by Robert Fenner
Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner
There's no argument that the majority of the Shin Megami Tensei back catalogue can be classified as horror. However, special mention must be made to the dreary, existential dread of Digital Devil Saga.
The Junkyard is a warzone of broken concrete and twisted steel, upon which and endless rain falls. Upon this battlefield battle five tribes, locked in an endless battle of supremacy. However, all of this changes one day when a biomechanical lotus blossom falls from the sky, giving birth to a young woman with pitch black hair. But that's not all: The girl's appearance brands all present with a black sigil, turning each of them into an insatiable demon. Friend and foe devour each other in an attempt to sate their hunger, leaving the battlefield in a horrifying state of pure id.
After the carnage has passed, the girl, Sera, comes under the protection of the Embryon, a gang led by a young man named Serph. Serph and his crew vow to keep her safe until they can find out who she is and where she came from, but the Junkyard's governing body, the Karma Temple, promise to grant passage to Nirvana to the gang who brings Sera to them. As the plot begins to take shape, Serph and his comrades begin to question what the Junkyard is, why they're there, how long they've been there, and what existence is.
Existential crises and inhuman action is de rigeur for Shin Megami Tensei, but Digital Devil Saga adds a truly nightmarish flare with its setting. The Junkyard is a a desolate ruin of modern civilization, stripped of its context, and accented in a mix of cyberpunk technology and Indo-Aryan iconography. Mechanical lotus flowers recur, as solid steel fortresses are adorned with bas reliefs of Hindu deities. It adds an unplacable nature to the worldbuilding--especially as there are so few games with Indo-Aryan-inspired settings.
Furthermore, the level of existential dread is multi-layered. Characters are devouring each other; it's horrifying, yes, but even more horrifying is that the characters are horrified as well. And not only horrified, but feeling the emotion of horror for the first time in their lives. This is an existential crisis in the truest sense.
Be sure to check in with RPGFan's Retro Encounter Podcast on Thursday, where we'll be talking about the game at length.