Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2
Digital Devil Saga 2 arrives on the PlayStation 2 not so much as a freestanding videogame sequel, but more as a 'part two' continuation that delivers a concluding narrative adventure, which, although thoroughly accessible and self-supporting to those who missed the solid original (we gauged it at 79%), is perhaps best appreciated by those already well-versed with the demonic adventures of Serph, Sara, and the rest of the battling Embryon tribe.
By way of brief recap, Digital Devil Saga's storyline unfolded in The Junkyard, a world consisting of conflicting urban settlements scattered around a gigantic central point of neutrality known only as the Karma Temple. Each of the Junkyard's settlements was populated by a specific warring tribe, and collectively these tribes battled one another relentlessly in order to achieve total territorial rule and duly earn the right of scaling the towering Karma Temple to reach the mythical Nirvana.
When the abrupt arrival of a mysterious artefact inexplicably delivers the young Sera to The Embryon tribe amid a deadly gun battle, and subsequently leaves the warring tribal members scarred with strange and unique tattoo-like markings (known as Atma), it soon becomes evident that The Embryons - and the opposing tribes - are able to transform into powerful demonic apparitions capable of devouring their enemies.
At the close of the original game - and after one or two climatic story shocks - Serph and company successfully transcend the hell of The Junkyard and reach Nirvana, only to discover that it is far from the Utopian paradise they had been hoping to find. Moreover, Digital Devil Saga 2 opens with Nirvana portrayed as scant little more than a terrifyingly devastated and sun-scorched planet Earth, where the remaining members of The Embryons arrive as soul-based data A.I. creatures (known on Earth as 'Tuners') that have somehow achieved sentient existence. However, although the game's heroes have retained their powers of transformation, they have left one hell and walked directly into another - and one where they find themselves the hunted and not the hunters.
From the off, Digital Devil Saga 2 (DDS2), much like its predecessor, smacks heavily of the genre-defining Final Fantasy in its role-playing game (RPG) blueprint, and everything from its environmental character roaming, NPC interaction, turn-based combat, and fantastical design feels at once warm and welcoming in its comfortably unoriginal familiarity. Yet, while DDS2 finds itself lacking in the layered complexities proffered by the masterful Final Fantasy series, it does successfully manage to implement its own unique action RPG elements to help form a tangible gameplay attraction.
In the main, the fact that random battle encounters can be switched from manual player control through to the relief of automatic A.I. decision-making comes in especially handy when confronting the same humdrum enemies for the millionth time - often an RPG criticism. Also, levelling-up in DDS2 is blissfully easy (though some may see it as devolved and overly simplistic), with point allocation swiftly split between character attributes without bogging players down in convoluted juggling.
Digital Devil Saga's progressive grid-based Mantra system (basically physical and elemental magic) is also back in attendance, although the sequel's version is revamped and more dynamic than the one utilised in the original. All in all, every aspect of interfacing is fairly easy to grasp (tutorials are on hand for the hard-of-understanding) and nothing thrown before the player sullies the execution of on-screen action.
In terms of aesthetics, Digital Devil Saga 2 performs relatively well in all departments, but it does fall a little flat - mainly due to little more than poor timing - when viewed alongside superior swansong PlayStation 2 RPG releases such as Okami, Rogue Galaxy, and especially the scrumptious Final Fantasy XII. However, the game's character designs - both human and demonic - are to be commended, as are its in-game narrative cut scenes, which play out beautifully while also subtly providing evolving insight into the story and its characters. Game sound, beyond the blood-curdlingly awful squeaky Japanese pop song that opens DDS2, offers representative up-tempo guitar accompaniment to the battles and also more relaxed musical interludes to pad out the frighteningly brief gameplay moments afforded to actually wandering about freely in the game world.
And that's where Digital Devil Saga 2, just like its predecessor, runs the risk of unfortunate implosion. The annoyingly frequent turn-based action that dominated (and in part marred) proceedings in Digital Devil Saga returns in spades for the sequel - and is perhaps proof that Ghostlight and Atlus didn't really listen to the feedback gathered prior to DDS2's release. More pointedly, most RPGs generally work on some form of randomised battle system, but while the mechanics in DDS2 are effortless and accessible, the creeping sense of restrictive repetition all too soon begins to loom over the player's every move. Admittedly, the game's undeniably compelling storyline should push dedicated genre fans through the incessant waves of enemy encounters, but those more accustomed to balanced exploratory gameplay will likely grow ever-more frustrated by battles that occur virtually every ten seconds and often involve the same enemies over and over. The simple fact of the matter is that DDS2 is all rather linear where environmental freedom is concerned, and without all the relentless battle padding there would be very little room for movement - if you'll pardon the pun.
Despite what would appear to be a destructive line of rinse and repeat boredom, Digital Devil Saga 2's greatest strength also proves to be its single most telling redemption from the prospect of fractious battling. Indeed, it's difficult to truly condemn the game's often moan-inducing 'take three steps-fight-take three steps-fight' delivery when the storyline (its occasionally cheesy performances notwithstanding) is so intriguingly deep that is stands as a bewilderingly polar opposite when compared to the game's action. Many players may find themselves lost in the plot's overlapping character complexities, original game flashbacks, and constantly twisting evolution, but the mere fact that the narrative is not instantly predictable is a genuinely refreshing change. Naturally, there's little by way of middle ground when evaluating DDS2, and chances are that gamers will either by drawn, helplessly transfixed, through the repetition in order to witness the final fate of Serph and Sera, or will be crippled by battle paralysis before chalking up a handful of gameplay hours from the 40+ on offer (80+ for both portions of the game).
Digital Devil Saga 2 is far from a bad game, and as a direct sequel it follows well in the footsteps of the original while convincingly filling the yawning narrative chasm left by Serph and Sera's interrupted adventure. However, with such a wide selection of recent RPGs available to PlayStation 2 owners, it's hard to see how Digital Devil Saga's endlessly shallow action and shoehorned RPG aspects could ever emerge as the preferred choice when compared against the majesty of Final Fantasy XII (sorry for the constant comparison, but it's true). If the game had been released in its entirety back in 2006 rather than via a staggered two-part release, then perhaps the Digital Devil Saga would have shone a little brighter that it does. But, as things stand, it's a saga that only insatiable hardcore genre addicts will garner any real fulfillment from.