Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is…so close

On paper, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga should be a game I love. There’s a unique setting constructed by shoving Hindu and Buddhist mythology into an anime post-apocalyptic setting. There’s a deep RPG combat system, there’s a big upgrade tree. It’s character driven! And yet…

Lemme back up.

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Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is a JRPG from Atlus, and the start of one of the many subseries which compose the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, the most famous of which is Persona. In the game, you play Serph, leader of one of the clans which populates the Junkyard, a future-y, post-apocalyptic, Hindu inspired wasteland. A decree from the central Karma Temple rules over the land: whichever clan may triumph over the others may rise from the Junkyard and ascend to Nirvana. Cool.

A wrench is thrown in when your clan, the Embryon, is fighting against a rival clan, the Vanguards. On the battlefield, you find a strange…thing, which proceeds to open, shooting magic…stuff across the Junkyard. There are 4 things which occur as a direct result to this.

  1. The magic…stuff brands everyone in the Junkyard, giving them all the power to assume a demon form.
  2. Along with this demon form is an insatiable hunger which plagues everyone, one that can only be temporarily quelled by consuming other people.
  3. A girl, Sera, appears out of nowhere.
  4. On top of the previous condition, Sera must be taken to the Karma Temple for a clan to ascend to Nirvana.

So that’s pretty cool. With all of this, Serph and his rag-tag group of cannibalistic demon warriors goes on a quest to destroy the other clans and reach the Karma Temple to ascend to Nirvana. I, on paper, should love this game. The reality of it is that I’ve put in about 7 hours, and I think I’m done.

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Nor do I, Gale

The reasons why I don’t love this game are probably best described by detailing each aspect of this game that should make me love it, and then the reality.

Let’s start with the setting. The Junkyard is a post-apocalyptic wasteland with heavy Hindu inspiration, from the names of locations (such as Svadhisthana, an early dungeon) to the architecture to the concepts of Karma, Atma, Mantra, and Nirvana. Combine this with a heavy dose of anime, and you should have a setting which sticks out in my mind as one-of-a-kind.

In reality, though…eh. Karma doesn’t really behave like Karma, it’s just a fancy name for XP. The Mantra system doesn’t behave like Mantra, it’s just a skill tree. The locations may be intended to draw their inspiration from Hindu architecture, but that hardly matters one way or another when there’s so little in the world. For the most part, areas are just utterly barren, except for save and restore points, and maybe the odd puzzle or friendly NPC. It’s hard for the setting to do anything for me when it’s just so devoid of…anything, really. Everywhere the game could have embraced the uniqueness of its setting, it instead feels like any ol’ RPG.

OK, but how about the combat system? I like the Press Turn System quite a bit. For the uninitiated, you’re allotted a number of moves equal to your party size at the beginning of combat. Perform moves that your enemies are weak to, or get crits, and you’re awarded with bonus moves. Miss, or perform moves that your enemies resist, and your turn will be cut short. Both you and your enemy are subject to these rules, so you have to constantly learn and take advantage of your enemies’ weaknesses, while also accounting for your own. Pretty good stuff.

Well, yeah, but no. You see, in the Shin Megami Tensei game I had previously sunk into, Shin Megami Tensei IV, you had this rotating posse of demons. Each could only learn a certain pool of moves, and each one was weak to certain things. As a result, you’d constantly be rotating demons in and out of your party to try and have the best possible loadout for the monsters in the area you were in. Furthermore, you could fuse demons together, which would require you to sacrifice two or more demons to get a new demon that shared moves with all of its progenitors but, more importantly, had its own weaknesses and moves to learn.

Digital Devil Saga has none of that. Your party changes at a snail’s pace (I just got my first new party member at about the 6 hour mark), and so you’re pretty much always staring at the same dumb group of idiots, all of whom’s weaknesses are constant. On top of that, the Mantra Grid means every character can learn every move, depending on how you spend your Macca, so instead of needing to make meaningful decisions about what you do with your demons, instead you just sorta keep adding new moves to the same guys, trivially swapping out what moves they can use in combat at a moment’s notice. All of that dynamic party changing that SMTIV has is gone here.

On top of that, the few battles which do require a tactic more interesting than “HIT ‘EM WITH THE THING THEY’RE WEAK TO” just serve to emphasize how many of the fights are just that. There are some cool ideas. There’s one boss fight early on where you have to end the boss’s turn early, or else he will always use his last action to raise a shield that deflects any attack. When I figured that out, I actually said out loud “Oh, shit, that’s neat”. And yet, this sort of design methodology is so unbelievably rare amongst the fights.

You might have noticed that I called my party “a dumb group of idiots”. That’s because, for a game that has so much potential to really develop some cool and interesting characters and factions, everyone in this game sucks. One-note characters abound. Argilla is super nice and doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Heat is an asshole. Gale talks like a robot. The enemies fare no better. Nothing distinguishes any of the enemy factions, they’re all just “people who can turn into demons and are jerks”. Nothing unifies any of the enemy factions together, nor does anything set them apart from the other factions.

Does Digital Devil Saga go somewhere really cool with its premise and characters? Probably. Atlus are known for making really good games with really good stories, and considering this is one of the few Shin Megami Tensei games that is in an actual chronology (although only with its sequel), clearly this story goes somewhere. I just wish there was something interesting to keep me going, and while this game certainly has hints of interesting stuff, it somehow manages to make it all bland and boring instead.

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At least some of the demons look cool

 

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