The term ‘PS2 Classic’ can be problematic when approaching Sony’s half-hearted attempt at backwards compatibility. Those lucky enough to own an original PS3 had backwards compatibility built in, but high production costs and, if we’re being cynical, the promise of increased profits from re-releasing software saw the feature removed for subsequent updates. What PS3 owners are left with is software based emulation which requires tweaking for each title, such is the immense difference between Sony’s first and second console.
What causes the problem with the ‘PS2 Classic’ badge though is generally the service’s lack of must-have titles. Bar a select few such as Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution and the PS2 Grand Theft Auto titles, the general standard of quality is very low, and certainly far from ‘classic’. However the Shin Megami Tensei titles remain a highly respected RPG series, so can Digital Devil Saga earn the ‘classic’ moniker when approached today?
The game sees you take control of Serph and his gang, The Embryon, who you first encounter in a battle with another group known as the Vanguards. A mysterious orb is caught in the battle, releasing beams of light that spread out across the world, causing everyone’s inner demon to be released and also causing everyone to hunger for flesh. Much of the game’s interesting interactions revolve around some characters rejection of devouring each other whilst others embrace it.
You lead The Embryon across the world of the Junkyard, taking on the five other tribes that live there in an effort to reach Nirvana and leave the world as you know it, all whilst harnessing the power of demons. As with Final Fantasy X there are plenty of religious overtones to the plot, and overall it’s presented exceptionally well with good quality voice acting and well thought out cut-scenes.
First impressions are surprisingly positive, with the art holding up well despite ten years having passed since the game’s original release. Having been a number of years since I booted up a PS2, I was concerned that the loss of HD visuals would be problematic but it’s really interesting how easy it is not to notice this when the game has an interesting plot and characters. The distinctive cell-shaded visuals created by Kazuma Kaneko actually look excellent, though you can’t help but think that Atlus have missed a trick by not releasing an HD remaster that would benefit from the added clarity, and perhaps make itself more palatable to a younger audience. Perhaps this is why the PS2 Classic brand has never really taken off?
The characters and their corresponding demon forms are particularly well designed, with the demonic transformations remaining memorable due to their decidedly twisted nature. One of the main female characters Argilla turns into a demon with breasts which are actually mouths full of jagged teeth, whilst the first boss character you face becomes a zebra-like creature with no arms and an extendable flaming horn coming from its head. There is certainly no lack of invention to be found here.
The music was also a high point for me, though it is somewhat eclectic, bouncing from lounge music to dark and brooding electronica before hitting metal, all within a few minutes. There is more repetition to be found here than in most modern RPG’s but none of the themes grated on me, including the much visited encounter music. Generally they feed well into creating the world of the Junkyard, and into heightening the emotional moments of the storyline.
Combat is turn based, though it has a few interesting twists that surprisingly haven’t found their way into that many modern entries in the genre. You have special moves that use HP instead of MP alongside those that do, as well as a turn system that rewards you with extra turns for attacking with elemental damage that your enemy is weak against. You can also switch between your demon form and your human one and in doing so unlock various combo opportunities for your team. Altogether it actually makes for an engaging take on turn-based RPG’s.
However, one of the game’s key weaknesses is a ridiculously high number of random encounters, a facet that is a characteristic of the Shin Megami Tensei series as a whole. This dates the game more than any other aspect, as it just seems to serve to extend the game’s duration when otherwise the key plot points would probably move along at a relatively steady pace. You can’t go anywhere at any speed, and that begins to wear thinner and thinner the further you advance through the game.
The problem is mildly alleviated by the ability to set your team to ‘auto’, whereby they’ll just attack until the opposition have died. It’s a nice idea, particularly in a game where the grind is so fundamental, but overall it doesn’t stop the irritation of entering another random battle, even if it will stop your ‘X’ button from wearing out.
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is one of the few games that actually lives up to the ‘PS2 Classic’ moniker. There are elements of the game that haven’t aged well, particularly the number of random battles that are thrown at you and the often maze-like level design, but it still has a number of interesting characters and a genuinely engaging story to take your mind off it. If you’ve finished Final Fantasy X HD and are looking for a similar experience you wouldn’t go too far wrong checking out Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga.