This here post was written by the awesome Tom Woods, who you can find drawing awesome things over on twitter here: https://twitter.com/TomWoodsArt, or making excellent videos as part of Hearts Bros here: https://www.youtube.com/c/heartsbros
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga. Just another one of them angsty anime games right? You’d be forgiven for thinking it was at a first glance, but then you’d be missing out. Seriously. Take my hand and allow me to explain.Released in 2004 in Japan (2005 for USA, 2006 for EU) when the glory days of the PS2 were well in effect, this little gem arrived to unknown expectations, far surpassing the sales figures Atlus estimated in Western territories – at least that’s what Wikipedia and Metacritic told me, so totally valid sources, okay?
I have no recollection of ever seeing it in brick and mortar game stores at the time, but then I was also an acne riddled teenager trying to figure out how to be a functioning human being (still struggling with that one, though the acne is gone!) so who knows what I may have missed out on. It’s not at all surprising that during that period quite a few games slid under my radar like a freshly lubricated ninja, in particular something as niche as a hardcore J-RPG. During that era of gaming it honestly felt like a slew of new discs shuriken’d (a technical term) their way onto shelves every week in what be described as something akin to a modern day Steam release schedule, only with a lot less shite.
I first found out about this game after dabbling with Persona 3 and seeing a YouTube clip on J-RPG’s from YouTube gaming personality ProJared (Starts at about 7:53)
Part of the Shin Megami Tensei (from here on referred to as SMT) project, which loosely collates Atlus’ controversial brand of RPG into a kinda-related-but-not-really setting. It is perhaps best to think of them as similar to Final Fantasy; different stories and characters but with familiar themes that vary in scope, including such things as Jungian psychology, Jewish mysticism, world myth and folklore, Buddhist Asura’s, Vedic heroes, theology, philosophy and, ever the favourite of Christian mothers everywhere, magic (maybe with a k if you’ve got a hard-on for Crowley). As a side to that, most of the enemies and monsters carry over between games, despite them largely being disconnected from one another.The Persona series is the most well known of the SMT offshoots in the west, attaining more critical success in Europe and America than others in the SMT IP. However, perhaps that is for the best considering the water Digital Devil Saga (DDS) is treading in; water that, by all accounts, is murky, filled with eerie ideas and enough subtlety to not explain everything to the player.
DDS, boiled down to its simplest alchemical ingredients, is a turn-based J-RPG set in a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk wasteland known as the “Junkyard”. Here, like Mad-Max, Fallout, I Am Legend and countless other post-apoca-lit-fic, warring tribes fight for dominance, and the chance to ascend to “Nirvana”. You’re not entirely sure why you’re fighting, but the initial goal is to destroy all the other tribes… because fuck ’em, that’s why.After coming across a woman with black hair, all the tribes, including your own, mass-download a demonic virus – each demon in turn represents the person’s own True Self. It’s sort of like Crowley’s idea of the Holy Guardian Angel, but with more stabbing, fireballs and dynamic posing.
Consuming is something that runs through the very core of the game, whether it’s devouring opponents in battle to help your party level up their demon-sona, or that the very world itself is presented to you as a rusty, dilapidated dustbowl; a shrivelled carcass littered with rusty Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist artwork, threaded with cables and corroded, barely functioning computers that could very well reflect a possible outcome of our own reliance on mass consumerism and symbiosis with technology.
Linked to the ravenous consuming nature of the game is the thought-form that the “strong dominate the weak”; in fact two key members of your tribe Heat and Argilla reflect two very different personalities. Heat is less a character and more Will to Power personified;- he reads the Daily Mail, doesn’t like foreigners, is generally a shitebag and believes that weakness should be stamped out wherever possible while taking all the spoils for the victor. Argilla, on the other hand, personifies Humanist thought and believes otherwise, trying her best to avoid consuming and cannibalising others. She probably goes to Burning Man and dislikes the dishonest tactics put forward by some of the team members in the battle for Junkyard. These two characters along with the rest of the team, will tug and pull at you forcing you to make decisions that echo throughout the series.The combat is a modified version of the Press Turn system, an advanced game of rock, paper, scissors requiring you to learn the relevant skills that the enemies are weak to. Do not underestimate the game however, it will keep you on your toes. During numerous battles, I furrowed my brows at the difficulty presented, offering a depth of complexity other RPG’s of it’s ilk may not have. It does, however, lack the fun ability to fuse or recruit other Demons to fight for you – a staple of the other SMT games. As a counter to this it’s really streamlined, at least if you’re new to Pokémo– um… I mean SMT.
Since it’s impossible to recruit demons, there is the Mantra system. This is a simplified version of the SphereGrid lifted (or on loan?) from Final Fantasy X. It allows the freedom to customise your party to just how you like, while not being too daunting to scare off any potential newcomers to the genre.The music, predominantly composed and arranged by Shoji Meguro, is based around Nu-Metal like guitars, which sounds dated and tired. However, where the soundtrack really stands out is the quieter piano and ambient driven tracks, that while few in number, really do lend a greater sense of misery to this moody but thoughtful game.
The voice acting has a familiar cast of VA’s working in dubbed Anime. Those familiar with Crispin Freemen should recognise his voice give personality to super-aggro Heat, who you may know as Alucard from Hellsing Ultimate, Togusa from Ghost In The Shell: SAC and Itachi Uchiha in Naruto. Elsewhere the voice acting ranges from serviceable, downright charming, to melodramatic, which may take you out of the experience if you’re used to modern AAA production values. I would urge you to try and look past this, as there is a wonderful little tale to be told here.
It should be pointed out that some of the assets for the game were recycled from Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. However, this doesn’t detract from the game having its own voice at all due to just how robust the world building and overall design is, especially for a game that is over a decade old. Kazuma Kaneko leads the design of the characters, demons and world. This is where I have to admit to being a shameless Kazuma Kaneko fanboy; I’ve studied his work a lot and it’s influenced my own way of drawing and painting. For all intents and purposes you can feel his pencil, ink and watercolour work brought to life in the design of the demons. Everything is incredibly stylish, influenced by haute couture, cyberpunk fiction and descriptions taken from Vedic scriptures of technological wars from eras bygone.
Mythology is something that runs through the blood of Digital Devil Saga and its sequel, unlike Persona which tends to focus on ideas pilfered from The Lesser Key of Solomon (a grimoire of Demons, one of the oldest).The best example of this is Serph, the silent protagonist, he transforms in battle into Varuna, a formerly omniscient and omnipresent sky god, bringer of rain and the Asura that keeps the universe in balance. This reflects the character; his choices presented to you are often balanced and valid and they never seem entirely unfair or pointlessly mean like in other video games that have built their storytelling around the ideas of choice i.e. Knights of the Old Republic or Infamous.
With all that said, this won’t mean anything to those of you who hate turn-based J-RPG’s with random battles. It is not as involving as the Persona games with it’s social links and dating simulators. No, this is more of a no-frills straight up adventure, the (even) angstier, scummier brother to the pretty Persona 3. He drags his knuckles and wears Morbid Angel shirts that smell a little funky, and doesn’t want your fuckin’ love stories, man. But when it comes down to it, if you give him a little time and patience he’ll warm up to you and be a loyal mate who you’ll have some damn good times with.
Oh, and it ends on a cliffhanger too. So if you want to piss away more hours of your existence between now and your inevitable death you can pick up this and it’s sequel on the PSN store for less than a couple of pizzas.