Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner
Playing Time: 108 hours, plus about 5-10 hours of unsaved time from dying to the Demi-fiend
Flash back to 2005. This game was new, and coming on the heels of having played Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne, I was incredibly hyped for it. I played the hell out of it. In fact, I played it so much that I still remembered most of the tricks to fighting the Demi-fiend, who is rather infamously one of the all-time most difficult optional bosses in any commercial RPG, a dozen years later. Still, that was a long time ago. I had to wonder if, with more than a decade having passed since then, it would still be as good as I remembered or if it'd turn out that my memories were a product of nostalgia and less broad experience.
I'm quite happy to say that it was the former. Hell, if anything, it actually exceeded my expectations.
This game does so much right that it's hard to pick where to begin. Let's start with the combat engine, since that's really the highlight of the game.
Ah, the press turn system, returning from Nocturne with naught but a couple of minor tweaks to suit using humans who transform into demons rather than a demon who summons other demons. Has there been a better engine for turn-based combat? This thing does it all, really, since I can't think of another RPG engine that swings so far between rewarding good play and punishing poor play. Each character in your party gets 1 turn per round, but how many turns are consumed when they act depends on the results of their actions. Hitting a weakness, getting a critical hit, or passing only consumes half of a turn, leaving the other half free to be used for anything by the next character. Conversely, missing or doing an attack that's nullified consumes 2 turns, and doing an attack that's either drained or reflected consumes all of your remaining turns. The same thing applies for enemies, though (aside from certain special ones who get multiple turns per round, mainly bosses), and putting it all together is where the genius lies. Use the right skills, put up the right defensive barriers, set the right resistances, and you'll get up to 6 actions out of your 3-person party while opponents flail away with only 1 or 2 if they even manage to survive your opening onslaught. Play stupidly, though, and the tables get turned.
Seems simple, right? It's not. While the game isn't nearly as punishing as Nocturne was, it does still put up some amount of resistance. I wouldn't say it's ever outright hard (aside from the Demi-fiend), and in fact, my biggest complaint about the game would be that it becomes too easy once you know how to exploit things (again, aside from the Demi-fiend), but if you play like an idiot, you're not going to get far. It does enough to force you to learn how to play well, and unlike with some other games that try to take the same approach (like Bloodborne, which I say with all due respect for Bloodborne having the best design with respect to difficulty of all the Souls games), the solution to "how to play well" actually takes some thought and learning. This is simply wonderful design. Again, I'd have preferred if the game had still retained some degree of challenge even after mastering how to play it, but the mere fact that you have to apply yourself to any notable degree is welcome.
Probably the biggest culprit in making the game easy: unlike with Nocturne, you can freely swap around your learned skills in DDS1. It's understandable, and I'd go so far as to say that it's a better choice than sticking with Nocturne's approach within the context of having a small party of playable characters. I mean, with Nocturne, if your current party wasn't really suited for whatever challenge you were facing, you could mess around with demon fusions to create a whole new party pretty much whenever you want (prohibitive costs of using the demonic compendium notwithstanding). In DDS1, though, you're limited to just having 3-5 party members, depending on where you are in the story. If they couldn't switch around their skills freely, it'd be way too easy to end up with everyone being worthless, and it should be obvious that that's a bad kind of difficulty.
Speaking of the characters, they're mostly pretty great. The main one is Serph, the requisite SMT silent protagonist who gets more characterization than you'd expect from how everyone else plays off of him. Joining him for his adventures through the Junkyard are Heat, Argilla, Gale, and Cielo. Each one has a very distinct personality and generally adds a lot to interactions, though Gale is definitely the least interesting of the bunch on account of being the boring/logical archetype. Get used to hearing "I do not comprehend" in almost any scene involving him.
It's a shame that the other tribes don't get much in the way of unique characters aside from their leaders (and Bat), really. Even so, Mick, Lupa, and Varin are all rather cool in their own ways. Not so much to say about Harley or Jinana, though I do think the latter was the first boss fight to use the Hunting Comrades theme, which is great.
Actually, just about all of the music in this game is great. It's an absolute feast for the ears. Hunting Comrades, Big Battle, Hari-Hara, Svadhisthana, Blade, Spider's String, Normal Battle, and so much more. They're all just wonderful. This is definitely one of the most OST-worthy games ever.
Stepping back for moment to go back to the characters, there are two major characters who're unaffiliated with any tribes. One is Sera, a mysterious girl with black hair (doubly notable since (a) nobody else in the Junkyard has normal hair and (b) there are no other non-adults in the Junkyard, either). The other is Angel, a glowing eye in the middle of a circle of nails (at first, at least) who tells all of the tribe leaders that they need to capture Sera in order to be allowed to ascend into Nirvana.
And thus, having touched on the two main agents behind the plot, let's talk about that. It's honestly kind of plain, but it plays out in a pretty cool way, I think. As mentioned, Sera is the most "normal" person in the whole Junkyard by real world standards, yet the contrast of that against everyone else helps to emphasize the pervading sense of wrongness with the setting. There's obviously more going on than what meets the eye at first, and while it's probably more than a bit unnecessary for me to avoid spoilers for a 12 year old game, I love it enough that I'm nevertheless going to do exactly that.
As you progress though the story, you also get to unlock some optional bosses that you can beat up to get access to more skills. King Frost, Beelzebub, and Metatron are all rather fun, though only the first two really give rewards that are worth it. The four holy beasts are rather plain, on the other hand, and Huang Long is objectively not fun. Seriously, Huang Long is easily my most hated fight in the game because it's an absolute joke once you figure out his patterns, yet his defensive gimmick and high health combine to make it so that it takes something like 15 minutes to kill despite never being a threat.
However, if you play through a NG+ cycle, you get to fight the Demi-fiend, as in the protagonist from Nocturne. This is far and away THE signature fight from DDS1. It's incredibly difficult, requiring dozens of trials just to get enough of a sense of how the fight works to begin to have a chance of winning (or reading a guide, I guess, but that's less fun). It's incredibly unfair, with the odds stacked so heavily against you that even having a perfect strategy, an ideal skill setup, and maxed stats isn't enough to protect you from needing to pray for the RNG to roll in your favor several times throughout the fight. And yet, that's all part of what makes it so satisfying to beat it. Without the Demi-fiend, DDS1 would probably only rate as an A or maybe an A-, since despite all of its other strengths, it'd just be too easy of a game to have a perfect score. That's just how good the Demi-fiend fight is. I wouldn't want every boss to be designed like him, since as I said, he's blatantly unfair. Having him as the ultimate optional challenge, though, is utterly wondrous.
There's still so much more I could say about this game, since I haven't even talked about the great artistic design that gives it a timeless look, the great dungeon designs that expose just how much most modern games end up being corridor simulators, the themes and motifs that tread a fine line of being incredibly stylish and evocative of terrifying imagery at the same time, or so many other things. Hell, I could spend days talking about all the things that make this game great without covering everything. The bottom line is that it's straight-up one of the greatest games ever made. It's an absolute travesty that Atlus seems to have forgotten about it in favor of remakes and spinoffs of Persona. If you're any sort of RPG fan and you've got a PS3 or PS4, you can get it from the PSN store, and it'll be well worth every penny. If that's not an option for you, I'd honestly suggest tracking down a copy of it and playing it via emulation. It's just too good to miss.
Playing Time: 108 hours, plus about 5-10 hours of unsaved time from dying to the Demi-fiend