I finished Digital Devil Saga 2. It’s not a long game by JRPG standards. Now I’m in a position to give my more definitive thoughts on this game and the duology as a whole.
In brief: I take back all my misgivings about the direction things seemed to be heading in. DDS tied itself together in a fantastic and unexpectedly resonant note. Sure, it was all very cheesy and sentimental, but it was the kind of cheese that’s right up my alley. Seriously this stuff is on par with Final Fantasy IX for me. And since I’ve come to appreciate the SMT game mechanics, it might even dethrone FFIX (I probably should have waited until I had finished playing this to post that top 15 list).
Anyway, in order to give a more detailed appraisal I’ll have to spoil some stuff below the fold.
First, let’s review the basic gist of things.
Digital Devil Saga 1 is set in an apparently post-apocalyptic world called the Junkyard, where seven tribes are at constant war with each other. The mysterious ruling power of this world, the Karma Temple, has promised to take the victorious tribe to Nirvana, or the promised land (the heroes are all members of one tribe, the Embryon). Everyone is an emotionless husk, not because of the constant warfare, but because they don’t seem to really be human.
In the course of one battle a mysterious device is activated which infects everyone with the Atma virus, which causes them to transform into bizarre monsters with an insatiable hunger to feed on others. But it also triggers the awakening of a human side to the characters, as they slowly develop emotions and a desire to know the truth. Inside the device is also an amnesiac magical girl who seems to be the key to everything.
Eventually, the Embryon becomes the victorious tribe. But instead of being rewarded with Nirvana, they find out that the Junkyard is actually an illusory world. The Karma Temple panics and destroys the Junkyard, but the heroes are able to escape into the real world.
In Digital Devil Saga 2 we find out that it is the year 2025, and that something has gone horribly wrong. There’s an all-powerful being living in the sun – who people identify as God – and he’s displeased with man’s sinful ways. As punishment the sun has been altered, making the surface of the Earth uninhabitable. Humanity has thus been forced underground, and what is left of civilization is now ruled over by an increasingly brutal fascist regime, the Karma Society. The Junkyard, as it turns out, was a virtual world created by the Karma Society in order to collect combat data, and the main characters were all originally AI constructs based on real people who have died.
It also just so happens that people infected with the Atma virus are immune to the effects of the sun, and that two different factions within the Karma Society are seeking to use the virus to engineer a new race that can survive on the surface. The heroes join up with a local resistance group to fight against them.
As the fight goes on, things reach a critical point where humanity has only a few hours to live before it is destroyed. The heroes thus decide to travel to the sun and intercede on behalf of the human race. In the process of attempting to do so, everyone winds up dying. But their souls manage to travel to the sun, and the climax unfolds on a strange, spiritual plane of existence as the heroes go to confront God. They succeed.
It should be obvious how this could all turn out very terrible. Even bracketing Shin Megami Tensei’s own poor track record, the attempt to tell a sci-fi story where the characters meet God is something that can easily blow up in your face. Anyone who has repressed memories of Star Trek V knows how hokey, insulting and pretentious it can be.
But I thought that Digital Devil Saga handled it reasonably well, in large part because it avoids the tired trope of God turning out to be a villain or a fake. It’s not without its limitations – there’s a pretty big case of demiurge going on here – but it approached the subject with a sense of awe and earnestness that I wasn’t expecting. I’ll deal with this more later. There are some other things I’d like to tackle first.
Digital Devil Saga is transparently one long game that has been sliced into two. The second game makes some minor tweaks and refinements, but it’s not a standalone release. For a while I was wondering whether it would have been better if some judicious editing had shortened it to a single title. But now I think that there’s a good rationale behind the split.
I noticed that the two DDS games share the same story structure – both of them begin with the heroes fighting a war with different factions in a dystopian world with events escalating until the heroes literally storm the heavens to confront the god of that world.
DDS1 takes place in a virtual world, and this determines how its storytelling operates: we are given no exposition or backstories, but are instead introduced to the rules of the world (like a video game) and watch the consequences of those rules play out. In the process we come to recognize the artificiality of the world without being explicitly told about it – it’s like a video game because it literally is a video game.
DDS2 on the other hand, takes place in the “real” world and so takes up a more conventional, real approach to storytelling. We’re given backstory, exposition, explanations of characters and their motives, etc. As a result it feels much more like a typical JRPG story than the first game, which is why many people feel disappointed by it. Yet it strikes me now as a deliberate design choice done to emphasize the difference in setting, and the fact that we’re not playing a continuation so much as we are seeing a different version of the same story. The two separate games help reinforce this.
They also reinforce the motifs of DDS. The characters in DDS1 are AI “reincarnations” of real people, and they reincarnate a second time by entering into the real world themselves. This is emphasized the the player’s own experience of transferring their save data from the first game to the second, and how they are forced to begin again a second time, but with their actions from the first game impacting the second in a manner that is not immediately obvious.
DDS is a very minimalist RPG. It has cinematic cutscenes and dungeon crawling and that’s it. Although in both games you have an area that functions as a home base, there are no real towns, very few NPCs, and no real exploration of the world. It boils down the JRPG formula to the basics. It’s quite similar to what Square attempted to do a few years later with Final Fantasy XIII.
And I don’t think this is a bad thing! As much as I appreciate big, sprawling games, my taste tends towards the more linear and focused ones. DDS knows that its big gameplay strength lies in its combat mechanics, and so is intent on doubling down on it. The dungeons are long marathons with an often grueling difficulty curve. At times, it got frustrating, almost to the point where I was willing to give up. But finally overcoming those difficulties always carried a whiff of that Dark Souls style exhilaration. And it was a great exercise in using difficulty to force identification with the characters; a good chunk of the final battle’s drama and catharsis came from how many failures and setbacks I had overcome to reach that point.
Character development in RPGs is wedded to violence: your characters need to kill enemies in order to gain experience points and grow stronger. DDS dramatizes this with the Atma virus which forces the characters to eat their enemies. Your experience points are literally the nourishment you get from the meal. The cannibal aspect is really just a literalization of what RPGs typically do. The heroes (mostly) don’t like this and are looking for a cure. They want to break free from the cycle of violence and reclaim their humanity. Your RPG characters want to stop being RPG characters, and their ultimate assertion of this is their decision to lay down their lives. It’s fitting that their most human act is the one which frustrates the player the most (by removing them from your party).
DDS is a game awash with Hindu imagery, lore and theology. As I’m not terribly knowledgeable about the religion a lot of it went over my head, aside from the more obvious stuff.
But I was able to pick up on the religious allegory of it all; the game’s story works as a depiction of spiritual growth, starting from sin and ignorance (the Junkyard) and progressing towards love and selflessness, and finally ultimate enlightenment. As a Catholic I don’t agree with all the details involved in this, but it struck me as a lot more rigorous and refreshing than the usual new age spirituality that pop culture often traffics in.
I mean, this is a JRPG we’re talking about. The second the characters start talking about God as a Real Thing, you know that you’re eventually gonna go fight the guy. And God (Brahman) is indeed the final boss of the game. But I was expecting to find some mustache twirling villain waiting for me, accompanied by speeches from the heroes about how mankind has grown past the need for God, and how he’s a big jerk, etc. What I got was something more akin to the story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis. The point of the fight isn’t deicide, but rather to test the heroes’ resolve and determination. And the whole thing is really, really trippy (and accompanied with some fantastic music.)
It’s all still very Super Anime, complete with a talking cat (called Schrodinger. Seriously) guiding you through it, but I found that this worked to DDS’ benefit, preventing things from feeling too pretentious and giving it a nice Madoka-esque emotional sheen.
Speaking of cheesy stuff
There’s an 80s quality to the overall aesthetic that I love. DDS1 feels like a mashup of The Road Warrior and Blade Runner, and DDS2 could have been any old dystopian sci-fi flick. Add to that Shoji Meguro’s music (which is more guitar-rock oriented in DDS1 and more electronic in DDS2), and you’ve got something which really, really appeals to me.
There’s also the voice-acting. If you’re familiar with anime dubs, you’ll recognize a lot of the usual suspects here. The English script and actors managed to hit just that right note of anime dub cheese without becoming genuinely bad.
I still can’t get over the ridiculous outfit that the protagonist wears to the final dungeon, though.
DDS reuses the battle system and art assets developed in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and curiously my reaction to the two games is rather inverse. Nocturne immediately impressed me with its aesthetics, but its rather nihilistic themes left me cold. DDS, on the other hand, was a game I almost gave up on because it started on such a dark, gruesome note that I felt that the overall game would be an exercise in extreme cynicism (and yeah, consider this my warning that DDS is not for the squeamish or faint of heart). Yet I was rewarded with a rather sentimental story about the power of love to triumph over selfishness and human depravity.
And indeed, like the characters, we too have that divine spark drawing us towards the true and the good, but also a dark, monstrous side that pulls us downward. Even if I don’t literally turn into a monster and eat people there’s still plenty to sympathize with here.