Review: A demon attacked me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Shin Megami Tensei is a name that just screams ?non-accessible'. It's quite an old series with origins on the NES with the moniker ?Megami Tensei? but when it was transferred from the hands of Namco to Atlus and made the jump to the SNES, it became ?Shin Megami Tensei?. From ?Reincarnation of the Goddess? to ?Reincarnation of the True Goddess?. One of the forerunners of the ?monster catching' niche, Megami Tensei has built up a rather sizeable cult following and is without a doubt the flagship franchise of Atlus.
And like all great franchises, there are surely offshoots to follow. Megami Tensei went for the gusto and to date, there are practically over 20 sub-series. Sometimes there'll be gameplay similarities, other times it'll merely bear the Megami Tensei name.
The latest spin-off from the main series is the Digital Devil Saga. Differing from the usual Megami Tensei setting, it took place in the surreal badlands known as the Junkyard. All the warring Tribes of the Junkyard fought to reach ?Nirvana', a struggle that was complicated with the appearance of the mysterious girl Sera and the consequential transformation of all the Tribes into demons with an insatiable hunger for?well, other demons. When all was said and done, the Embryon Tribe, led by your character Serph, were the ones to enter the Karma Temple and respectively Nirvana. If you've seen the ending, it would have been pretty obvious that Nirvana wasn't quite what everyone expected it to be. Now with a scattered party and even more questions, everything's heading towards a bloody conclusion.
Digital Devil Saga 2 is a direct sequel, making a playthrough of the first game necessary. There are flashback moments spliced in at several points but I recommend playing Digital Devil Saga instead. To say anything about the plot would be criminal so I'll just say this: DDS2 contains a decidedly different story compared to the first. While the first was more abstract and only hinted at the more sinister going-ons, everything is laid bare in this conclusion. It harkens more to the Megami Tensei style, with apocalyptic scenarios and such. While not a bad thing, it can be disconcerting to those who want a completely similar experience, especially given the drastic changes in theme and plot direction. The cast, however, is back with a few faces joining the active roster; some old, some new. Roland, leader of the underground city Lokapala, finds his way into your ranks and, as given away by the cover art, the helpless Sera is no longer helpless.
Like the previous DDS, even though the plot and characters are much more accessible to the mainstream audience, DDS2 remains very brief in its storytelling. No hour-long cutscenes here, just quick breaks of action throughout. It's a shame the pacing became uneven near the end. In terms of characters, this applied to the antagonists as well. There are several you'll meet, but by the end, certain things will have occurred and you'll be left with an ambiguous enemy (which actually fits the plot so it's not that bad if you look at it that way). Thankfully the protagonists are developed further in this installment and individually given time to shine. Serph, who I felt was never actually the ?main' character, seemed to take a backseat compared to everyone else, with people like Gale and Sera coming to mind. It's fun to see how they change from their DDS1 selves to their final personalities. And if you really did want to see Serph talk, you'll get your chance here. Personally, there were plot points that let me down and I know someone out there will find certain things?bizarre, but there's enough to latch onto.
So the story packed on more muscle; what about the gameplay? Still grinding with the tried-and-true Press Turn System? Yep, they stuck with it. I have no qualms on this; it's one of the best turn-based battle systems today. Exploit an enemy's weakness or counter your own for extra turns, something your enemies can also do to you. It's extremely efficient and you'll have to use the ruthless tactic of keeping on the offense while defending at the same time. To freshen it up, the Berserk mode was added. Usually occurring near the full Solar Data, you'll enter battle half-transformed. This means there's a high possibility for major damage and Atma Points if you're able to devour an enemy?as long as you're able to hit. Attack goes up, defense and accuracy goes down. The Berserk mode doesn't bring too much to the table but it's not a hindrance either. If you play your cards right though, you can use it to bring down certain bosses extremely quickly.
The big change is the one they've done with the Mantra Grid. Previously compared to Final Fantasy X's Grid System, Atlus switched it up for DDS2. The Mantra Grid now resembles an actual hexagonal grid, each hex representing a skill. Once learning a new skill, all other hexes touching that skill can be accessed as well, leading to the advantage of learning powerful skills much earlier compared to the other games. And like its predecessors, skills are of utmost importance here. Yes, you're still going to have to Hunt for Atma Points and cash for those skills. DDS2 has the fortune of faster leveling up though, so gaining new stats and skills isn't a problem.
DDS2 has the same cel-shaded visuals as before and it still amazes me how faithful they are to Kazuma Kaneko's stylish artwork. It's too bad to note that the backgrounds are as bleak as ever, a drawback due to the setting. I'd like to see a multi-colored Megami Tensei one day. If one is unbothered by the backgrounds then there are no other graphical problems, aside from the fact that they haven't changed.
And the sound? Did Shoji Meguro make more bitchin' riffs to cannibalize to? Yes. Is Cielo's voice as angelic as it was in the first one? Oh yes. Like it or not, all the voices are back with their respective characters and I found them fine. Disclaimer: I can tolerate Cielo's accent (which was somewhat explained in the game); you may not be able to. The only voice I found jarring was Fred's; the voicework was good, it just didn't seem to suit the character. Aside from the nitpicks, it's all solid. Shoji Meguro's soundtrack rocks out, but this is just personal bias, what with my belief that his music is gold.
If you have a cleared saved data from DDS1, you'll be able to load it up at the start of the game. Bonuses include: another difficultly level, improved stats, extra Macca, extra skills, rings, and depending on your choices in the previous game (and this one), your final party. Incentive to play the first one! To Megami Tensei neophytes: it's probably better to play the first one first, simply because?it's the first one. Although I say DDS2 is easier compared to the others, I'd have to attribute that to my familiarity with DDS1. To make up for the possible easiness, the game will actually force you create a well-balanced party through ways I will leave up to you to discover. I can only advise you to spread the love to every single one of your characters because you're going to need everyone at one point or another. I also feel the need to pimp out the scrolling shooter minigame the developers slipped in. Sure, it's no Ikaruga but it's an amusing departure from the turn-based action.