Rend... Slaughter... Devour your enemies! There is no other way to survive. You cannot escape your hunger, Warriors of Purgatory! These are more than just the introductory words of Digital Devil Saga, they are its entire ethos, its very being. When you start out in the world of Junkyard you quickly realize this will not be a pleasant game. Even in the worlds of Shin Megami Tensei, Digital Devil Saga stands out for its bleakness. However once you get past this, you discover a world that is far more engrossing and nuanced than many that came before or after. To say this is the best JRPG of its generation is a relatively easy point to defend - even a decade later its hard to point to a single JRPG that is as inventive and well put together as this one, even if many people haven’t actually played it.
To those who haven’t played the game that may seem to be pure hyperbole, merely an attempt to draw attention, the Playstation 2 was arguably as great for JRPG’s and Japanese games in general as the Super Nintendo. However, to those who have played the game to completion, I bet many will be nod in agreement. It really is that good, and undeniably the best in one of strongest and strangest franchises in Japanese gaming today.
Superficially similar, Digital Devil Saga and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne share much in common, including the game engine and the Push Turn Battle System. Outside of these nuts and bolts similarities, the games are quite dissimilar, in fact they differ fundamentally on the influences that underpin the game.
Nocturne is a classic Shin Megami Tensei game in the sense that it draws heavily from Judeau-Christian themes. Digital Devil Saga on the other hand, is heavily inspired by Hindu and Eastern iconography. This is very much helpful in differentiating the two games from each other on a stylistic level.
Furthermore if you thought Nocturne or other Shin Megami Tensei games had too much colour, well today is your lucky day as Kazuma Kaneko, the lead creative force of the game, seems not to be a fan. The world of Junkyard is bleak. Hues of grey dominate the landscape, bringing out and making clear the depressing nature of the world in a way the post-apocalyptic Tokyo of mainline Shin Megami Tensei lacks - with hints of blood red being one of more notable deviations from this presentation. With very little exception, it is clear The Junkyard is a place that one wishes to escape from.
This of course is entirely the point, as the goal of the game is escape. Escape to Nirvana, paradise. Of course to do that you cannot be a good person, as only a select few can every truly ascend to the heavens. How do you do that you ask?
“Rend... Slaughter... Devour your enemies! There is no other way to survive. You cannot escape your hunger, Warriors of Purgatory!” Well to be honest that is quite literal as you level up in a sphere grid system reminiscent of Final Fantasy X by devouring your opponents. You make their demonic energy your own as you consume their flesh to nourish yourself.
Yes to make the ascent to Nirvana, you must become a demonic cannibal and kill everyone who stands in your way. I told you the game was dark, even by Shin Megami Tensei standards. Sadly it’s this darkness that likely holds the game back from really achieving the wide spread acclaim it so rightly deserves from mainstream audiences.
However by this point one can rightly be asking themselves, “Okay it sounds weird, but is it really worth all the trouble”. Of course the answer is a subjective one, however, for me, I can say pretty easily yes it is it is worth the considerable time investment to make it to the end. While nothing is truly revolutionary on its own its the way all the elements come together so seamlessly into the whole that makes the game such a special one.
The art and direction enhances the story in ways other games simply fail to grasp. As you play the colour pallet wears on you, it wears you down. You personally understand why Nirvana is so important to reach for the characters you play as, and why you’re willing to go to such extremes to do so. Life in The Junkyard is really not a life, it’s purgatory and you’ll do anything to get out; even kill, maim, devour your enemies.
Beyond that, the strength of the game’s systems is undeniable. Returning from Nocturne, the Turn Press battle system is similar to Chess in that it is easy to learn but hard to master. As an enhanced form of the system found in in Nocturne and the more recent Shin Megami Tensei IV the Digital Devil Saga introduces a combo mechanic that allows a deeper level of strategy and control over the battle field. Overall the game is the most advanced and well constructed entry in the franchise from the PS2 era, which many consider the franchises “Golden Era” with classics such as Nocturne and Persona 4.
That being said, it does have a pretty glaring flaw. Like most Shin Megami Tensei games, the characterization isn’t great. In an era of memorable JRPG characters from several developers that have spawned countless fan debates, Digital Devil Saga will never take part. This is because fundamentally the characters are just not that memorable. The real star of the game is the nihilistic atmosphere, the overwhelming sense of foreboding, and morality questionable actions. However that is a small issue in an otherwise exemplary game.
Indeed this game isn’t for everyone like the series it springs from. However, Atlus did the player a favor and made it surprisingly more accessible than almost every game in the franchise save Persona, as the first third of the game is noticeably easy for a veteran player of any RPG, really. If you cut your teeth on Nocturne or IV, Digital Devil Saga will be surprisingly easy at first and feel less Shin Megami Tensei and more Final Fantasy.
Of course like most things in the game, this is a false sense of security as the game takes a distinctly sharp turn later on. The difficulty spike can be so sudden, it’s almost as if you can feel the developers’ glee as they remove the mask and show the reality of the game. While not quite “Atlus Hard” the game makes dealing with even random encounters a challenge, and as such it is never boring to play.
All around returning to the game over a decade old on the PSN has been a surprisingly easy affair. In a time when incredible Japanese Role Playing Games or western masterpieces such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are coming out almost monthly, it’s would normally be hard to recommend looking back at a game two console generations old. However many gamers would be better if they do so and may yet find themselves pleasantly surprised.
As its rare even now to find a game that so effortlessly blends mechanics, visuals, and narrative into a cohesive whole. Digital Devil Saga though effortlessly does it and in a way I personally believe puts in at the top of its generation of consoles.
Many say games are art; a fundamentally unique medium of expression but struggle to point to strong examples. Digital Devil Saga is one of the examples I always love pointing too; as it so clearly a game and all that it entails. However as it also borrows from mythology, literature, philosophy, and film but does it in a way that doesn’t come from a second year arts major. It seems unique in the medium and strikingly so given its age.
In the end, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is revered as a cult classic for a reason as it truly is a masterpiece of game design which perfectly blends design, story, and art into one. It is easy to say Digital Devil Saga is a great game and testament to the importance of Shin Megami Tensei, within the JRPG subgenre.
If you are open to a decade old JRPG Digital Devil Saga is one of the best JRPGs on the PS2 and the best in my humble opinion, a game that remains an eminently playable game even two console generations later a rare feat by any metric. If you are a fan of JRPGs, it’s your imperative to give Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga a shot. At the very least, you’ll then be able to tell me how wrong I am if you don’t enjoy it.
If you like this and want to see further thoughts on Shin Megami Tensei check out my Beginners Guide to the series.
You can buy SMT:DDS I and II on the PSN
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