Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is a turn based JRPG set in a mysterious land known as the “Junkyard”. We take control of Serph, the leader of the Embryon, smallest of the 6 tribes striving to wipe each other out so the last one standing can reach a paradise known as Nirvana. Overseeing this war is the Karma Temple who are the ones that guard the passage to Nirvana and is only willing to grant the last tribe standing passage. Right from the get go, we are shown just how violent this war is as you go to investigate an unidentified object located in the outskirts of your territory and encounter a rival tribe. Things quickly get out of control as the shootout is interrupted when the pod like object suddenly bursts open and everyone is pierced by orbs of light. Suddenly all those affected turn into demons who immediately start tearing and ripping each other apart mindlessly. All this before you even start actually playing the game and this mysterious world really hooks you in from the get go.
Once you and the members of your tribe awaken from your demonic forms with no memories of what just happened you head over to the pod and find a girl inside of it. Stranger still is that she has black hair which is a color no one in the Junkyard possesses. Those weirdly dyed anime hair-dues have an actual reason in this game which I found neat. Everything that seems like a flaw has a reason behind it such as the intense overuse of the color gray and the robotic like tone of their voice. Sadly the voice acting itself is pretty rubbish so that did slightly harm the experience. Our character, Serph is your typical mute protagonist with nothing really interesting about him and is a blank slate from start to finish. The other 4 members that accompany you throughout are much more interesting and do grow, for better or worse, as the story proceeds. One of the neat things about this title is that there really is no good or evil here, everyone is just fighting to survive and be the ones that reach Nirvana, including yourself and your tribe.
After returning to your base with the unconscious black haired girl you are finally given control of your character and are tasked with finding out what is going on by spying on the enemy you just fought. You are then free to explore your base and talk with the members of your tribe about the situation. I say talk but it is a pretty one sided conversation since you are mute. It is worth your time to search every nook and cranny in your hideout since you can find floating treasure chests that contain supplies or Macca (money) that is relatively hard to get early on. Once you reach the enemy base you notice there are no guards so you decide to venture inside. After some time you will finally get into a fight to introduce you to the gameplay. You will have one turn for each character represented by the blue hexagons on the upper right side of the screen and a list of spells & abilities like any other JRPG. What differentiates it from the rest is how complex the combat is as there is always something that counteracts or negates anything you use to fight be it your fists, guns or spells. Every party member has a weakness such as your ice based main character being weak to fire.
Being attacked by an element you are weak to goes far beyond just taking heavy damage since attacking an enemy with something they are weak to will grant an extra turn. They can effectively double the amount of turns they have if you are not careful which can quickly turn into a disaster as they heal, attack and inflict deadly status effects on your party. Attacking weakness also works the other way around and is the safest as well as most efficient way to handle combat. Enemies do not know what your weaknesses are and if you are not familiar with the demon type you are facing the same goes for you which leads to an intense stand off to discover your enemy’s flaws. There is a reusable item called the spyglass and I highly suggest using up a turn to active it so you will be able to see the weakness and attacks of most enemies. Flinging spells at an unknown enemy can be disastrous as they may be immune to that element losing you two turns. That is the best case scenario as most of the enemies later on can actually consume spells of a certain element which will then either recover their health or fling the spell right back at you. This is not a game where you can simply use the same attacks over and over again, you will have to learn about your enemies and fight accordingly.
Knowledge is key here and can turn extremely hard fights into simple affairs. In that same regard overconfidence is your enemy as even one wrong move can spiral you straight to your doom. Things are not always in your control either since enemies can start with the vital advantage of attacking first and seriously endanger you. Make sure to save often in the red glowing terminals as you never know when things will take a turn for the worse and require you to load your last saved games. As you may have been able to tell by now, this is not an easy game. It is all too happy to throw really unfair situations at you causing you to think if it’s worth going any further or should you double back and save the game just in case. You can transform into your human forms while in battle which are far less effective than your demon forms but grants immunity to holy attacks which is something to keep in mind when facing a foe that attacks with holy magic. Other times you are ambushed before you can even transform into your demon forms making you an easy target if you do not have your party equipped with some decent ammo to fight back with. A really handy trick to even the odds a little is to remember that passing up a turn for a party member will allow you to use it for the next, meaning that you can transform your first two party members and pass your third member’s turn to be able to set defenses with your first now transformed character.
You can set one of three defenses for an element depending on how skilled your character is in it. One to simply void an element, one that reflect attacks of that elemental type and one that absorbs that spell converting it into HP for your party. Even this has its risks, as an example reflecting a fire attack to an enemy that drains fire and you will be effectively healing your foe and wasting MP. Successfully defending an attack causes your opponents to lose two turns and has a chance to frighten them. Frightening enemies is the easiest way to devour them as attacking them with a skill meant to devour them will always result in heavy damage while frightened. Devouring an enemy fills up your Atma bar (skill bar) which will unlock new skills or spells once filled. You can set what skills you want to research via the saving terminals that will allow you to choose from a massive tree like structure of interconnected skills called a Mantra. Learning skills from the element you are weak to is insanely useful as getting far enough into its branch allows you to gain a skill which can negate your weakness meaning that you will no longer have to worry about fire attacks aimed at Serph. It does require you to equip it in one of the 8 slots available to you so that will cut back the amount of spells or skills by 1 if you don’t want to worry about your weaknesses anymore.
Having only 8 slots for this intricate combat system is hard to maintain as foes change from area to area and you must choose between more varied spells, using up a slot to increase damage of a spell element or using a slot to resist or null certain spells. If you are having trouble with poison you can research the ailment skill branch which will allows you to become immune to poison and will cause your enemies to lose two turns if they attack you with one. There is just so much to consider that you can spend a frightening amount of time just staring at your 8 measly slots and wondering how to build up your characters. Make sure not to neglect some of your party members as you cannot always rely on the same ones since there are sections where you are split up or doing something else so you don’t want to end up with an under leveled character that has few skills. Levels don’t really mean much in this game, I never felt myself becoming more powerful the only things that changed is you have more health or MP depending on where you place your stat points. Your party members automatically place their points when leveling up, you can only manage your main character’s stats. The only real thing I have noticed about facing enemies much higher level than me is that they attack first more often and that’s pretty much it. As long as you have a solid strategy and put your 8 skill slots to good use you can defeat any enemies.
You will be facing a lot of enemies in your time playing and will come to learn that MP is just as important or more so than HP. Losing all your HP is not that big of a deal since your party member’s will revive by themselves if you either win or escape from the battle which you can then have fully healed with your healing magic outside of battle. Losing all your MP however is a death sentence since you will no longer be able to use spells that your enemy is weak to, you will no longer be able to defend or heal from them either meaning that you will be stuck with physical attacks which more often than not causes enemies to immediately counterattack. A few attacks is all that it takes to kill either them or you, no one other than bosses are capable of taking much damage meaning that both sides of the battle are constantly on knifes edge and can be unexpectedly killed on a moment’s notice. Fighting in this game is very intense with little room for error. It gives you a feeling of anxiety when facing unknown enemies and makes death feel frightening since save points are few & far between.
Outside of combat you will be controlling your character in third person, exploring huge areas and solving some puzzles at times. In an area near the end of the game known as “136” the puzzles do get to be a bit much as they have you solving one after another and they are all more trial & error than needing any actual thought. Most of the areas do suffer from the artistic choice of everything being gray and lifeless. While cool to see a war torn city with endless rain pouring down, there is very little to differentiate between most areas and only a few that I remember after having just finished the game. It does make sense that everything is gray and dull lore wise but having nearly no interesting locations to explore is still a flaw. The demons are really memorable on the other hand. There are a ton of models and are mostly all pretty creepy looking, especially your party member Argilla that has tendril like arms and mouths on both of her breasts. All of your party members are pretty interesting and can make you feel wary of them as the tolls of war take their effect on them. There is little I can say about the story without spoiling something but it is an interesting and unique tale. Who are the Karma Temple, is Nirvana real and why do you have to kill each other are but a few questions surrounding this grand mystery. You will even have several dialogue choices available to you throughout which at first seem gimmicky and of no impact but they do end up mattering in the sequel Digital Devil Saga 2.
Unfortunately that means that this game has a cliffhanger ending and does end up raising more questions than you had in the first place. The very last area of this game has to be one of the worst experiences I have suffered through in all my time gaming and I would go as far as to recommend looking up the ending of the game on Youtube once you reach it and not even bother with it. It is a seemingly endless journey across a ton of copy and pasted rooms that has some really cheap gimmicks designed to waste your time such as invisible walls that appear out of nowhere to block your path, teleporters, nonsensical level design and much worse. I’m sure we have all experienced annoying sections like this on one time or another while playing games but this area just goes on for far too long. It had to be one of the most annoying and tedious things I have done in a game and words cannot properly explain how terrible this last area is. When I finally reached the end of it I ended up despising a character that we were obviously intended to care about for putting you through this. To add salt to the wound this game’s random battles occur extremely frequently and you are often tossed into another battle just after taking a few feet. Most areas themselves are not too large so you can get to where you need to go even if you are constantly bombarded by more fights than a store on Black Friday but when the areas are extremely large and confusing like in the final area it can lead to mild insanity.
Music is great all around and sets a somber, slightly creepy vibe to the environments. Especially the opening video when you boot up the game. I must have listened to it dozens of times while starting up the game and I still want to see it each and every time. Sound effects are well done as well with creepy growls, steam punk like gadgets letting out vapor and the endless rain pouring down. The only bad things I can say about the audio side of this game are the voice acting and the very loud noise it makes whenever you start a battle. I never did get used to that ear deafening sound even after nearly 50 hours of playtime and there is no way to turn it down. After finishing the game you have the option of starting it again with all of your skills intact though none of your money or levels. It is kind of pointless considering that you do not start with enough MP to use most of your spells meaning you will be using the same low level spells you used while first playing through it but it is their if you want more of the game but don’t have the sequel. Even if it scarred me for life with that torturous final area I do feel compelled to play the sequel. While Digital Devil Saga may have too many random battles for its own good and that final area I keep harping about, it was a fun and intense journey with a unique world that I still yearn to learn more about.