A pinch of computer, a smidgen of man. Mix with some Indian mysticism (Not American Indian, mind you) and a plot that would put Xenosaga to shame. The end result comes well done to you on a single DVD platter. This is no half baked game. Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 (or DDS2 for short) comes to us from a well bred series of RPGs in Japan. For those curious what that mouthful of letters in front of Digital Devil Saga means, here’s an excerpt from Atlus’ own page on the series:

Shin Megami Tensei (pronounced “shin MEH-gah-mee TEN-say”) is a Japanese phrase that translates as “True Goddess Metempsychosis.” An unusual piece of philosophical jargon, “metempsychosis” refers specifically to the unending process of birth, death, and rebirth that is of central importance to the Buddhist religious tradition. Even deities are slaves to the cycle of metempsychosis in Buddhist thought, and this belief features prominently in the plotlines of the various Shin Megami Tensei games. Who exactly the titular “goddess” is supposed to be is usually left up to the player. Each SMT game features a female character that the title could be referring to, or it could be taken as a reference to radical transformations that Japan itself experiences during the course of a game.

It is deep. This game does not come with a simple storyline. For that matter, it has some subject content that some parents might find, at the least, disturbing. I’ll say this up front. If you intend to buy this game for your child, I would take the time to play it yourself first.

I’m going to come up front on this part and let you know of a prejudice I have against this game. I hate the character/monster/NPC art. It just rubbed me wrong through the whole playing of the game. Now, the upside to this, is that it did not affect my scoring of the graphics in the game whatsoever.

This game shows that Atlus and its Megami Tensei development team has a firm grip on the PS2’s hardware and rendering capabilities. The art style blended 3-D texturing and cel shading in a way I haven’t seen before. It is hard to describe with words, but they found a perfect balance between the two styles to show the characters in the world. This results in the characters and other objects in the world looking very bright and vibrant, without ruining the style, setting, or mood of the scene.

The only really disappointing side to the graphics were the locations. They looked nice, but you saw a lot of the same rooms used over and over again. One area that bugged me in particular was your assault against the Karma Society’s tower. I ran through endless offices and hallways there and they all looked like cookie cutter sections of the same tileset. Argueably, this is a bit of a trademark of the series, and I’ve seen them do it before in SMT:Persona for the PS1. When designing the zones, they went for space and large areas rather than having a well focused area with a signature tileset or style.

The music caught me from the get-go, with the opening movie. It is rock music with some electronica thrown in, and the end result fits the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the game perfectly. With the time I spent playing the game, I don’t think any of the music ever got old or really annoying. It also fit the mood at all the right times, from hard edged guitars in the boss fights, to trance style music in the menus and “town” areas.

The voicework also seemed very well done. One or two of the minor characters sounded like they had tried a little too hard when recording their parts, but the main characters all fit well. I was disappointed that the main character was once again, the silent hero.

Being an RPG, the controls for this game really only had to support a menu driven system, aside from running around the field screens. It worked well, and the camera did what it needed to. The main characters were the center of the view in the field screens, but the system did a great job in making them invisible when I need to see past them for some areas. It all worked out well. The menus were also well laid out and easy to navigate. This game is an easy winner in the RPG controls department.

This game took me a little bit to get into, mostly due to the fact that I did not get a manual with my review copy. Publishers, manuals are just as important to a review as the game itself. Knowing that a manual is well written and covers the topics needed can be just as important to a review as knowing that the game has an in depth tutorial built in. DDS2 does a good job of showing you the ropes, even if you played the first one, but the lack of a manual made figuring out some of the little details difficult (like the black sun meter).

The game picks up right after the end of Digital Devil Saga 1, with your tribe reaching Nirvana…or so you think. You find yourselves in a different world, and people who don’t make use of a devil form at all. Confined to a life of underground living because circumstances on the surface, and the added pain of being the sole food supply for the Karma Society. This sets up an interesting story of the haves, the Karma Society, who can walk the surface without fear of being turned to stone, and the have-nots, normal humans who can’t Tune and fear the sunlight. You are thrown into the story on the side of the Have-nots, and find that you have lost a lot of powers and abilites since your ascension to Nirvana.

This is not a plot for the weak hearted, yet unlike the much touted Xenosaga series, the game delivers you an even stream of answers and questions that can be followed in a logical order. The game also does a good job of filling you in on the basic details of DDS1, so if you haven’t played the first game don’t shy away from this one. You won’t be left in the plot’s dust here.

The core of the game is a mix of old school and new ideas. Charatcers advance through both experience and karma points. Experience advances your basic stats, and Karma goes to your current Mantra. Whenever you master a Mantra, you gain access to the skills it provides. Advancing Mantras is not just a case of picking a path this time. There is a Mantra grid, much like the sphere grid in Final Fantasy X, and you choose which direction to go, unlocking new skills as you advance. You then can equip four skills of your choice between battles for use in battle. As you advance in levels, you can equip more skills. It sounds strangely complex in my brief description, but in practice, its a very nice advancement system. Now I need to figure out why they chose to use such obscure Indian names for some of the mantras. I think I’d break my tongue on several of them.

The biggest replay value in this game is playing the New Game+ mode once you have finished the game all the way through. It allows you to play through the game again, but you keep all the Mantras and combination attacks you have learned. It also adds some new challenges with an optional boss to fight. Considering how deep the story was, this is not an unreasonable extra. I definately will be following up on the game through this mode to max out my mantra grid and see if there are any nuances in the story that I missed.