Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga

SMT: Digital Devil Saga as it’s name may suggest is a member of the Shin Megami Tensei series, despite it’s Japanese title lacking the SMT name it’s very much a Shin Megami game in every sense that it could be. One big difference is that instead of befriending or summoning Demons to assist you in battles, your main characters are the demons. DDS also offers a very different skill system to other SMT games.
How it works is that you buy a ‘Mantra’ at Karma Terminals (Save points) and then devour enemies in battle to earn AP. The character that devours the enemy gets the AP and it goes towards them learning their skills. This is very similar to Final Fantasy V’s job system and is a kind of simplified version of Final Fantasy X’s sphere system. When you master a Mantra the more advanced Mantra becomes available. Ice Wolf > Ice Lord > Ice God, for example.

Digital Devil Saga's mantra screen

It's not as complicated as it looks

As you can see from the picture above, Digital Devil Saga has tons of options for you to customize your character, something I like to do is level a character up in their opposing element so they learn an ability to nullify their weakness. As an example, the main character Serph uses ice magic, because of this he is strong against Ice and weak to Fire. If you were to have him learn the mantras related to Fire magic he would eventually learn a passive ability to resist Fire, meaning he no longer has a weakness.
The Mantra system is very easy to get into and incredibly rewarding depending on how far you want to go with it, if you want to go crazy and get the ultimate abilities you’ll be rewarded with such things as complete immunity to all elemental magic, the ability to absorb physical attacks and even the ability to devour every single enemy in a fight! Adding to this there are also hidden bosses that you can take out to unlock hidden Mantras that will give you even more powerful abilities.
Digital Devil Saga’s battle system is near identical to it’s predecessor’s battle system, this is great if you played the previous game before as you’ll be able to jump right in. If you haven’t played the previous game then there’s absolutely no problem, the battle system is incredibly simple. Every character in the battle gets a turn, the most your party can have is 3. Certain things affect the turns, however. For instance say you’re fighting an enemy that’s weak to ice skills, if you hit it with ice magic you’ll get a ‘half turn’ this will also happen if you score a critical hit. A half turn basically an extra turn, if you get another critical hit or hit another weakness you’ll get another half turn. However, you can’t have more than 3 half turns: if you critical again or hit another weakness the turn marker will just end.

The Turn Markers are displayed at the top right

The Turn Markers begin to flash if you gain a half turn. The reverse happens if you hit an enemy with it’s strength or miss, you’ll lose two turns! If an enemy absorbs or reflects your attack then your turns are just ended outright. This also applies to enemies, so use it to your advantage!
Digital Devil Saga is set in a place known as the Junkyard, which is a place where several different clans compete to be top dog, all residents of the Junk Yard are adults: there are no children and there are no animals. Adding to this all inhabitants are also emotionless, everyone wears grey clothing with the only colour being their Clan colour. This is until a strange object crashes during a skirmish between the Embryon and Vanguards (The Embryon being the clan you are in control of.) The strange object turns out to be a black haired girl named Serah, after she crashes all the graveyard inhabitants gain the ability to transform into demons, and their emotions also awaken. This is shown in a very simple form: Their eyes regaining colour. I really like the game’s style, while most games today are colourless and boring just for the sake of being ‘realistic’ Digital Devil Saga’s setting is without colour to show the loss of humanity within the Junkyard.

Cielo, Gale, Serah, Serph, Heat and Argillia

Adding to this, the characters hair and eye colours are very strong contrasts to the grey they wear and the grey that’s all around them. I would like to be all snobby here and say that it symbolizes how the characters no longer belong in the Junkyard, that they should now be in Nirvana, which is the location that the winning clan is permitted to go.
This is all that really drives the main characters in DDS, to protect Serah and get to Nirvana. The only plot only really ‘starts’ in the second to last dungeon, at the very end of it. There’s then quite the big twist when you encounter the final boss. Really that’s all the noteable things that happen plot wise. DDS1 really just exists to get the player used to the characters and set up the sequel, the game even ends on a huge cliffhanger and after the credits it pretty much just says ‘Gotta play the sequel now!’ It really felt like I had been playing half of a game the entire time, and that the game should be saying ‘insert Disc 2’ rather than ‘The End’
I don’t really like talking much about the plot to games in reviews as I see spoilers as the ultimate sin that anyone can commit, so instead I’ll move on to talking about the music, which is fantastic. The composer for Digital Devil Saga and by extension the SMT series is Shoji Meguro, unlike most of his newer work Digital Devil saga lacks the incredibly weird j-rap. While I enjoy much of Shoji Meguro’s work, the J-rap isn’t very…well, good. Digital Devil Saga’s music is very atmospheric and conveys the tone of areas and battles very well. My favourite track in the game is named ‘Blade‘ which plays during a Field Hunt, which is a mini game you can play to encounter a rare enemy. The song conveys the feeling of urgency incredibly well, the timer ticking down would probably drastically add to this, too.
Another thing I would like to mention is that like most of the other SMT games, Digital Devil Saga has random encounters.
I hate random encounters.
Hate them.
The Random Encounters in DDS just love to pop up at the most annoying times, as do most random encounters in any game. Even by the time DDS came out (2006) Random Encounters were incredibly dated and they still are! Persona introduces a much better system for encounters that actually lets you see the monsters on the map, and you can even net yourself a pre emptive strike if you manage to smack them from behind. The random encounters would be slightly better if you could at least know when you were about to trigger one, or if you could at least cancel them as you can in the newer Wild Arms games. I guarantee that by the end of the game you will loathe the transaction to battle. Adding to this there’s also the fact that higher level enemies can kill you in one go if they get the first attack in, if you’re ambushed you also start in human form, apparently not having the time to transform.

God damn it, not again!

Speaking of enemies being able to kill you in one go if they get the first turn, I would like to mention a little something about the final dungeon of the game, mainly that it’s horribly designed.
This is a good time to mention that Large Karma Terminals allow you to teleport between other large Karma Terminals. Small terminals also let you teleport, but it’s a one way trip. In the room before the final boss there is a small Karma Terminal and a Healing Terminal.
Both of these together are in essence a Large Karma Terminal, but they do not allow you to teleport TO them, only FROM them. Why is this horribly designed? The nearest large karma terminal is several floors down, meaning you have to redo all the puzzles you already did to get up there if you have to leave the dungeon, and trust me: you will have to leave the dungeon once or twice. The thing that annoys me so much about this is that they really could have just stuck a Large Terminal in rather than the two seperate terminals, yet they didn’t. This means you have to trek all the way back up! This also means you’ll be subjected to the incredibly cheap attacks that the final dungeon monsters have to offer. Just a few examples:
A group of monsters that put you to sleep and then use an ability that instantly kills you if you’re asleep.
A group of monsters that use an attack that deals heavy damage and petrifies you, which is an instant kill if your entire party is petrified.
Two ex mini-bosses that you fought quite literally just before entering the final few floors of the dungeon.
Ex-mini bosses from the previous dungeon that now appear in groups.

Get used to seeing this.

You’re gonna die.
A lot.
While DDS isn’t without it’s flaws it’s still a fantastic game to pick up, both it and DDS2 go for incredibly cheap nowadays so if you have some spare cash I definitely recommend picking them both up and giving them a try, just try to be patient and save often.