Before the ascension of role-playing games into the mainstream market, publishers were quite cautious about the content of their RPGs. From the heated debate over the religious overtones in Square's Xenogears to the ill-fated Devil Summoner on the Saturn, subject matter that wasn't politically correct was strictly taboo. Thankfully, as gamers grew up, so did their videogames. While one could argue that Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto) was instrumental in paving the way for adult content in gaming, no creator has done more for mature expression in RPGs than the creative minds behind Atlus' occult Shin Megami Tensei series. While North America missed out on many of the MegaTen games, we were fortunate to receive two titles on the PlayStation (Persona and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment) with one PS2-bound this fall (Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne). This winter, Atlus brings us the first chapter in a new adventure from the deliciously twisted creators of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne with Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner.
This tale begins in the town known only as Junkyard, a ruined city caught in perpetual conflict. In this post-apocalyptic time, gangs of youths, called tribes, constantly wage war against each other to survive. Many of them hope to win the right to leave this purgatory for a better life in Nirvana; for only the strongest tribe can emerge as champions, and only champions will be allowed to seek out this promised land. Amid the gunshots and perpetual rainfall of this rotting urban jungle, Serf - the young leader of tribe Embryon, is about to lead his companions on an adventure unlike anything they could ever conceive.
During a skirmish with a rival tribe, a mysterious object crashes onto Embryo's brewing battlefield. Upon impact, the artifact releases countless spheres of light, illuminating everyone in the area with strange energy. At first, the only sign of this exposure was arcane tattoos that had appeared on the body of each person, but soon the infection would manifest itself fully. Shortly after this encounter, Serf and company begin to lash out at the other tribes, driven by a desire to rip the flesh from the bones of their opponents. Before long, the infected members of Embryon began to rage out of control, transforming into demons intent on consuming anything and everything that came within reach. Suddenly, a mysterious dark-haired girl appears and manages to calm these rampant inner desires, bringing them back to human form. Bewildered, Serf tries to question the young girl to shed light on their metamorphosis. Sadly, the girl is an amnesiac, remembering only her name: Sera.
Not long after awakening to these new abilities, Embryon receives orders from the Church of Karma to leave Junkyard and make their way to Nirvana: a dream come true, or a fate worse that death? Only time would tell. With Sera in tow, these young warriors set out into the unknown on their assignment, hoping to restore the young girl's memory and shed light on their affliction. What awaits them along their pilgrimage? Will they find salvation, or something they couldn't possibly comprehend?
From what we've seen so far, Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner is visually astounding. Featuring an evolution of the impressive cel-shaded graphics featured in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Avatar Tuner's graphics appear airbrushed, lending to a much smoother, natural appearance of characters and backgrounds. Character designer Kazuma Kaneko returns to lend his avant-garde visual style to the adventure. While not as initially twisted as some of his creations seen in the Persona games, his work in Avatar Tuner is nonetheless inspired. From the torn wasteland of Junkyard to the gothic megalith of the Church of Karma, the artistic appeal of Kaneko-san's designs is nothing short of heart-stopping.
Unfortunately, not much information was forthcoming about the score to Avatar Tuner outside of reworking of the original theme song. The North American release will feature the cover track "Danger" by Etro Anime, an up-and-coming New York-based band renowned for their wide range of acoustic talents ranging from classic rhythm n' bass with sensual vocals to catchy hip-hop. Sadly, no information on voice-over talent has yet to be announced, but Atlus appears to be pulling out all the stops for this release, so expect some talented voice actors to bring life to Serf and his tribe.
In regards to gameplay, Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner appears similar to that of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne with turn-based party combat. While in human form, players can use a variety of melee and ranged weaponry, but when Serf and his companions assume demon form, they are privy to a host of new abilities. Players will be able to devour their enemies, absorbing their special abilities for use against other opponents. The "Break" system included in combat allows a member of the player's party to protect the team from certain attacks and, in some situations, reflect the incoming damage back at the opponent. To make battle even more exciting, players will be able to discover link attacks that allow members of the party to combine their powers to attack in unison for devastating new techniques. The "Mantra Flow" system introduced in Avatar Tuner will also allow players to customize and develop their characters and their alter egos to their liking, allowing them to hone certain talents and develop new powers.
With top-notch visuals, a promising score, a unique storyline and complex play-system, Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner is definitely the RPG to sink your teeth into this holiday season. Altus promises us over 50 hours of the most riveting sci-fi fantasy storytelling we've ever encountered, and those are big words to live up to. In a time where "RPG-elements" has become a buzzword and "role-playing" a vogue, the masses have grown restless. Inundated by the digital flood of bitter anti-heroes and end-of-the-world prophecy, one has to ask, "Does originality still exist in the genre?" I certainly believe so, and Avatar Tuner appears to be the start of a remarkable revolution in the genre for storytelling and artistic direction.
How do I know?
A little devil told me... ^_~