October Terror Story #09 Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner

by Robert Fenner

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Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner
PlayStation 2

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.

Deep Thoughts on Strange Journeys

by Robert Fenner

It's been a rough few years for OG MegaTen fans. Ever since Atlus achieved a new level of international success with Persona 4–a title that became its own successful franchise–Shin Megami Tensei and its myriad offshoots have been pushed in a more populist direction; one that sacrifices the series' transcendent iconoclasm upon the ever-hungry Altar of Otaku Fandom.

Strategy RPG Devil Survivor was largely a sanitized retelling of Shin Megami Tensei 1, one in which the Power of Friendship could overcome any demon-summoning apocalypse. Its 2012 sequel was a retread, but added plot elements and antagonists lifted wholesale from Neon Genesis Evangelion, along with dating sim mechanics. Both games were illustrated by MegaTen newcomer and Durarara!! artist Suzuhito Yasuda, featuring moe-straddling designs with impossibly perky breasts.

2013 saw the release of Shin Megami Tensei IV, the first numbered SMT sequel in a decade. Although mechanically very strong, something felt a little off about it; from the softer character designs of Masayuki Doi (Trauma Team), to its odd instances of flag-waving nationalism, IV lacked much of the philosophy that made its forebears so special. It was not unexpected, as many of those behind the series' initial hallmarks had left Atlus long ago, but it was a hard reminder that Shin Megami Tensei had changed for good.

This change was double-underlined in last year's Shin Megami Tensei IV APOCALYPSE, a pseudo-sequel that expanded IV's ending into a lengthy quest of its own. APOCALYPSE focused on–you guessed it–the Power of Friendship, giving its protagonist a whole host of cheerleading buddies to save the day, providing few dilemmas that couldn't be solved by doing your best and believing in yourself! APOCALYPSE felt extraneous at best, a reminder of a reminder that, despite its spiky shell, Shin Megami Tensei was now a run-of-the-mill JRPG through and through.

Last year also saw the release of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, a supposed collaboration between Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem that was, in actuality, a collaboration between Atlus and idol jimusho Avex. TMS (see what they did there?) presents an idealized version of Japan's idol industry–famous for its chewing up and spitting out of young hopefuls–as something to aspire to. It was disconcerting to watch, especially when one remembers Persona 2's biting critique of the idol industry–right down to villainous producer Ginji Sasaki, a parody of Avex's own Tetsuya Komuro.

And that brings us to today, when Atlus revealed Shin Megami Tensei: Deep Strange Journey, a remake of 2009's Strange Journey. Strange Journey was, arguably, the last SMT that truly shared a philosophy with its predecessors. Dropped into a hell-world without respite, Strange Journey was heavy on ideological dilemmas with no easy answers. It was a deeply uncomfortable narrative in which, no, everybody can't just get along. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Strange Journey was the last SMT game to feature new character designs from longtime series illustrator Kazuma Kaneko. Deep Strange Journey, on the other hand, is set to add full voice acting, a host of new characters (most visibly a mysterious woman named Alex), as well as an expanded plot with a new ending route. Notably, this remake replaces Kaneko's striking character designs with those of SMT IV's Masayuki Doi.

It's difficult to judge Deep Strange Journey by its trailer alone, but I can't help but raise an eyebrow at its announcement. It'll likely be a compelling and mechanically sound experience, but one wonders if Atlus is attempting to rewrite history; to "modernize" its earlier entries, filing off those rough physical and metaphysical edges for a reintroduction to an audience coming fresh off of the flashy Persona 5. The change in character designer is certainly telling. Will the Power of Friendship overcome the twisted void of the Schwarzwelt? Can social links bloom on a battlefield? Only time will tell.

MisanthroPlay Episode #23 Video Game Nasties

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We're closing in on Halloween, and what better way to celebrate than with some ghoulish gore? This week we look at the games that would give Joe Lieberman a coronary and make Mary Whitehouse spin in her grave: It's Video Game Nasties, from Chiller to Rule of Rose.

Also, We Play Mafia 3, Shin Megami Tensei IV APOCALYPSE, Battlefield 1, and Thumper. Happy Halloween!

Head on over to the MisanthroPlay blog to have a listen. 

MisanthroPlay Episode #21

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Persona 5's just dropped in Japan, and right on time: September 20th 2016 marks the twenty year anniversary of Atlus' beloved flagship JRPG of metropolitan friends fighting mythic figures. A special occasion calls for a special guest, so we invited the charming Bob Mackey (RetronautsUSGamerTalking Simpsons) to discuss the ins and outs of Persona and how it's changed over the years.

Oh, and it's our first anniversary! Head on over to the MisanthroPlay Blog to have a listen, and maybe wish us happy birthday if you're feelin' frisky.