I’ve always been apprehensive of mainline Shin Megami Tensei and its myriad of spinoffs, except for Persona. While certain elements of Shin Megami Tensei are not necessarily my cups of tea, such as the dreary environments and soundtracks, the fans have also made it a more daunting series to get involved with.
Still, I’m a stubborn individual, sometimes annoyingly so. Regardless of my reluctance to get involved in such a deep-rooted fandom, I’ve always had this burning desire to enjoy Shin Megami Tensei.
I have a vast, mixed history with the Shin Megami Tensei games and spinoffs I’ve tried, from IV to Nocturne and Strange Journey Redux to Devil Survivor Overclocked. I would usually get roadblocked, and I never felt like I had the adequate skill to succeed in these games. That, and these titles were undeniably overwhelming mechanics-wise. Add fan aggression to those aspects, and the end result is a torrent of disaster. Also, to a Persona kid like myself, the number of diverse choices in SMT was absolutely frightening, and every choice I made felt wrong because of that.
These continual fears remained ingrained within me for years until I recently played through one SMT spinoff I neglected to give a fair shake, Digital Devil Saga. I’ve heard rumblings of this game’s positive reception, yet, any step outside Persona scared me. Still, I forced myself to give it a shot, and I am ultimately thrilled I did.
Digital Devil Saga is not drastically different from other SMT spinoffs in some ways. It still wields a grimly sinister tone and a desolate, unwelcoming world. However, its gameplay mechanics are truly where it shone for me because it felt like the perfect middle ground of the less difficulty-intensive, guided Persona titles and the overwhelming, unapologetic SMT experiences.
The crux of what made me so engaged with Digital Devil Saga came in the form of the Mantra system. The playable cast has these sphere grid-type (Final Fantasy X) menus where you spend currency to unlock paths. These paths all have dedicated themes, most notably being elemental or physical focuses.
Then, unlocking these skills on the paths simply requires good old battling. Unlocked skills can be swapped in and out at the player’s leisure too. Not only does this all culminate to provide an immensely fulfilling gameplay experience with progression at its core aside from standard level-ups, but it also manages to grant an addictive sense of choice that lacks frightful attachment.
The lack of demon recruitment is also welcoming; I won’t lie. For as much as I love the concept of demon recruitment in Shin Megami Tensei, the sheer randomness and lack of consistency with correct answers makes each potential acquisition petrifying.
There is also more of a focus on characterization and storytelling with Digital Devil Saga. It’s nowhere near as constant or really as immersive as Persona, but it undeniably aided in making me focus more on the experience. Truth be told, I realized that part of why I had such an arduous time getting into SMT was the combination of hardcore gameplay and non-intrusive story elements. There were really no tethers or initial hooks to really attach me to the games. Digital Devil Saga’s stronger focus on the story actually made me care more about learning and knowing the combat system because I had an investment that is vital for any RPG.
I titled this piece the way I did because I truly believe that Digital Devil Saga is the ideal SMT spinoff gateway for Persona fans to try out the other titles. The gameplay systems and story aid in building a sense of unfearful investment that is ideal for not scaring off potential fans. The jump from Persona to SMT is simply too vast for some to handle, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible from the get-go.
That isn’t to say this is definitive because SMT has a distinctly different tone and appeal than Persona. But, I now feel more inclined to give mainline SMT a fairer shot after this game, even if they have their fair share of differences. Unlike Nocturne or SMT IV, which are more like treacherous caves from the fields of Persona, Digital Devil Saga is a comfortable bridge that I’m glad to have chosen to cross, even if it took me incredibly long to do so.
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