Review by illogicaljoker

Reviewed: 10/14/05 | Updated: 10/17/05

United it stands, divided it falls

Digital Devil Saga 2, alone, is a decent modern RPG. The fast paced battles and mantra development grid are entertaining and require more than little customization and strategy. The cut-scenes are more fleshed out and satisfying, and the soundtrack has been much improved (which is not to denigrate DDS1’s beautiful music in any way). The only real problem with DDS2 is that the dungeons are flat and tedious: lacking puzzles and any uniform patterns to distinguish them from one another, it’s much like amateur landscaping. It’s just a chore to slug through these dungeons for the simple scraps of story.

Digital Devil Saga, the two games together, are far worse, and that’s where my rating is coming from. DDS1 was above-average, and used subtle clues to allow the philosophical gamer to predict what the mysterious Junkyard was and what the purpose of the demon virus was. DDS2 explains all of this, right down to the very essence of “data.” It’s nice to have clarity, but it makes DDS1 pure foreshadowing that can’t stand on its own, while at the same time making DDS2 seem like a bit of deja vu and repetition for those who already understood some of the major plot points. Here’s the catch: save for the story, DDS1 is the better game, full of character development and a more evened system of gameplay. It’s the opposite of FF6, where the first half of the game was plot and the second half had optional quests that developed character, and it doesn’t bode well for DDS. If the clever dungeon designs of DDS1 (a decrepit amusement park, an abandoned ship) met with the philosophical reasoning of DDS2 (reincarnation explained), you’d have an amazing game, one that might be able to hold a candle with SMT: Nocturne (which also uses the same graphics/gameplay engine). Instead, DDS1 is missing the story elements, and DDS2 is missing any reason to play through the story elements.

Neither game compliments the other: they just make the flaws in each more apparent. With an adult RPG, geared for a more mature and postmodern audience, you have to be more precise with your design, and each game is independently half-assed. At least with DDS1, there’s the feeling that what little story you are given is enough, that these clever little teasers are leading somewhere but that you don’t mind so much as the journey itself is fun. In DDS2, there’s so much overlap that it has drowned in the footsteps of its predecessor. Both are still refreshing modern myths and still slightly above average games set in an urban post-apocalypse. But they don’t fit together: playing either one is more than enough.

The reason I recommend DDS1, the prologue, more than DDS2, the meat, is that DDS1’s mechanics have been more fine-tuned. This is ironic, considering that DDS2 improves the mantra grid, putting it on a hexagonal grid that allows more choices in your development. You’ll also be able to unlock esoteric and stat boosting mantra by having any combination of characters in your party master the six spheres around it. Furthermore, you’ll have stat and press-turn modifying rings (that can be customized themselves) to help you in battles. And yet, these improvements in DDS2 are underutilized, considering that party members will be leaving you constantly. You can’t control it, and the constant shifting of alliances will throw your carefully laid trails to waste. Until the final dungeon, you won’t really be able to do much with this system, and by the end, you’ll probably just be spamming your way through with the high-end skills. In essence, DDS2 has more choice, but DDS1 lets you do more (including optional dungeons and bosses).

DDS2, as a direct sequel, spends most of the first half of the game regurgitating DDS1, a necessary evil for those who missed the original or weren’t clever enough to figure things out. As a result, half the game is wasted before we even get to the more difficult dungeons, which again, are uninspired. Simply put, you are once again infected with the demon virus, once again battling a mysterious organization with Karma in its moniker, and once again, humans are used as soylent green. It’s nice to stress survival ethics and the morality of such, but for a game that’s already short (20 hours), it doesn’t seem fair to waste so much of it in the kiddy pool of basic mantras and low end characters. Nor does it seem fair to have a brilliant and exciting story taking place in a bland, pastel world, a world filled with locations blending together into one resolute grey. There are no lush puzzles or lurid hallways to spice up the dungeon crawling action (the vast majority of this game is spent in these levels), and no sense of accomplishment from finding the exit. It’s all so easy that it makes all the improvements a moot point. You won’t need any of the new mantra abilities to clear these dungeons, nor will you have the option of changing characters to do so. Instead, you’ll be on the ultimate track of linear gameplay, a ho-hum experience livened only by a killer story and soundtrack.

Don’t get me wrong: the game itself is still fun to play, but either DDS1 or Nocturne is a far better choice. You’ll be using the same skills in better locations (Hollywood trumps indie, in terms of production values), and with more balance to allow the nuances of the system to shine. You’ll also keep the press turn system around, the most intelligent form of menu-based combat, one that rewards exploiting enemy weaknesses and punishes playing into their strengths. What’s essentially happened with DDS2 is the equivalent of Xenogear’s second disk. All of the story is there, but with very little gameplay to back it up. There’s 18 hours of dungeon here, don’t get me wrong, but the six levels that are offered are dull – I’d almost rather just have the story presented as is. You have to do something right, or not at all.

Now, there’s a hard mode available in DDS2 (if you’ve ported over a cleared game from DDS1) from the get-go: if you want to be forced to master the grid to survive, you’re best off playing it for the additional challenge. Maybe that will distract from the shallow dungeons and bolster the gameplay design for as long as you’ve got a choice of supporting characters. And maybe the repetition of leveling up by one save point until you can dash to the next will make the repetition of elements in DDS2 from DDS1 less apparent. And maybe all of this will make the game seem longer since – while there are optional bosses – there are no side-quests.

As a whole, DDS gets about a 7 – a rating earned for its story, gameplay and soundtrack more than anything else. Individually, the two parts only show the flaws of the other ones: because I can live without a story more than I can deal with having a shoddy layout and presentation, I’d go with DDS1 as maintaining an 8. And because DDS2 seems weaker in terms of giving you a choice on how to play through the game, it gets stuck with a 6. Buy DDS1 (it’s more fun to replay) and rent DDS2 for the resolution of an original story. You won’t need to own both: it’s bad enough to be sucked into playing both, especially with DDS2’s thin and unjustifiable mess of pointless dungeons.

As the old salt goes, if it looks too good to be true (two new SMT games within a year), it probably is. Well: it looks. And it is. And you’ve now been warned.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

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