Looking for a traditional turn-based role-playing game (RPG) that doesn't feature elves, dragons, and the days of yore? Then I've got the game for you. Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga (DDS) is the latest game from the much-loved (yet almost tragically ignored by American gamers) MegaTen universe. Renowned for their modern settings, philosophical and ideological story elements, use of demons, and unrelenting difficulty these games are revered by hardcore RPG fans. DDS is the latest offshoot in a gaming world that already features the Persona titles, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, DemiKids, and a slew of other games, and much like its brethren, it's a refreshing change of pace for a genre that seems to be mired in stale ideas and clichéd stories.

Players take control of Serph, leader of the Embryons. The Embryons are one of several "gangs" fighting a never-ending turf war in a post-apocalyptic arena known simply as The Junkyard. As legend tells it, the gangs will battle until only one remains, and that group will be granted access to Nirvana, a mystical place not unlike the Judeo-Christian Heaven. Things have been at a relative stalemate for years, though as the groups maintain a sort of balance that keeps any one of them from being strong enough to overtake all the others. This is about to change.

As the game opens, Serph and his Embryons are battling it out with the rival Vanguards. When a strange monolithic object crashes into the battlefield, it emits a searing light that scars everyone before revealing a dark haired young woman inside. The new marks on the combatants aren't merely cosmetic as witnessed by the fact that each fighter transforms into a demon with an appetite for his fallen enemies. For some reason, the rules of The Junkyard have changed; it's now an "eat or be eaten" world, and only the tribe most willing to devour their foes will reach Nirvana.

Yep, that's not your everyday "save the princess from the evil wizard" game, is it? Cannibalism in videogames is definitely a new frontier.

Gameplay-wise, DDS is something of an anomaly. The presence of a skill system that looks at least something like Final Fantasy X's sphere grid has many reviewers labeling the title as a demonic spin-off of Square's game. This isn't entirely accurate, though. While DDS is turn-based and utilizes a skill system similar to the sphere grid (at least in appearance—in reality, it's not different than any traditional skill tree system), it's also a lot less story-oriented than the typical Square epic. At its heart, DDS is an elaborately crafted dungeon crawler with story interludes mixed in at various points. It has more in common with last year's Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne than with anything Square's done in recent memory.

However, even the link between DDS and its spiritual predecessor Nocturne is tenuous at best. DDS re-uses enemy models from the earlier game and shares a place in the MegaTen universe and a similarly styled combat system, but that's essentially it. Nocturne's Pokemon-esque demon collection system is entirely absent in DDS. Couple that with a more streamlined battle system and a more gradual difficulty curve, and DDS becomes the perfect introductory game for fans new to the MegaTen series. This is not to say, however, that DDS is a dumbed-down game—it's not. This title can still smack down even veteran players in short order. DDS is one of those rare games where even a random encounter can lead to death if the player makes a mistake or has just a bit of bad luck.

Like Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga requires strategic thinking even for the most mundane random encounters. The game's combat revolves around a "press turn" system, which awards players (and enemies) extra turns for exploiting weaknesses or landing critical blows. Attacking a creature weak to lightning with a shock attack will garner an extra turn. If that creature is resistant to fire and the player casts a fire spell, then they'll lose turns as well. Because of this, analyzing the enemies in each battle is a crucial component to succeeding. Enemies can be strong or weak against just about anything (including physical attacks), and winning is a matter of not only finding the enemy's vulnerable points, but exploiting them also.

The challenge in this comes from the fact that each character is essentially a blank slate at the start of the game. All magic and enhancements are found on the sphere grid and are called mantras. Each character can equip one mantra at a time and earns points in battle that are allocated to learning the mantra's skills. Making this even more complicated is that players will have at most eight slots to fill with skills, while being able to learn what amounts to well over 100 abilities during the course of the game. Again, planning is key to surviving; going into battle with the wrong skills often leads to a fast death.

Because of the way the mantra system is set up, players have a definite say in how each of the game's five playable characters develops in terms of their skills. Players have complete control over Serph since they can also allocate his three "ability points" into whatever categories they see fit as he advances. The other characters auto-allocate their points, which tends to put them into a pre-defined mold in the party dynamic. Serph can be anything, though—a powerful mage, a strong fighter, or a combination of the two.

The skill tree itself can be a little daunting since each character has access to almost every skill path right from the very beginning. Because of this, it's easy to get everyone on the same skills at the same time, then run into a battle that requires abilities that haven't been learned, necessitating some running around and engaging in random battles in order to learn the skills and advance the story. This isn't really a negative, though, as the "trial and error" approach to gameplay has long been a staple of the series as a whole. One thing that will shock the more casual RPG player is the fact that leveling-up isn't ever the way to get past a tough battle. Levels don't mean much in DDS—learning the proper skills is the way to keep moving forward.

Visually, the game is stunning. The graphics have sort of cel-shaded look to them, but it's not the stereotypical cel-shaded game wherein everyone is surrounded by heavy black lines. The character models all have that anime-inspired look, but without the big eyes and unrealistic proportions. The game has a lot in common with something like Akira (which played up the post-apocalyptic theme quite nicely) and the films of David Cronenberg in the whole flesh-machine intermingling.

The game isn't very colorful (The Junkyard is a drab place where it rains constantly) but this is easily the prettiest gray game I've ever seen. The environments aren't as gothic as Nocturne, but they fit the tone of this story quite nicely. Little bits of color seem to seep through as the game advances though, serving as nice foil to each character's awakening to the world around them and their own past and feelings.

I wasn't particularly blown away by the soundtrack when I first started playing DDS but that changed as time went on. Much has been made of the fact that the Japanese version's title track has been replaced by a new theme courtesy of Etro Anime. "Danger," the new lead song, is quite good in its own right, and the original theme "Pray" is still featured throughout the game.

In another change of pace, the game features a fair amount of voice acting, and with the exception of Rasta-wannabe Cielo, it's all really good. The characters in the game are surprisingly mature and the decision to bring in such quality voice actors only enhances that effect. This is one of the few RPGs out there that seems to be squarely aimed at the older gamer, a market that's been well covered on the PC front, but not on the consoles.

The game's dungeons are huge, but not overly confusing. I'm sure they seem even bigger than they are since the random encounter rate is surprisingly high. It's not on the level of the Dreamcast version of Skies of Arcadia, but players will spend a lot of time in combat. Fortunately, this is made easier to swallow by an abundance of save points littered throughout each area. The game may feature some "trial and error" elements, but it always is nice enough to at least give the player a save point prior to any major encounter since things will often go wrong in any boss fight.

If one were to level any negatives at the game, they'd probably be that it's a little short and it ends on something of a cliffhanger. The cliffhanger is forgivable since the Digital Devil Saga 2 is slated for release in August. The play-time isn't particularly bothersome either, unless the player expects a fifty hour game. I completed DDS in roughly 35 hours, and that was without doing some of the optional dungeons and bosses. Players could add on several more hours if they were to tackle everything the game offers. Even more interesting is the New Game + feature, which allows players to restart the game with all their mantra from the previous playthrough intact. This doesn't sound like a particularly huge deal, but this is the only way to get to some of the optional bosses and have a shot at winning. One of these bosses has been garnering praise as the "hardest optional boss in RPG history" so taking a second tour through the game just to see this beast is well worth it.

At any rate, gamers looking for an RPG that breaks out of the cookie-cutter mold should find much to love in Digital Devil Saga. This title has it all—engrossing and challenging gameplay, a plot that rises above the usual clichés of the genre, loads of depth and customization, great graphics, and some excellent audio. This is, hands down, the best RPG I've played in 2005. Yes, the difficulty and the dungeon crawling elements will turn off some gamers, but hardcore RPG fans have found their very own Nirvana inside this game. Rating: 9 out of 10

Mike Bracken
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