Having triumphed over the other tribes, Serph and the Embryon earned the right to go to Nirvana- but what they found there was far from their expectations. Alone in a world where a black sun turns those who venture above ground to stone, Serph must search for his missing comrades, all the while eluding the machinations of the Karma Society and trying to determine his own true nature.
Just as the four .hack games must be effectively considered as one, so too is DDS2 basically an extension of the first game- albeit a very worthy one that shouldn’t be overlooked. With that in mind, most of the game play details are of course the same as the first game, so what I will be looking at here are the differences, tweaks and improvements that the second game brings to the series.
Emerging from the Junkyard
Having survived the destruction of the Junkyard at the end of the first game, your heroes emerge into the real world- a place filled with just as many dangers as the one you just left. Once again, you will move between a relatively limited number of areas, each of which takes a while to properly complete, ensuring that the playing experience is at least as long as it was in the first game, depending on how much levelling up you want to do.
Compared to the last game, however, there is a lot more interaction with the areas you visit- gone are the unlockable coloured walls for optional areas, but in their place getting through even regular dungeons is a bit more of a challenge. As well as the old staple of disappearing walls and working out which teleport will take you forward rather than the beginning, there are also areas of darkness and damaging electrical areas that will deplete your HP. In order to combat these, you will need to purchase Light Balls to banish the darkness and Core Shields to protect you from external damage. And for those of you who welcome more action orientated pursuits, there’s a rather stressful section in the game where you will have to escape from prison by running from the jailer on the field map.
The other changes are mainly cosmetic- for example, Solar Noise is now called Solar Data, macca and cells have been replaced with dollars and flowers (valuable in this post-apocalyptic reality), whilst the menu now also contains a ‘Recovery’ option that automatically selects characters with the appropriate skills to heal the party- a faster option than scrolling through the skills menu yourself.
There is one major addition to consider, however, in the form of a new type of equippable item called a Karma Ring. Each Karma ring offers either a boost to stats or an advantage in battle (anything from Void Phys at the start of battle to providing the party with an extra Press Turn each round), and can be further customised by filling its empty slots with stat enhancing gems. Each character can equip one Karma Ring, which in turn usually has 2-4 gem slots- but be warned, if you want to remove gems and put other ones in, the ones you remove will be destroyed forever.
For those who imported data from the first game, there are also some extra treats- if you made the right decisions in that game, you’ll be able to learn some unique special abilities in the final dungeon, as well as having the chance of recruiting a ‘secret’ character (whose identity must be the worst kept secret in gaming history).
Field hunting also makes a return and operates in much the same way as DDS1, although it is only available when Serph is in the party, making it unavailable for huge stretches of the game.
Devouring the enemy
Aside from a few changes to the interface, at first glance the battle system looks much the same as the first game- Press Turns are back, along with all the familiar spells and enemy types- but alongside it, a few new twists have been introduced. The first and most obvious of these is the new Berserk Mode- when Solar Data is at or close to its maximum, your ability to transform becomes unstable, causing you to sometimes enter battle in Berserk Mode, a fusion of your human and demon forms. In Berserk Mode, your strength and chance of scoring a critical hit are greatly increased, but it comes at a price- magic is unusable, defence is lowered and it’s also very likely that your attack will miss.
Once again mastering skills for battle is dependent on the Mantra Grid, but this too has been given an overhaul for the new era. Instead of consisting of several linear tracks for each ability type, the new Mantra Grid is now a hexagonal grid that allows more freedom for switching between ‘tracks’- provided you’ve mastered an adjacent mantra, you can always jump across to learning one from a completely different element or skill type, even if you haven’t yet learned lower level spells from that element. This is certainly useful later in the game, since you can skip learning the basic spells that aren’t really useful anymore.
The new Mantra Grid also has another twist in the form several secret mantra which can only be unlocked when all the mantra around them have been mastered (not necessarily by the same character, just the party as a whole). Some of these mantras boost the party’s stats, but others are of an ‘Esoteric’ type that enable the mastery of extra skills of varying usefulness. Also present are powerful Hidden Mantra that only appear when a character reaches the end of a particular track, alongside a couple of special mantra that only appear on the grid when special optional bosses are defeated.
Combos have also been expanded and retooled somewhat- as well as having more combos to discover in the first place, they have been made somewhat more flexible. For example, in the first game elemental combos needed both elemental spells to be at the same level (so as you levelled up your single target spells you’d lose your lower level all target combos), but this no longer happens- so Teradyne and Bufudyne don’t just allow you to cast Mabufudyne, they also let you cast the lower level Mabufula and Mabufu.
In terms of overall difficulty, Digital Devil Saga 2 is much like its predecessor in that you can’t brute force it- you have to take your enemies’ strengths and weaknesses into account if you want to get anywhere. The game also has a Hard Mode for those who have cleared the first game or started a New Game+, but certainly the basic game is challenging enough, with significant grinding and learning of mantras required in order to best some of the later bosses.
Veterans of the first game will recall occasionally running into Omoikanes, tricky enemies that yielded great rewards for those able to defeat them. They’re back in Digital Devil Saga 2, but this time around it’s easier to get the better of them- instead of being weak to gun attacks, they come in groups of five and are vulnerable to random elements, ensuring that you should be able to kill at least a few of them over the course of the game and reap in massive rewards.
When you’re not out encountering Omoikanes, there’s a chance you might run into Jack Frost, a quizmaster who has 100 questions for aspiring adventurers. Each question is multiple choice; getting them right will net you an item, but getting them wrong will see the battle end immediately. Once you eventually get all 100 questions right, a secret area will open up.
Playable characters (spoilers!)
Serph (Varna): Despite being nominally still the main character, Serph spends large portions of the game being unplayable (more on that further down). Nonetheless, when you have him in your team he remains a solid all-rounder whose stat growth you can customise as you like (as before, I recommend focusing on STR, MAG and VIT), making for a solid attacker with a good command of magic. His natural element is ice, with a weakness to fire.
Gale (Vayu): This time around, Gale is playable from the start of the game, and although he’s an all-rounder with a wind specialist, he tends to fill in as the fire-user too. Whenever Argilla and Cielo are available, Gale tends to take more of back seat, but he is useful to fall back on in situations where they can’t contribute.
Argilla (Prithivi): Once again, Argilla is the weakest of the team physically, instead specialising in magic with an affinity for Earth spells. For me, Argilla was usually the healer of the team, although when the occasion called for it she could let loose with powerful elemental magic and combos.
Roland (Indra): New for DDS, Roland is inexplicably the team’s second Thunder specialist, although unlike Cielo he isn’t weak against ailments (instead, Earth is his weakness). He’s an average character who proves useful early on, but he later leaves the party and only becomes playable in the final dungeon if you don’t fulfil the conditions to get Heat back. Personally, I would have preferred Roland to be a fire user (since otherwise you don’t have a fire specialist until the end), with mine proving to be a stolid backup for ice, healing and thunder attacks.
Cielo (Dyaus): A vital component of my team, Cielo may be a weaker character who likes to pump his stat bonuses into random places, but even so for me he became invaluable, mastering not only his native thunder but Death and Expel magic as well. With various stat boosting spells on his side as well, there was never nothing for Cielo to do in battle.
Sera (Varnani): Serph’s replacement for a section of the game, Sera is basically the female incarnation of Varna, and as such absorbs all of the skills that Serph has learned up to the point she replaces him. Just like Serph, she is a solid all-rounder, although as far as design goes I prefer the original Varna.
Heat (Agni): Unless you make the right choices at two points in the first game and then two further points in this game, you will only get to use the overpowered ‘True Agni’ in one battle; however, for those who go the extra mile, Heat can be used in place of Roland in the final dungeon (he absorbs all the skills that Roland learned earlier in the game). As before, Heat is skewed towards being a powerful physical attacker (although never stronger than Serph/Seraph) rather than a mage, but as he is the only playable fire specialist, it’s good to have him along for that as well as the nostalgia factor.
Seraph (Ardha): Disappointingly, when Serph and Seraph fuse to become Seraph, the demon thus created is an ugly bug-eyed creature with a hideous design. Ardha, is, however, a strong all-rounder with no particular weaknesses, which makes him/her a staple of the front line. Certainly I rarely switched him/her out of the party once s/he joined.
Following straight on from the original game, DDS2 unravels the mysteries behind the world of the Junkyard and the nature of both the Embryon and the Karma Society. It all gets a bit convoluted and confusing at times, but the game remains none the less enjoyable for it.
Unsurprisingly, the game is identical to its predecessor when it comes to visuals and effects, with only slight changes to the look of the interface marking it out from the original. The background music has been updated and remixed for this instalment, but is still in keeping with the first game.
Between them, the two Digital Devil Saga games have proven that the RPG genre isn’t as stale and tired as one might begin to fear- there is still room for innovative battle systems that force you to do more than just select ‘Attack’ all the time. Here’s to much more of the same from the team at Atlus.