you two more spaces to use, ending up with a grand total of eight per character.
Also on the mantra grid are black out spaces that you can not access. To be able to use these, you must surround it by mastering all of the surrounding mantra, thus allowing you access to them. These range from great abilities like allowing characters who don't take part in battles to still gain full experience, to simpler things, like giving every member of your party additional stat points. Though the grid is small at first, if you master a mantra at the edge of the grid, it expands, giving you access to more powerful moves. It expands several times, and I'm still not even sure I've hit the final layer yet.
Now onto the problems of the game. First off, random battles. I'm of the opinion that these should have been abolished long ago, and this game practicaly proves why. For one thing, there are periods of time where random battles occur way to frequently. For example, you finish a fight, take two or three steps, and then you're in another one. This doesn't happen so much as to completly cripple the game, it does to it often enough as to be an annoyance 16 hours in. On top of that, the dungeons can be quite long, especially when you get lost going down branching paths, though the game does have a great map function, sometimes it is inevitable that you will be lost at times, thinking you took a path you really didn't. This means you have to fight even more random battles, and normally there are only about three or four enemy types every couple of floors. So you have to fight the same monsters again and again until you find your way out. Again, not crippling, but annoying.
My big problem is when party members leave your party. At points in the story, it's inevitable that people are going to leave for one reason or another. The problem here is, if you play like me, you can often get stuck on bosses whose weakness just so happens to be the one thing that character specializes in. For example, the way I created my characters was simple straight up RPG type. One person had strong attack skills, another uses healing moves, another uses lightning, then ice, etc. Since the game has no idea how you are going to build your characters, it can't exactly prepare bosses that are fair for the situation. Say, because of the story, the person who uses lightning leaves your party. Then suddenly you have to fight a boss who is weak against lightning, and you have no lightning skills. Needless to say, it'll make it pretty hard, especialy considering how vital of a roll strengths and weakness play in this game, it'll drive you nuts. All I can say is, you better pray the person you have set up for healing doesn't leave your party, or you are in for a rough time.
So you have two options if you come to a road block like this. First you can try to just level your characters up enough to try to overpower your oppnonent, which doesn't work that best, since you'll still have a tough time, considering the enemy might be able to rattle off six straight moves, so even ten levels higher than the boss won't help you much. The other way, is to try and get the reamaining party members skilled in the moves that particular boss is weak against. Sounds simple, and even though it's the easier most effective way to do it, it's very time consuming. You don't gain a very large amount of points for your mantra's normally, and sometimes it's almost laughable at how short of a boost the mantra gauge gets after a fight. The only way to make it go fast is if you are lucky enough to have someone with the Atma Boost ability mastered, which gives you more points for that character every fight. The other way is by devouring your enemies. Again, this is a move you have to unlock, but it's available fairy early in the grid. Hitting an opponent with their weakness sometimes results in them becoming afraid. At this point, if you kill the enemy with a hunt skill such as Devour, you gain a considerable boost in mantra points. Even with these, you'll still have to go through a considerable amount of grinding just to beat a boss that you could've defeated easily if your one party member hadn't left.
On paper, it sounds worse than the problem actually is, though it is a glaring problem. The things that keep you going is two things. One is how fun and addicting the gameplay is, even if you have to grind from time to time, and some of the battles do drag on a little too long. The other is the story and the characters. The story this game weaves is amazing. Even though I haven't played the first game yet, the game does a masterful job of drawing you in and caring about the characters. It's clear that Atlus has a strange knack at creating characters you really care about, and surrounding them in a dark, interesting story, filled with a lot of great moments that you'll remember for a long time.
On it's own, Digital Devil Saga is a fun game, if a little flawed in it's execution. On a greater scale, taken in after playing the first one (which unlocks bonus material in the second game) I can only imagine the scale to be that much greater. If your a fan of the series, or a hardcore RPG fan, I reccomend picking this up, even if the price is a little inflated. For those who aren't as deep into the genre, and are unsure about picking this up, there is one bonus to owning this, and that's having a rare game in your collection. If you can find 1 and 2 somewhere, even if it does run you close to $80, it's not that bad of a deal. You're getting two rare and fun games, and even if you don't like them, you can try selling them on E-bay, where both copies together often sell for over $125.
REPLAY VALUE: LOW
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 (US, 10/11/05)
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