I have nothing against cutesy role-playing games (RPGs). But sometimes, their sunny kingdoms and bildungsroman-style heroes get on my nerves. A boy's journey into manhood is a fine theme—Charles Dickens and Mark Twain did some pretty good stuff with it—but do we really need more boob-obsessed teenagers who think they're the greatest warrior who ever lived?
No, says Atlus. It's time for the RPG to grow up.
Such a sentiment might seem out of place coming from the folks who brought us Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure. But even the cutest Atlus RPG has cracks in its sunny veneer. Exorcism is a perfectly good after-school job; a princess is neither helpless nor, often, very nice; blocky animals eat each other to survive. So when Atlus makes a game like Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 and blows the coming-of-age RPG to smithereens, we shouldn't be surprised.
As soon as I popped the disc in, I knew that Digital Devil Saga 2 was unlike any RPG I'd ever played. There are no vast kingdoms full of meadows and mountains and lakes. Instead, plants are so rare that they can be sold for thousands of dollars and what little sun there is turns people to stone. Fortunately, our heroes aren't people at all: they're bundles of artificial intelligence who can transform into demons. After killing (and eating) all the other demons in a place called the Junkyard, Serph and his friends have won a place in Nirvana. But Nirvana is fraught with its own problems, and the friends realize that they've been used. Trusting no one but each other, they traverse a "landscape" of ugly brown buildings looking for the mysterious Cyber Shaman. And they devour anyone who gets in their way.
I found myself really caring about these not-exactly-people, even when I didn't like them. (Serph in particular turns out to have a pretty sordid past). These demons may be chunks of data, but their feelings of loss and disillusionment—as well as their love for each other—make them much more human than the homo sapien heroes in most RPGs.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to enjoy the characters or the story as much as I would've liked. Playing this game without playing the original Digital Devil Saga made me feel like the pity-invite at a party: everyone else knows each other so well that they don't need to explain their relationships to the likes of me. "We have to find Heat and Cielo!" someone says, and everyone nods gravely while I wonder, "Who are we talking about?"
Though I don't fully understand its plot, Digital Devil Saga 2's gameplay makes perfect sense to me. Cannibalism is a fine addition to any videogame; it's even better when eating members of one's own species is an important—and fun—part of a game's logic. When Serph and company devour other demons, they gain magic points: as many as one-half of all the points they can have. But they only get the points if the devour-move actually kills the demon; if it merely wounds him, the player just loses health points. So the trick is to whitttle away an enemy's health until the creature can be chomped down in one bite.
A successful "hunt" also gives a character tons of Atma points, which are necessary for learning new skills. New abilities are gained by downloading "mantras." These mantras cost money, and are arranged in a grid so that learning one gains access to the mantras surrounding it. Fire mantras, curse mantras, healing mantras….any character can learn any skill at all, if the player's willing to pay for it. Once someone downloads a mantra, he or she must earn enough Atma points to learn its associated skills. This process is entirely separate from increasing a character's stats ("leveling up"). Essentially, characters earn two different kinds of experience at once.
Do two different kinds of experience mean that players have to do twice the work to make their party stronger? Not necessarily. In Digital Devil Saga 2, stats mean nothing. If I use a lightening spell on an enemy who's weak to electricity, I not only do a truckload of damage—my party gets an extra turn as well. Sometimes exploiting other demons' weaknesses "frightens" them, so that they lose turns and become weak to devouring skills. Conversely, the player's party loses a turn if an enemy resists a certain element—if demons can absorb fire-spells for health or reflect physical attacks. With the right mix of skills and resistances, it's possible to destroy monsters without giving them a chance to fight back.
This kind of power could easily go to players' heads—but when it does, the game knocks us flat on our faces. Cockiness is a cardinal sin in Digital Devil Saga 2; each battle is different from the last, and death awaits those who stop thinking. Since the game relies so much on elemental strengths and weaknesses, there are no pet super-moves to decimate foes with. Even making each fighter a student of a different element (i.e. creating a fire mage, an earth mage, a healing mage, etc.) doesn't work. While in other RPGs the best defense is a good offense, the demons in Digital Devil Saga 2 are dead without a good variety of resistances. Having someone who's immune to death spells is no good if the other party members can still be Mamudooned into oblivion.
And then there were times when all the preparation in the world couldn't save my sorry butt. Sometimes Serph and his crew enter a limbo between human and demon states called "berserk mode." In this form, attacks do critical damage when they hit—except they often don't, because the party's accuracy plummets and it can't use spells. I don't know how many times I went into berserk mode with full health, only to eat pavement ten seconds later. Skill may help players on their journey, but it's Lady Luck who decides where they stop for the night.
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 isn't a game that will ease neophytes into the role-playing genre. But for RPG fans who are bored with 500+ attack stats and adolescent angst, it just might provide enough dark, dirty sadism to remind them that RPGs aren't just for kids. Digital Devil Saga 2 isn't just about maturity; it has maturity, and that's a major accomplishment.