In the world of the Junkyard, six tribes are embroiled in a war where the victor can claim the right to escape the turmoil and enter the promised land of Nirvana. The conflict has been locked in a stalemate as long as anyone can remember, but all that changes the day a mysterious light appears in the sky. Changed by the light, the people of the Junkyard now have the ability to transform into demons and literally devour their enemies- a powerful new ability that should decide the course of the war one way or another. And for Serph, the young leader of the Embryon tribe, it is the start of a journey to save a mysterious young woman who appeared in the Junkyard at the moment when this all began.
An offshoot of the ever popular Shin Megami Tensei franchise of games, Digital Devil Saga’s initially rather cryptic title (trust me, it will make sense by the end) hides what turns out to be one of the more compelling RPGs out there. With a battle system that demands skill and strategy rather than brute force, and a game play style so addictive that you simply cannot tear yourself away once you start playing, DDS is a hidden gem even for those who thought they knew the RPG scene.
During your adventures in the Junkyard, you take on the role of Serph, the quiet leader of the Embryon whose goal it is to defeat all the other tribes and reach Nirvana. What this basically means is that you and your team are embroiled in a battle royale situation, and unlike certain other series, that means there’s no beating about the bush- you’re out to put a permanent end to your rivals.
What this boils down to, of course, is visiting different areas and taking on the other tribes. There aren’t actually all that many locations in the game to visit, but each dungeon takes a while to complete, so all in all you get a decent playtime for the game. Not only will each area have several levels (luckily you can refer to a map to see everywhere you’ve been), but you’ll be solving puzzles along the way- everything from simple gate and switch setups to a few more complex situations such as having a limited time to swim through underground water pipes.
Fortunately, save points (or Karma terminals, as they are known), are relatively plentiful in the game, although game play is so addictive that your intention to just play to the next save point usually becomes ‘play for the next three hours’. Karma terminal come in two types- large Karma terminals will let you restore your party (for a price), whilst small ones lack this facility but do allow you to teleport to the nearest large terminal (a good way to avoid backtracking once you’ve completed a dungeon). Also scattered about the world are vendors, life terminals and rejuvenation points; the latter two have the same function of healing you, but with the difference that life terminals cost money.
Whilst playing the game, you’ll also notice a gauge in the top left corner measuring ‘Solar Noise’. The manual will very vaguely tell you that ‘Solar Noise affects your characters in different ways’, but don’t worry if you don’t have much of a clue what it does; it only affects the selling price of certain items, the damage done by a handful of abilities and the aforementioned water pipe mini-game.
Also available in certain areas is the ability to go ‘Field Hunting’; a more action-orientated game play mode, Field Hunting lets Serph slash minor demons (basically balls of light)- get enough within the time limit, and you’ll battle against a special enemy, the Mitama. Mitama are strong against all but a particular elemental magic, but they are also prone to run away, so killing them isn’t easy (although of course, if you manage it, there’ll be a big reward). Equally tricky to pin down are Omoikanes, random monsters who are only weak against your characters’ human forms, but who flee at the drop of a hat- again, defeating them will net you a nice bonus.
Naturally, the game also comes with optional bosses and areas for the truly dedicated to explore, most of them hidden behind coloured walls that you need a key to pass through. It is in fact possible to complete the entire game without ever unlocking these walls, but if you want to do everything in the game, you’ll need to track down the appropriate keys.
Hunting: we eat to live, and live to eat
Battle is the flesh and blood of DDS (often quite literally) and whilst the random encounter rate is higher than most of us would have liked, the game is refreshing in that you can’t get anywhere just by spamming the attack button as you can with most games. Instead, strategy is key to almost every battle, and those who ignore it probably won’t be able to make it past the first dungeon.
Before getting into battle, it’s important to make sure that you have the right selection of skills set up; as well as basic attacks, each character has room for 4, 6 or 8 skills depending on their level, and although that might seem quite generous, you’ll have to carefully pick and choose what works best for you. Skills come in four types- physical abilities which deplete HP, magic attacks which deplete MP, auto skills which provide resistances or trigger automatically under the right circumstances and shield skills which let you void, repel or drain certain types of attack. There’s a wide variety on offer, and you’re going to have become familiar with pretty much all of them in order to survive.
When it comes to actually learning these skills, you’ll be relying on the Mantra Grid; the game’s equivalent of Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid. Mantra are laid out in rows according to type, with nodes adjacent to mastered Mantra available for download at save points. Downloading a mantra costs money, but you then have to accumulate AP from battle to master that Mantra and use its corresponding skills. What you end up with, therefore, is great freedom of choice in customising your characters- which can be both a blessing and a curse depending on how decisive you are.
With all that in mind, the time has finally come to discuss battle itself, and it is here where the need for strategy will become apparent. Digital Devil Saga uses what it calls the “Press Turn” system, in which your party receives one full turn per living party member (you can have one to three members at any time). The party will act in the order you set in the menu, and generally the same conditions apply to the enemy- although certain bosses do get extra turns.
In the normal run of things, every action you take will consume one turn, but- and here’s where skill really kicks in- there are some important exceptions. If your attack corresponds to an enemy’s weakness, then you’ll only consume half a turn, whilst if your attack fails or is something the enemy is strong against, you’ll consume two turns (you can also pass to only use up half a turn). If you have a spare half turn left over (represented by a flashing hexagon in the top right rather than a solid one), then the next character to go will use this as if it were a complete turn rather than a half. That last specific may not make much sense until you actually come to play, but suffice to say that targeting enemy weaknesses will result in more turns and higher damage done before the enemy gets a chance to counterattack.
Of course, attacks and skills aren’t the only options you have in battle; as well as the obvious choice of using an item, you can also switch party members in and out of battle, revert to human form (more on this in a moment) or perform a combo ability involving two or three party members. Combos are unlocked by the right combination of individual skills between characters, and whilst they take up multiple turns, they can also be useful for dealing more damage than the component skills would be able to do on their own.
When it comes to reverting to human form, you might naturally wonder why you would want to do such a thing- after all, a puny gun-wielding human is far less impressive than a demon with special skills. It’s important to be aware of the ability to transform and revert, however, for not only does it help when you get ambushed and have to begin the battle in human form, but there are also attacks that humans are immune to, enemies that are weak against guns and combos that need at least one human character in order to perform. All in all, it isn’t something you’ll be using all the time, but it’s a useful option to have.
Another aspect of the game you’ll want to be aware of is the ability to hunt your enemy- since the mastery of Mantra is depending on collecting AP, you’ll want to enhance the amount you get at the end of each battle by literally consuming your enemy. In order to achieve this, you’ll first need to frighten the enemy by attacking their weaknesses or successfully nullifying the attacks, before finishing them off with a Hunt skill that will see your characters devour an enemy demon. The reward for pulling this off is a nice big chunk of AP, but beware- the greedier you are, the more likely you’ll end up with the stomach ache status effect, which prevents you from earning any AP at all!
Quick tip: If your HP/MP are low and there’s no restore point or item vendor in sight, save your ‘Noise’ items for this situation- not only do they permanently increase your stats, but they also completely heal you. It’s also worth noting that there’s a chance of healing HP, MP or both when a character levels up.
Serph (Varna): As Varna, Serph is an ice element demon with a natural weakness to fire, and with the unique feature that you can customise his stat growth (as any RPG player will know, strength, vitality and magic should be prioritised over agility and luck). Serph tends to become a worthy physical attacker and mage quite naturally over the course of the game; my focus was on enhancing his natural ice abilities with earth and healing as backups, alongside boosting abilities.
Heat (Agni): A strong physical attacker at the expense of magic, in Agni form Heat is a fire element demon who is weak against ice (like you can’t guess from the name). Unfortunately, whilst he is useful early in the game, the increasing importance of magic later on forces him to take a backseat, as both Gale and Argilla are capable of becoming better with fire element magic than he is. By the end of the game, I mainly used Heat for abilities I wanted but no one else had room for, but if you wish to develop his physical and ailment inducing skills, then that would probably be the best path for him.
Argilla (Prithivi): A natural mage and earth element demon (her weakness is force, the game’s equivalent of wind), Argilla is able to become skilled in both healing and elemental magic, which is exactly what I used her for. Her physical strength may be low, but with her outstanding magic ability, she’s just what you need later in the game.
Gale (Vayu): A force element demon with a weakness to electricity, Gale doesn’t join up until partway through the game, but he does come prepared with some handy force element magic that will probably be stronger than anything you’ve taught your party up to that point. I like to use him as a backup mage with a focus on force and fire element, as well as a revival ability for when Argilla is knocked out. His stat growth tends to be reasonably balanced.
Cielo (Dyaus): The final Embryon member to join the party, Cielo is an electrical element demon with an annoying weakness against ailments (i.e. negative status effects). Although he likes to boost his luck and agility to the detriment of other stats, Cielo’s electrical attacks are second to none, and once you level him up enough to withstand enemy attacks (for a while his relatively low HP makes him a risk in high stakes battles), he can make a good secondary healer as well.
Since Digital Devil Saga and its sequel are two halves of the same whole, don’t expect the story to be completed in this game- instead, it will leave you on a frustrating cliff-hanger that can only be resolved by getting to the second game as soon as possible. As far as we actually see in this game is concerned, on the largest of scales it’s another battle royale, but there’s a lot more going on in the details- just don’t expect it to make any sense just yet.
As a world filled with warring tribes and hideous demons, the Junkyard isn’t really the most attractive of places- you won’t find any brightly coloured girls and so forth here. Even so, the character and location designs are well thought out, technically accomplished and brought to life through cel-shaded models. The in-game music opts for an industrial theme overall, but is surprisingly worthy as a stand-alone soundtrack, with the battle theme “Hunting” proving immensely catchy.
An unexpectedly enjoyable and addictive game, Digital Devil Saga proves that RPGs don’t have to be all about level grinding and spamming the attack button- there’s still room to create a title where skill is necessary but the learning curve isn’t too steep. Just be warned- once you start playing, you won’t ever want to stop.
To be continued…in the Digital Devil Saga 2 review