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Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga PlayStation 2

Published by Ghostlight Ltd.
Developed by Atlus
Release Date: Out Now
Price: £29.99

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, an introduction.

We said earlier in the year that 2006 was going to be a year for RPG fans and it's turning out to be one heck of a year. We've already had Atelier Iris, Dragon Quest : The Journey of the Cursed King and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to name but three. There's no letting up either with Final Fantasy XII, Kingdom Hearts 2, Neverwinter Nights 2, Atelier Iris 2 and Disgaea 2 all due later this year. As if that lot wasn't enough to burn a hole in your bank account, here we have another game that's going to have you spending more of your hard earned cash, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga.

What's the game about?

The Shin Megami Tensei series is an extremely long running series although most European RPG gamers will probably not know much about the series, as it has primarily been released only in Japan.  Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (aka Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer's Call here in Europe) was the first title in the series to be released in the US and Europe and it's fair to say the critics were impressed with it. Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is the second game in the series to make it to our shores and once again it's a game RPG gamers are going to want to get their hands on.

Digital Devil Saga is actually the first part in the story (the second part is following later this year) and luckily requires no knowledge of the previous Shin Megami Tensei games. The game is set in an alternate universe, in a place known as the Junkyard, where six factions are at war with each other in a power struggle for supremacy and the right to ascend to Nirvana. At the beginning of  the game there is a battle between the Embryon faction and the Vanguard faction.  During the battle Serph, several fellow members of the Embryon faction and their rivals are hit by streams of mysterious beams of light that are emitted from a mysterious object on the battlefield . After they recover from this attack they find their enemies have been slain in a hideous fashion and also that they have strange marks on their body. Little do they know, at this time, that this light has given them, and the other tribes, the power to become mighty demons. The side effect of this though is that when they are demons they crave to feed on their defeated enemies. In a crater not far from their slain enemies they find a young girl named Sera who it's hoped will hold the key to the strange events that are occurring especially as her song has the ability to pacify the demons. Serph, Heat and Argilla decide to head off to the Vanguard base in the hope of finding out what happened.

What's good about the game?

I think one of the most appealing aspects of Digital Devil Saga is that the look and feel of the game is quite unique. This isn't an RPG for children. There's no fluffy or effeminate characters here and the game definitely has a dark edge to it, which actually makes for a refreshing change. The highlight of the game has to be the battles system, which is quite simply first class. Battles are played out in a turn based fashion, with a maximum of three characters involved on your side, but it's not the run of the mill turn-based battle system you've probably seen many times before. For starters your characters can either battle in human or demon form and each form has different attacks. Exploiting enemy elemental weaknesses can earn your party an additional attack (of course this works for the AI too so you have to be careful). Your characters all have distinctly different abilities and shielding techniques. Argilla for instance can analyse your enemies, which informs you of their weaknesses. Each character can specialise in a mantra, which is a set of demon powers. You simply purchase the mantra you want for your character and the Atma points you earn in battle help you to learn and master the abilities associated with the mantra (you can't use the abilities until they have been learned). Mantras can have up to four abilities associated with them. Using these mantras, you can truly create uniquely skilled characters in any way you wish which is excellent. Characters can team up for powerful combo attacks. Enemies can be devoured too and this is occasionally preferable to standard attacks. The AI is actually very challenging at times (you'll find it capable of shielding, healing and calling for reinforcements) and you'll be forced to come up with effective strategies that are tailored to your enemies (which is where the aforementioned analyse skill that Argilla has becomes very important).

What's not so good about the game?

If you're easily annoyed by RPGs with a high amount of random encounters then Digital Devil Saga is likely to cheese you off somewhat as the encounter rate is rather high. In fairness this works to your advantage somewhat because the game would be very difficult very quickly if you hadn't acquired experience and levelled up your characters from these random encounters. As this is part one of a two part story, it's pretty obvious the story isn't going to be resolved when you complete the game. Some may see this as a problem but in all honesty the story is of a high quality and it will have most RPG gamers making a note of the release date for part two. The only other thing I would have liked is to have been able to control how the characters, other than Serph, distribute their attribute points when they level up. Heat and Argilla level up automatically and this feels just a tiny bit unsatisfactory.

How does it look?

The visual style they've used for the game is quite unique. The graphics have a sophisticated dark quality about them that you usually don't see in games such as this. You'll see all kinds of mythological enemies in the game and for the most part they're quite unlike anything you've come across before (especially if, like myself, you haven't played a Shin Megami Tensei game before). The character models look very good and are equally on a par with anything we've seen in a PlayStation 2 RPG to date. Most of the environments you'll find yourself in look a little bland but they're certainly more than acceptable. Rather pleasingly there are no frame rate issues and the load times are more than respectable.

How deaf gamer friendly is the game?

Having a great RPG is pretty pointless if it's not subtitled and thankfully Atlus haven't let us down. On loading the game the short introductory cutscene isn't subtitled but otherwise the game is absolutely fine. The cutscenes are shown in a letterbox format with the text displayed in the lower border. There are no character portraits or character names next to the dialogue but it's always clear who is saying what. All communications in the main game are shown in text. Tutorial messages are in text and these are delivered just when you need them so you never have too much to read in one go.

Final thoughts.

In a year choc-full of quality RPGs, Shin Megami Tensei Digital Devil Saga could yet be the biggest surprise of them all. The battle system has to be one of the best I've come across and it even goes some way to compensating for the high encounter rate. The story is an unusual one (at least it is to me having never experienced the Shin Megami Tensei games before) which is refreshing having played so many RPGs where the stories are pretty much alike. In fact it's difficult to find much wrong with the game. Even the high encounter rate is offset somewhat by the rather liberal amount of save points that are well placed. All I can say is bring on part two, so we can see how it finishes.

Overall Game Rating: 9.0/10

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Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is a game that any fan of the RPG genre simply must buy. The story is interesting, the battle system is excellent and above all it leaves you desperate to get your hands on part two.