WARNING: This review contains possible spoilers! If you haven't played the first Digital Devil Saga game, I'd suggest just skipping to the end paragraphs for a brief summary and score. Otherwise, read on...
A fitting subtitle for Digital Devil Saga 2 might be "Out of the frying pan and into the fire." The Junkyard has vanished, leaving Serph and company in "Nirvana" - a strange new world where the blackened sun bears down on ruined cities littered with humanoid statues. Serph, Gale, and Argilla gather near the entrance to an underground city with two young companions guiding them. They are to meet a man named Roland who knows much about them, things which they themselves do not know. As the former Embryon tribe members soon learn, the Junkyard was part of something much, much bigger, and their entire reality has shifted. On top of that, their other comrades - including Sera - are still missing...
From here, the story of Serph and his companions continues on. Although they have lost most of their skills learned in the Junkyard, they still retain their demonic transformation. While many things are different in this new world, one element remains the same - the hunger that consumes those who bear the mark of atma.
You might recall that I reviewed the first Digital Devil Saga and enjoyed it immensely. I eagerly anticipated this title's release, weathering delays and uncertain ship dates. After finally buying, playing and completing the game, I can assure you all that, apart from a few minor disappointments, it is another excellent RPG and a fantastic conclusion to the tale of Serph, Sera, and the Embryon.
The More Things Change…
Upon starting, you'll be prompted to load a clear file from DDS1. While your learned skills don't carry over from one game to the next, you'll find yourself receiving rewards in other forms (items, stat boosts) for your previous accomplishments. You may also find that your decisions made as the Embryon leader will be reflected later on in the game.
As a whole, the base gameplay remains the same as the first game, but with several small additions and improvements. Among these is a new accessory-type system that lets you equip a special Karma Ring on each character. These have various effects ranging from protecting you against certain attacks, casting spells at the beginning of battle, or even granting a single character consecutive turns. The rings can be augmented with a set number of special gemstones found throughout to boost character stats even further.
Another interesting addition is "berserker" battles. When the effects of the sun are at their peak, you may randomly wind up in a battle stuck in a rampaging half-human, half-demon form. You cannot use any magic skills, and your defense and hit rate are lowered, but your strength and critical hit percentage goes through the roof, and all enemy strengths are nullified. (On top of that, the characters just look really freakin' cool.) Winning a battle in berserker mode rewards you with double the EXP of a regular fight, but if your party isn't in the best shape, it could be a very risky proposition. Fortunately, you are able to flee from these battles if you so choose.
The biggest change of all, though, is the new mantra grid where the characters learn battle skills. Instead of the linear system seen in DDS1, the mantra are placed upon a honeycomb grid. Mastering a mantra and learning the skills associated with it will unlock all mantra adjacent to it. This sometimes makes it a bit easier to learn high-level spells of a particular set, since most of the time you don't have to travel up a hierarchy of skills like in the previous game. However, each character starts out in a different place upon the grid, and you may need to work just as hard as before to open up and obtain skills located at the opposite side. There are also hidden mantras to unlock and plenty of brand-new skills to learn, so if you're one of those "power gamers" who just loves making miniature gods out of your characters, DDS2 will have a lot to offer you.
The challenge level, however, remains on par with DDS1, meaning it's more challenging than your run-of-the-mill console RPG. While you'll see some familiar-looking enemies, you might be unpleasantly surprised to find that their actions and attributes are quite a bit different than they were before! Just like the first game, the threat of your party's annihilation is always looming, and the stakes for even regular battles can be very high. Once again, you'll need to stay on your toes at all times and learn the strengths and weaknesses of your enemies inside out in order to succeed.