Digital Devil Saga 2
Playing Time: 44 hours, plus about 3-4 hours of unsaved time from dying to Satan
Considering that Digital Devil Saga was a planned duology, it's only fitting to review the second game in the series, too (handy link to my DDS1 review here). A lot of people view them as a One Game For The Price Of Two situation, but I disagree. Yes, the stories continue from one to the next, but I feel like both of them can stand strongly on their own merits and there are enough gameplay differences between the two that the engine wasn't just copy/pasted from one to the next.
Well, at least not entirely. The core of the gameplay is still the press turn system, and this is obviously a great decision, since it's the best combat engine of its kind. Dropping it for a watered down version in Persona 3 was one of the worst decisions Atlus ever made (from an artistic perspective, since Persona 3 was obviously a lot more successful commercially). Thankfully, not only is it present in DDS2, but it's actually a little bit better than the DDS1 version in a couple of ways.
First, when the solar noise is at 7/8 or max, there's a chance for any random fight to trigger berserk mode, which has your characters locked in a half-transformed state. They're unable to use spells in this condition, but you bypass physical resistances automatically, any physical attacks that hit will be critical hits (though overall physical accuracy is reduced), fleeing is guaranteed to work, and winning a fight in berserk mode gives extra experience. It's never a huge deal, really, since there's no good way to grind for berserk mode fights without just grinding fights in general, but it's a nice bonus when it happens.
Secondly and more importantly, your characters can wear rings. This doesn't mean too much early on when you're just going to wear something like +3 magic, but later on, you can start getting rings with unique effects that are incredibly powerful. There are some bonus rings that you can get from having a cleared save file from DDS1, too, though they're really not much more powerful than what DDS2 has by itself, so it's not a big deal. Sadly, since opportunity costs are a factor, your final ring set-up is almost certain to be chosen from a pool of 4 or 5 of the best rings (depending on if you want raw power or a better chance of hunting omoikanes).
That brings me to a point about something that I didn't mention in my DDS1 review. In either DDS game, there's a small chance of any encounter being a special one. In DDS1, this amounts to running into some omoikane demons, who give nice amounts of experience/money/atma but are almost impossible to kill until you get the best bullets, by which point you're so late in the game that their rewards aren't appreciably better than what you can get from random encounters already. In DDS2, however, there are 2 special encounters. One is still with omoikanes, but instead of their previous mechanics, they come in a group of 5 with each being weak to one element, and your goal is to kill as many as you can before they run away. While you're not likely to be able to wipe them out prior to getting some of the rings in the final dungeon, even just getting lucky enough to kill one or two of them can give you a big boost early on, which makes it a much more exciting encounter. The other rare encounter is with Jack Frost the Magnificent, who gives you a quiz. Aside from getting some miscellaneous items for getting the individual questions right, answering all 100 of his questions correctly also unlocks a bonus boss fight with him (along with making him give you a semi-random item any time you encounter him after getting all of the questions right). Once again, this is a fun design choice which is useful both early on (when the reward items might be helpful) and later (when you get a fairly cool extra boss fight out of it).
I'd called the plot of DDS1 kind of plain. DDS2 is much stronger on this front. It starts out kind of slowly, taking its time as you get the band back together (along with a new character, Roland, who's pretty awesome, being a drunkard author who subjects himself to demon transformation in a show of loyalty towards the Embryon) and setting up as if it would be a typical SMT "Law vs. Chaos" plot. Then people start dying. Important people. Including playable characters. SMT was never a soft and cuddly franchise to begin with, but this was a huge shock when it started to happen the first time that I played DDS2. Now, I'm not saying that a plot has to be dark to be good. What I'm saying is that DDS2 went from having a plot that seemed to be rather rote to having a plot that was interesting because of a sudden turn towards being dark.
Part of why it works is because it fits. Like I'd mentioned in my DDS1 review, there are plenty of themes and motifs in both games that touch into being horror. Being eaten (including being eaten alive), hunger that causes people to devolve into raving beasts if it's not satisfied, and the threat of having your sense of self overwritten by some other THING hidden within your being are presented in both games. Adding to them in DDS2 are such elements as an oppressive government controlling the lives of its citizens with callous disregard for them as people, an environmental crisis that's left much of the world uninhabitable for normal people, and human experimentation, among other topics. It's a dark work as a whole, even from the perspective of the characters in the story, so taking the plot in a dark direction within the game itself and treating it with appropriate gravitas works.
Speaking of darkness, DDS2 has some more dungeon gimmicks than DDS1, one of which is the return of dark areas from previous SMT games. This particular gimmick is mostly a nonissue since light-producing items are readily available, but the other gimmicks and puzzles are generally pretty good, with the exception of a maze in the final dungeon where you're unable to use your demon forms, which is just annoying. Still, aside from that, while the dungeon design was pretty great already in DDS1, exploring the dungeons is more slightly fun in DDS2.
Unfortunately, while I've said a lot about how DDS2 improved on DDS1, there are also major areas where it fell short of its predecessor.
First of all, the music is just not as good. Don't get me wrong; it's still very strong on an absolute scale. However, in comparison to the amazing soundtrack that DDS1 had, it can't quite measure up. Get used to listening to Hunting Betrayal, for instance, since it gets used all over the place starting a little bit before the midpoint of the game, including getting used for every bonus boss aside from Jack Frost the Magnificent. Again, taken on its own, there's nothing inherently wrong with that since it's a good theme, but it's just used way too much (whereas DDS1 would mix up Big Battle with Hunting Comrades, for instance), and honestly, the lack of a unique track for Satan (DDS2's resident ultimate optional boss) was a disappointment in comparison to the Demi-fiend getting one. Sure, the Demi-fiend's music was a random battle theme from Nocturne, but Satan could've easily gotten a boss theme from SMT2, if not a remix of one, to have something unique in the same vein. Furthermore, I don't think there's any case to be made that DDS2's final dungeon has a better theme than DDS1's did, and this is especially troubling since you can't leave the final dungeon in DDS2 once you've triggered it, so its music is what you're going to hear outside of combat from that point all the way until the end. That's probably a good few hours even without doing any of the optional bosses. Again, the music isn't bad, but it's a letdown compared to DDS1.
Next, you have the optional bosses themselves. In DDS1 (and not including the Demi-fiend), while the final 6 optional bosses are locked behind getting far enough in the final dungeon to arbitrarily unlock them, there are still 4 others that are unlocked progressively as you go through the plot. In DDS2, there's one batch of 4 that gets unlocked towards the end of the game and then 4-5 more that can be unlocked in the final dungeon if you go through certain hoops. I've already mentioned Jack Frost the Magnificent, who requires answering all 100 quiz questions correctly. As painful as that sounds, it's actually the least problematic. The worse design decision is that, in order to fight Vishnu and Shiva (who you need to beat in order to fight Seth and Satan), you have to farm for certain random drops from rare encounters towards the end of the dungeon. If you're lucky, you might get them after just 20 or 30 minutes of trying. If you're not, it can take hours. I've heard the counter argument that the grinding you get done in the meantime is grinding that you'd want to do anyway for Satan, but that's missing the point. Grinding up levels and skills for fighting the Demi-fiend was a choice that I got to make for myself. Grinding to get to fight a boss simply because the RNG hasn't rolled well enough to give me that opportunity is the game disrespecting the value of my time. It's simply an awful design decision, and I can't understand how Atlus ever thought it was a good idea.
Let me talk for a moment about Satan himself, too. Several years ago, when I'd first played DDS2, I never actually fought him, because I got so bored of grinding for the item to fight Vishnu that I just gave up and beat the game. This time around, I wanted to do things properly, so I saw it through all the way to fighting Satan. Yet again, DDS2 comes up with something that's great on an absolute scale but just not good enough compared to DDS1. I wasn't expecting Satan to be able to measure up to the Demi-fiend, but what I ended up getting was still a disappointment. The fight requires a lot of thought, careful observation, a few trials doomed to end in failure as you find out more of his tricks, but ultimately, it ended up having a very scripted feel. One of the great things about the Demi-fiend fight is that so much shit can go wrong at any given moment that you're constantly needing to adjust your approach and react to what's happening from one round to the next. With Satan, though, he's got a pretty strict AI that he follows, and the whole thing is mostly a test of whether you can keep up with tracking what you need to over the course of a long fight, with the only surprises being RNG screwjobs once you've gotten the hang of the script. It's basically an accounting simulator, to put it simply, and while the learning process was fun in and of itself, once I understood how to play it, the actual fight itself was kind of boring, really. It was still extremely satisfying to beat it, but there was a missing element compared to the Demi-fiend.
Don't take my complaining the wrong way, though. On any reasonable scale, those are pretty nitpicky points. DDS2 is still a fantastic game, well worth purchasing from PSN or hunting down to emulate. It may be the weakest of the press turn games, but that's only because Nocturne and DDS1 are two of the best games ever made. DDS2 is still a far cry better than 99% of the alternatives and thus highly recommended.
Playing Time: 44 hours, plus about 3-4 hours of unsaved time from dying to Satan