Thursday, February 23, 2006

PS2 Review: Digital Devil Saga

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I last wrote about this game way back in December 2005 and here I am still playing it as the end of February rolls along. To be fair, I am actually at the tail end portion of the second part of this two-part saga and have spent probably about 80 hours of game time in total for the whole game. Having experienced it myself, I have to say that this game has to be the most imaginative and exciting RPG game to be released on the PS2 in 2005.

The first part of the “Digital Devil Saga” was released back in April 2005 and featured a fairly original storyline that have not been seen before in RPG games for the PS2. A departure from the usual fantasy-themed fare seen in the wildly successful Final Fantasy series, “Digital Devil Saga” is set in the post-apocalyptic and aptly named urban landscape of the Junkyard. In the desolate and perpetually raining land, the occupants of this environment form tribes for mutual protection against each other in a constant battle for supremacy of the land.

The game begins during one such battle when a strange object suddenly appears in the middle of a battleground involving the Embryon tribe which the game storyline is centered on. During the gunfight that ensued as both combatants tried to be the first to claim the mysterious item, the object started to open revealing an unconscious girl within it as well as releasing tendrils of energy that spread throughout the Junkyard granting everyone the ability to transform into humanoid demon-like being. Overcome by the hunger for flesh, the transformed being began slaughtering each other to satiate their newly awaken hunger.

Horrified at what was happening to them, the Embryon tribe was summoned along with the other tribes to the Karma Tower that stood in the center of the Junkyard. It was there that all of the tribe were given the task to find the mysterious girl and bring her to the Karma Towers after defeating all of the other tribes. The winning tribe was promised access to Nirvana where they would not need to fight for their survival any more. Unknown to the other tribes, Embryon tribe has the girl in question but was wavy of the new directive passed down from their unseen overlords.

Players get to play several characters from the Embryon tribe as they work through the other tribes on the way to the Karma Towers to claim their reward. Along the way, they discovered that not everything was the way it looked. The characters started to learn about memories and emotions that they never had before after being exposed to the unknown energy. More questions than answers about the nature of their existence started to crop up as they work their way closer to the Karma Towers. By the time the game reaches the final dungeon, it was clear that everything that the characters knew in their past lives were a lie that was about to be shattered forever now that they were the only remaining living combatants in the Junkyard.

After defeating the final boss battle at the end of “Digital Devil Saga – Part 1”, players will find themselves in another urban environment that looks no difference that the one our characters thought that they had left behind. Early in the “Digital Devil Saga – Part 2”, our main characters learns that they were actually artificially generated digital being brought to life by the hidden powers of the Cyber Shaman who they have been protecting during their journey through the Junkyard in the last game. Their fate in this new world was no better than in the one they left behind for the promise of Nirvana.

Released 6 months after the release of the first installment of this game, “Digital Devil Saga – Part 2” was set in another urban environment where most people lived in either depilated underground cities or in domed population centers controlled by the demonic Karma Association. Those living in the underground cities find themselves culled as food for the people living in the domed cities who have been exposed to a virus that would transform them into humanoid demons not unlike the ones that we saw in the Junkyard. They were exposed to the virus in an attempt to find away to survive living outside of their domes that protected them from the harsh environment outside that was turning the rest of the unprotected population into stone.

Through the course of this game, the surviving residents of the Junkyard learns that their world that was destroyed when they left it behind was actually an artificial construct created to test the virus and to run non-stop battle simulations to gauge the success of the virus. The Cyber Shaman called Sera was somehow able to bring them over to the real world in an attempt to repair the damage that have been done to her world. Their appearance would also throw a wrench into the wheels of a ongoing power struggle that surrounded the Karma Association that controlled this world. As gamers battle through this world through their characters, we get to see the story revealed in measured paces to what I hope (since I have not finished the final boss battle in the game yet) was a satisfying conclusion.

I was particularly drawn to the engaging storylines of the game. The use of elements from Hinduism as well as the fictional demons and deity powers was a welcomed departure from the tried and true hack-slash fantasy elements found in other PS2 RPG games. Looking back, the last time I played a game with similar echoes with religion and deities would be the equally wonderful “Xenogears” game for the PS and the “Xenosaga” series for the PS2. While the storyline in part 1 of this game raised more questions than answers, it flowed beautifully into the proceeding part. It was a testimonial to good game storytelling when players get to get this involved with the characters that they were playing as.

Both the character and the visual design of this game were a wonder to look at. Each character stood out in their individuality and their demonic alter egos looked sufficiently interesting to watch in action. The plethora of monsters and demons that they had to fight were no less imaginative in their designs which ranged from the cutesy to the outright horrifying examples that you would not want to meet in a darken alley. The cut-scenes that peppered the game was both interesting to watch in terms of plot development as well as for the esthetic quality of the rendered art.

While some of the voice acting in the English version of these two game was a bit on the dry side, the musical score for the game was sufficiently distinct to differentiate it from the other RPG games available for the PS2. The combination of guitar riffs, electronica and ethereal Japanese influenced sound underscore the game play and the cut-scenes fairly well. While some of the better pieces of the score had less exposure that I would have liked it, the rest of the score would be very familiar to the player after having to listen to them in the 40 odd-hours involved in completing each game apiece.

Each of the playable characters in the game can do battle in either their demonized alter ego or their weaker human mode. Each characters have the usual strength, vitality, magic, agility and luck stats that would increase as the character goes up to the next level based on the experience points that they gain after every battle. Unlike the other RPG games out there, gamers can only manually allocated the stats point to only one of the characters in “Digital Devil Saga” while the rest of their characters have their stat points distributed automatically when they reach their next level. Although the stat point distribution system felt balanced for the remaining characters, some players would preferred to have the ability to customized the characters themselves.

In addition to the stats that each characters have, they also have the ability to learn special skills called Mantras that are not different from the magical spells available on the “Final Fantasy” series. These Mantras were grouped together in elemental grouping (earth, fire, ice, electric and force) as well as defensive and offensive skills sets. Each character in the game are able to learn any mantra by pay the cost of the mantra from the money the character collects at the end of each encounter. Strategic selection of which mantra to get for which character is the key here as each character has a strong and weak elemental affiliation. Using Mantras with the same elemental properties that the character was strong in would give bonus damage points that would help in the encounters and vice versa.

The battle system in both installments of “Digital Devil Saga” is turn based with a party of 3 characters battling monsters that they encounter. Combatants could be swapped in and out of the team by consuming a turn but this is not really recommended as the number of remaining turns are fairly valuable to waste in that way. The element of strategy comes into play as, like the characters, their opponents also have their strong and weak affiliations to avoid or exploit. Successfully exploiting the opponent’s weakness gives the gamer an additional turn against their opponent while a missed or voided attack will cost an extra turn that the player has. The AI controlled opponents would also try to exploit the same weakness in the players battle group which could result in a fairly short and disastrous encounter for the player if the group was not prepared strategically.

The encounter rate for the monsters in both games at times seemed very high given the smallish feel of the some of the areas that gamers need to explore. Fortunately for the gamers the combinations of the opponents that they have to face in each area rarely vary too much within the same area so having a good party combination in the beginning of the area would help out in the rest of the places left to discover before meeting the boss for that area. Boss battles were fairly balanced an exciting although some seemed to require that the characters reach a certain experience level before gamers can attempt them. In these cases, the higher encounter rate would help the characters to gain levels quickly.

Both installments of the games could be replayed with a higher difficulty level once gamers complete the game. Replaying the game with a higher difficulty would allow gamers to access several hidden boss battles that were not available to them in the previous levels. There were also several items and bonuses that carried over from the first installment when gamers start a new game in the second part of “Digital Devil Saga” if they have the clear data save game stored on their PS2 memory card. Given the wealth of items to be collected and the mantras that could be learned, “Digital Devil Saga” does have a fairly high replay value if the gamer was willing to invest the additional game time on it.

With a fascinating cast or characters and very engaging storyline as well an atmosphere, it was easy to recommend “Digital Devil Saga” to those who like RPG games of the PS2. It was sufficiently different from the other RPGs in the vein of Final Fantasy series on the PS2 that set it apart as an interesting alternative and a great way to waste away 80 hours of your life.

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