The Crushing Reality of Disappointment
If it wasn’t for an unholy trinity of RPG fun-killers, Digital Devil Saga 2 would be a welcome addition to the PS2’s must-play lineup. The story, continued directly from the first entry released earlier in 2005, is actually compelling. Which is a shocking achievement for RPGs, considering truckloads of recent titles (Star Ocean 3, Shining Tears, Suikoden IV, Radiata Stories) have opted more for hackneyed clichés, tedious epic plots, or tacky fantasy parody. The pseudo-sci-fi character design of Kazuma Koneko is gorgeous, as are the anime sequences, making the game even more tempting to play and the crushing reality of disappointment all the more biting.
Alas, Digital Devil Saga 2 (like its many Shin Megami Tensei brethren) is undeniably unique but extraordinarily tedious. The combat is frustratingly too frequent with zillions of random encounters sucking fun with each and every step. Adding to the repetition are the inane and overlong dungeons, seemingly designed to maximize those encounters with never-ending corridors and treasure-room side rooms. The third strike is an unforgivable assault on your eardrums. The music takes a cue from Star Ocean: Til the End of Time, employing a mix of ultra-monotonous and inappropriate heavy metal remixes, most of which sound like bad 80s midi themes, cycling every ten seconds or so to affectively destroy atmosphere. Contrary to popular belief, techno and dance-house are not the music genres of choice for creating mystery and suspense while exploring seedy underground city ghettos. Too bad the composers never thought to play or borrow from the Xenosaga titles, the current pinnacle of RPG atmosphere.
These may seem like nitpicking complaints, and perhaps they are superficial flaws in the grand scheme of things. DDS2 may have a plot as interesting as your standard Final Fantasy, but your average gamer will probably put the controller down before the end of the second dungeon. Of course, if you’re the kind to score your gaming with dance-floor rave beats while or after smoking a joint, you’re likely immune to the dreary gameplay mechanics. But do you really want to play something you can only tolerate while high?
Playing Digital Devil Saga 2 without having endured the first one is a bit like watching Kill Bill: Vol. 2 without having seen Vol. 1. It’s manageable but it won’t make much narrative sense.
The game continues the demonic escapades of the young Embryon tribe, who’ve now reached the so-called Nirvana from their war-torn Junkyard (the cyberpunk post-apocalyptic focus of the first title). But instead of paradise, the ascenders in sexy gray dystopian uniforms find layers upon layers of conspiracy, where an evil demonic group called the Karma Association rules a police state over a small contingency of powerless humans.
In the first adventure, you controlled a pack of naïve tribesmen as they fought for gang supremacy in a self-contained environment you now learn was a colossal urban warfare simulation. Now that the Embryon group has left the constraints of the pseudo-artificial uber-underground wasteland, you have the chance to learn the context of the first game’s plot, and unravel the schemes of the official powers that be. It’s a clever way to split the sizeable epic into two reasonably self-sufficient stories, warranting Atlus’ ingenious cash-grab.
DDS2 gears its scenery more towards conventional post-apocalyptic fare. The cities are closer to the surface of Earth, where ages ago an ominous pathogen caused masses of victims to petrify with exposure to sunlight. Decimated subway tunnels, makeshift apartment complexes and dismantled labs are common in a world where survival at any cost is the theme of the day. And now that the protagonist guinea pigs have escaped their digital cage, cold hard cash has replaced downloadable tokens and the survivors run provisional shops with your usual blend of futuristic knick-knacks (though the actual selection of buyable goodies is as limited as it was in DDS).
Gameplay remains largely the same in this second outing. Demonic hunger still possesses your crew, which manifests itself in the form of not-so-scary monster forms. You download “mantras” from red Karma Terminal save points to gain new sets of “demon” abilities, and better ways of “devouring” your foes. Instead of the linear, logical-progression skill trees from before, there is now a giant hexagon, allowing slightly more random customization as you choose new powers. Unfortunately, the game still only offers one “demon” form per character, and their cooler looking human forms remain just as useless as before, so expect to see a lot of the uglier inner you.
Even though the game is a direct sequel, the characters’ have conveniently forgotten their previous skills upon ascent to Nirvana, and therefore must learn them all again. Since there are few new additions to the Mantras skill tree, the fun of learning new abilities (one of the big draws of the first title) has lost its novelty. Even if you bring your save file from the first DDS, all you get are a few boosted stats and some more money.
Combat isn’t exactly engaging but at least it offers a challenge. Exploiting enemy weaknesses (and guarding against your own) isn’t only encouraged, it’s fairly crucial to survival. Against tougher foes (including a few random encounter baddies), you’ll often need the extra rounds awarded for making strategic decisions. The mindless dungeons are extremely lengthy, which means hordes of random fisticuffs.
While the combat is unremarkable and largely just a retread of the first title, the story makes Digital Devil Saga worth a fairly tedious try. The characters are distinct and interesting (with the possible exception of the archetypically silent RPG hero/leader Serph) and are written and voiced strongly by role-playing standards. The visual landscape is often breathtaking and digital demons are certainly a refreshing vacation from the usual sword-and-sorcery overdose from titles good and bad. Unfortunately, total immersion is rendered impossible by the distracting musical score and bland dungeon crawling, which makes playing this game a chore. Fans of the original have no reason to skip the conclusion, but those who missed the original best be leery.