Summer Gaming Challenge 2017 #2 – Digital Devil Saga

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Quick Info on Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga:
Console  – PS2 (re-released digitally on PS3, unchanged)
Release Year – 2005
Metacritic Score – 78

I have trouble finding the words to say about Digital Devil Saga.  It’s not a bad game, not by any means, but now that I’m a few days removed from beating it, I find trouble singing its praises, as well.  It’s a good, but flawed experience… but it’s gotten me quite excited to play Digital Devil Saga 2, which I’ll probably get to after I’m done with the challenge.  But, let’s talk about the first game, and hopefully I won’t be rambling.

Digital Devil Saga takes place in The Junkyard, a place where war is constantly waged in order to reach Nirvana and a better life.  Essentially, it’s very much similar to Purgatory, to put Western religious beliefs to it all.  However, the tide of the war shifts when a mysterious object appears, giving the residents of the Junkyard the ability to transform into demons, and a fiendish hunger to devour their enemies.

The story to the first Digital Devil Saga is a bit back heavy, though it makes sense due to the plot.  The residents of the Junkyard (including our characters) did not care about such things as motives, emotions, or their world before awakening to their demonic powers, but as the game goes on and more things are revealed (“how do we know what the color of the sky is if all we see are clouds and rain?”), the characters come to care more about these inconsistencies and what the Junkyard really is.

What’s interesting, though, is that by the end of the first game, not much is really explained.  This can really irk some people, but this also makes sense in the grand scheme of  the game, and the duology.  The entirety of the game takes place in the Junkyard, and every single person in there has no clue what’s going on and is trying to piece together their emotions and small fragments of memories.  One character does eventually regain his full memories, but it drives him damn near insane and he’s killed shortly after giving some vague foreshadowing.  It’s clear that hard answers will be given in 2, though the teaser at the end of 1 really raises more questions than anything else.

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Man this guy was a dick.

Gameplay is pretty similar to most Shin Megami Tensei titles.  It’s turn-based and features the One More Turn system that rewards you for hitting weaknesses and scoring critical hits.  Encounters are random, as well.  What’s different about Digital Devil Saga are Mantras.  Mantras allow you to build your party members as you wish, as anyone can equip any Mantra, and mastering the Mantra using Atma Points will give them new skills and passive abilities.

The Mantra system is kind of a blessing and a curse at the same time.  Since you can teach anyone anything (provided they’re far enough along on that particular line), you can build your party how you wish.  However, everyone other than the main character has preset stat ups and weaknesses, making it so that you really shouldn’t stray too much from the normal builds for the characters.  But, oftentimes important skills are locked behind Mantra lines that you normally wouldn’t persue with specific characters, so you’ll have to waste Karma (money), Atma Points, and time teaching characters skills that will find no use in their skillset, to eventually learn skills that will help.

I’ll use Heat as an example here, as he’s the most extreme of the party members when it comes  to this.  Heat’s basically the character that punches things and they fall… all of his stats go into Strength and Vitality.  Heat casting a magic spell beyond the first dungeon or two means you’re playing the game wrong.  So naturally, you’re going to want him to learn the physical Mantras, to learn physical moves that take advantage of his strength and large HP pool.  You’d also preferably teach someone else the fire Mantras, so you never have to make him cast Agi and exploit that weakness again.  You want him punching stuff, after all.

But, here’s the problem.  As, well, the fire demon and the story’s foil to the main character, Heat has a crippling weakness to Ice moves.  Coupled with his low Magic (which determines both magic attack AND defense), two Bufudyne attacks could easily wipe him out from near max HP, and that would give the enemy more attacks to whittle down everyone else’s health.  Thankfully, there is a skill you can equip that can resist Ice, cancelling out his weakness.  But, you know where you get that Resist Ice skill?  The very final Mantra in the ice line of spells.  So instead of teaching Heat those physical skills that are so good for him, you have to waste a ton of time and money to have him learn up to MABUFUDYNE, a skill that he will never, ever use when I dumped all of Serph’s (main character and resident ice demon) stat points into Magic.  The time it takes to accumulate the AP for the final elemental Mantras is pretty excessive too, making the whole task tedious… if you can even afford it.  Considering that four of the five characters is weak to some elemental, unless you want to have to cast a Void spell in every battle against a weakness, you’ll have to do it for all four of them.  Oh, and Cielo is weak to EVERY SINGLE STATUS EFFECT in the game, making him nigh useless in every battle after you get him, since equipping all the Null status skills would leave him no room to actually have any skills.

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Look at this!  It’s ridiculous!  And you can’t check skills in the next part of the line until you master the Mantra before it.

This problem, coupled with later bosses needing some high-end skills to not be massive pains, makes the game a bit imbalanced.  I got through about half the game pretty easily, but suddenly hit a wall a few dungeons before the end where I had to stop constantly and just grind… not for levels, but for Mantras and skills to just survive.  Oh, and Heat never got to learn Ice Resist, nor did Serph learn Fire Resist.  Those really should be a little earlier in the line…

But, it’s a pretty decent game… its difficulty was uneven and even sometimes felt a little bit forced (oh you don’t have Dekaja? Well good luck!), but it’s necessary to get through to understand 2, and it’s really not that bad to get through.  I do recommend looking up a Mantra guide for building characters… and do make sure to pick one that helps you through the WHOLE game, the guide I picked stopped about 2/3rds through saying “Oh, you know how to build your characters now!” when… obviously I didn’t, because how would I know I suddenly needed Null Panic on everyone for a boss battle.  Or multiple elements mastered.  Or Dekaja… I’m not bitter about the guide I used at all, no siree!

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