So last time I talked about how Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga has been a slow burn for me, starting from where I felt it was a bland JRPG attempting to be edgy to something quite good in its own right. With some more time logged into it I want to unpack this a bit.
To recap, DDS is about several tribes that are locked in a state of constant warfare in a post-apocalyptic land called the Junkyard. The people that make up the tribes appear to be something other than human, lacking emotions and (it is implied) even basic bodily functions like eating. They’re puppets. A seemingly omnipotent computer has control over the world, and offers Nirvana to the tribe who emerges victorious.
At the beginning of the game, the tribes happen upon an egg-like object that causes them to transform into hungry Hinduism-inspired monsters who eat each other, and gradually awakens their emotions.
It’s hard not to be put off by this at first, as a game where all the characters are basically cannibals can’t help but seem kinda nihilistic. And I can’t stand emotionally manipulative stuff where the characters only exist to have horrible things happen to them. Which is why I like how DDS has turned it around (so far).
The weird transformation of the characters also awakens another side – they develop a moral compass and a desire to know the truth, and hence an awareness that they’re in a really crappy situation. In other words, they’ve changed from being automatons to fallen humans. The question is whether they’ll succumb to to their monstrous side, or be able to be redeemed from it.
This is interesting stuff, and reveals an idealistic side that I didn’t see coming. That, paired with how well the story develops the ontological mystery of the Junkyard in tandem, is making this a more compelling story than it has any right to be.
About that Junkyard: it’s a descendant of Final Fantasy VII‘s Midgar, and thinking about the two games together is worthwhile. VII isn’t exactly where Final Fantasy got edgy (VI certainly went some places), but it is where it kinda ran wild, having been freed from Nintendo’s content policy. And it’s depressing to consider how much of the ‘mature’ content was just plain juvenile: swearing, gay jokes, Tifa calling Barret a retard, etc.
DDS isn’t exactly a paragon of classiness, but it does come across as more mature, less interested in titillating or shocking than it is in just telling a good story.
The religious symbolism is a different story. I don’t know enough about Hinduism to analyze how functional all the religious symbolism actually is. But I’m guessing it would raise a few eyebrows among the devout. When it comes to religious sensitivity, the Shin Megami Tensei franchise is about on par with your average heavy metal album cover art.
(as an aside, if you want my thoughts on the FFVII remake: I can already play FFVII; I’d rather see Square use their time and money to make something new)
All this would be for naught if the gameplay wasn’t up to par. To begin to describe why I think it’s so good, it’s worth making a couple of generalizations about the JRPG genre.
On the one side of the spectrum is the Dragon Quest approach, where turn-based combat is ruled entirely by a bunch of dice rolls. I’m not too crazy about this approach, as it turns battles into a game of luck, with your only protection against the Random Number Generator is to grind for experience and money to buy better equipment.
On the other side is Final Fantasy, which emphasizes strategic character development and often has enemies following a behavioral pattern with variations, allowing players to approach combat tactically. I’m much more fond of this, but it’s not without its flaws: balancing difficulty becomes an issue, and you often wind up with a plethora of abilities that only have a situational use at best.
DDS leans towards the Final Fantasy side of things, but it has a clockwork-like precision to it. As in most RPGs, characters have their own strengths and weaknesses. But exploiting weaknesses here has another tactical layer: it gives your party another free turn. Same with successfully deflecting or dodging an enemy attack (and you can set up shields to do just this). The same works true for the enemy party.
This sounds small, but it means that combat almost never devolves to, “wail on them with your most powerful attacks and heal occasionally.” It doesn’t take much for either you or the enemy to get the upper hand by exploiting a weakness and scoring a few extra hits. Each character can only take a limited number of abilities into any battle (and you have to decide which ones they’re going to learn), so you’re always making a strategic tradeoff. And, as every enemy is week to something, you never feel like you’ve wasted your time learning a bunch of pointless abilities.
The upshot of this is that DDS has a pretty steep difficulty curve. And this approach isn’t unique to this entry, based on my previous experiences with the franchise, but it’s less finicky and baroque. It’s one of the more balanced JRPGs I’ve played in a while.
Anyway, the finishline is still a long way off, so my opinion on all this could go out the window before it’s over.