Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner

Ah, colon cancer.

Anyway, I found an SMT spinoff I didn’t hate! Remember how disappointed I was that, despite SMT3 making a big deal of the protagonist being part demon, he was still basically just a dude? Well, this game fixes that.

This lovely creature is the main character. Notice how he is an actual inhuman monster and not just a dude with tattoos!

The game builds on the visceral discomfort of the SMT series’ premise and actually rides the train all the way into town: Instead of summoning demons to fight demons, you become demons to fight demons. This means that the mons aspect of recruiting demons is lost in favor of your party members being other characters like in most RPGs. This is actually similar to the Persona series, which also did a similar thing of invoking demons to gain magic powers, and which I was also disappointed by how little it engaged with this aspect. Finally, we have a game that cuts out the middleman and just lets your characters be their demons.

This alone would be enough to make me love the game, but on top of all this it actually explores the psychological ramifications of this. In SMT3, the Demi-fiend’s behavior doesn’t change at all after becoming a demon, which completely undercuts the narrative’s insistence that this is a huge deal. Not so in this game. Awakened characters display personality changes that are noticed by the other characters, becoming much more emotional and aggressive, and this comes with actual negative consequences, as their demonic hunger overrides their senses and can even cause them to attack their own teammates. This means “Waah I hate being an awesome superbeing with magic powers let’s reset everything to the status quo” is an actual sensible motivation instead of pointlessly annoying, and makes the totally gung-ho characters disturbing even to someone 110% in favor of transhumanism like me.

The tone of the story is also genuinely dark and gruesome, far moreso than I’ve seen from the rest of the series. The SMT series claims to be dark and edgy but I actually find it pretty milquetoast; yeah, there’s murder and apocalypse and God is evil, but that’s all just par for the course for jRPGs. This game’s opening cutscene shows an entire battalion including the protagonist transforming into demons, their tactical interface glitching out to show nothing but “EAT THEM ALL” repeated on loop, then gruesomely tearing apart and eating everyone around them. Then your first quest has you chasing down one of the survivors, a hardened soldier who is scared senseless of you, and brutally murdering him, with one of your allies being creepily gung-ho about this and the other quite sensibly freaked out and dry heaving when told she’s supposed to eat the bodies of her enemies for strength. This plot does not pull any punches about how horrifying a world ruled by demons would really be.

…Unfortunately, despite the interesting premise, the actual writing leaves a lot to be desired. The plot moves at a glacial pace just so that it can be stretched across two games, and you get no meaningful answers to anything until the second game. Said answers have the same problem as Monster, taking a simple premise that could have been interesting and bloating it to incomprehensibility with more and more elaborate conspiracy pileups. The plot ends up so disconnected from anything approaching real-world applicability that I just lost any capacity for intellectual investment. “What if we made a test-tube baby who could talk to God, then we drove her to a mental breakdown that made God turn everyone into demons and destroy the world, would that be messed up or what?” Uh, I guess? “Also what if she made a virtual reality filled with the fake idealized versions of the only people she knew, and then those fake people became real, would that be crazy or what?” Nothing about that makes any sense, can we go back to the demons and transhumanism please? “Also what if the fake AI people actually had the souls of the real people and also the Sun is the afterlife and also God.” Go to bed, game, you are drunk.

I will say this for it, though: There’s no YHVH this time. Instead, the central figures and cosmology are all Hindu. It was very refreshing to see an SMT game use one of the actually interesting religions for once instead of falling back on (its incredibly repetitive and boring interpretation of) Christianity.

Unfortunately, in addition to the plot being nonsense, the characters are also very shallow and melodramatic, with what little character development they have being motivated by trite and bog-standard lessons about the power of friendship. To a degree their stiltedness and melodrama are clearly intentional, as it’s a plot point that they’ve been experiencing emotional suppression and are only now becoming self-aware, but I still found it unnecessarily extreme. Many of their decisions are also just baffling to me; there are multiple points where they decide to tragically put down an ally of theirs who’s gone rabid from demon hunger instead of just running away. Sera’s powers were also frustratingly inconsistent and seemed to work entirely based on whether the plot wanted a character to be saveable or not. The characters get a lot better in the second game since their personalities are more stable, but then they all kill themselves in stupidly pointless heroic sacrifices so their character development just awkwardly fizzles out.

Of course, it wouldn’t be SMT if it wasn’t weird about women too. Pictured above is the demon form of your only female party member, and yes, those are boob mouths, for some reason. I wouldn’t be so bothered by it if the male characters had some sort of dick monster for equal opportunity grossness, but of course they don’t. Still, at least it’s an actual monster and not just a sexy lady with a tail or whatever.

…Less excusable is that the only female faction leader has her demon brand on her butt, which you can tell because she conveniently wears bottomless pants to let you leer. (She’s also fridged really early.) Curious how none of the male characters get this kind of indignity.

On the plus side, the second game ends with the male and female protagonists fusing into a hermaphroditic god-like being and then you get to beat up some transphobic angels when they yell at you for it, so that’s cool.

Gameplay-wise it is almost entirely an improvement on SMT3: The protagonist going down is no longer an instant game over, there’s now a magic equivalent of Charge so caster builds are actually viable, and most importantly learned skills can be freely swapped out instead of being lost forever, pioneering the delicious tactical configuration aspect that would later become the crux of my beloved Devil Survivor. It still has all the same problems of jRPGs: way too many random encounters, way too many literally identical battles, and battles are decided before they begin.

It also has problems all of its own making! The decision to tie shield spells to elements instead of making them work on all magic was an interesting one that makes their use much more thoughtful, but in practice it amplifies the problem of every battle being won entirely based on picking the right elemental setup. If you pick the wrong shield spell you lose, if you pick the right one you trivialize the battle; very few bosses have any way of throwing a wrench into this. This means most bosses require you to spend one battle just scouting out the boss to see what its attacks and weaknesses are, then restart so you can fight it with the correct configuration. It would have been much more courteous, and lost nothing, if we could see the boss’ stats and configure our party before the fight started like in DeSu.

The first game is particularly bad about this: the optional bosses take it to a ridiculous extreme, as they are virtually impossible without a few very specific defensive skills buried deep in unintuitive branches of the skill tree. What’s that, you assumed you’d get instant death immunity by pursing the death magic branch? LOL no, go back and master the entire expel branch too or you get nothing, because for some reason the game decided Null Death and Null Expel had to be lumped into the same node. (This has the side effect that each character’s skill tree ends up looking pretty similar; everyone has to master death and expel magic just to get those passive skills, even though the spells themselves are mostly useless.) This is made worse by endgame skills costing absolutely absurd amounts of macca and AP; in the endgame I finally got fed up and used a cheat code to max out my money, and I still managed to drain my entire wallet without even buying everything. I assume this is to incentivize new game+, but who has the time for that?

I also genuinely want to ask the developers what in God’s name they were thinking when they designed the Shiva battle in the second game. He has a completely unique gimmick that works nothing like any other enemy in the game and the player is given no way to figure out how it works besides trial and error nor any indication it even exists at all. (For bonus points, if you do understand the gimmick he is completely trivial and can be beaten by just repeating the same actions on loop.)

Additionally, I’m disappointed they dropped the party size to 3 after SMT3 already dropped the party size from 6 to 4. Surely it wouldn’t have broken the game to let us use all 5 party members at once? It’s not like they have any qualms about pitting us against enemies with that many actions (or more). The Press Turn system could have really shone with a bigger party, I think; as it is, the action economy is just too lean to enable really complex strategies. (It also would have made shield spells more universally useful if you couldn’t just bench a character to avoid triggering their weakness.)

So on the whole, I’m left with… very mixed feelings. The transhumanist aspects and demon designs are awesome, but the story doesn’t seem to share my enthusiasm, instead opting to focus on much less interesting themes and aspects. I really enjoyed the devouring mechanics and the skill tree (especially in the second game) and the battle system was more complex than most jRPGs, but the random encounters were so tedious and so many of the optional bosses were just grind checks. I’ll mark it down as a rec, though in all honesty I’d recommend skipping straight to the second game; the plot doesn’t really start until then, and they give you flashbacks to the few relevant scenes you need to know from the first game. (Track down a save file to get the import bonuses though, they’re really useful.)


  1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

    Also, appreciate this QoL hack that took me way too long to make. I learned PS2 hacking for this!

  2. Seed of Bismuth says:

    “Also what if the fake AI people actually had the souls of the real people and also the Sun is the afterlife and also God.”
    Hi Kingdom Hearts.

    “boob mouths, for some reason. I wouldn’t be so bothered by it if the male characters had some sort of dick monster for equal opportunity grossness”
    So Devilman Demons then?

    “the second game ends with the male and female protagonists fusing into a hermaphroditic god-like being and then you get to beat up some transphobic angels when they yell at you for it, so that’s cool.”
    that enough to put this on my list then.

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      Oh no, what did Kingdom Hearts do now?

      that enough to put this on my list then.

      I can add that the main villain is also intersex, and I expected it to be a creepy fetish thing but it wasn’t! It seems to be another divine hermaphrodite thing, as it’s echoed in her demon form being the fusion of Vishnu and Shiva, which is the supreme being in Hindu theology. (I don’t know how actual intersex people feel about that, but it definitely seems better than the alternative.)

      It was refreshing how firmly this series pivoted away from Christian cosmology in favor of Hindu, actually. I should add a note about that.

      1. Seed of Bismuth says:

        probably because fighting the Pope, Apostles, Saints, and Trinity are more Finally Fantasy’s thing now.

        1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

          Nah, the very next SMT game (Strange Journey) went right back to fighting angels. This was just a temporary detour.

      2. Nerem says:

        This isn’t true exactly. Hinduism actually has several major sects, which all declare a certain god as the supreme (Brahma) Shiva, Vishnu, Adi Parati Shakti, or all five) It’s also kind of weird that it is Vishu and Shiva, and not Shiva and Parvati, as Ardhanarishvara is a fusion of Shiva and Parvati in Hindu mythology. It means “the Half-Woman Lord”. Though it could technically be Shiva and Vishnu if one of them was their female selves. Shiva has Shivaa (FF uses this version of Shiva) while Vishnu has Mohini.

  3. Nerem says:

    To be fair to SMT3, him being a ‘dude with tattoos’ is thematically important, though the English translation failed to fully get this across. They actually do put too much emphasis on him being a demon (“Demifiend”), while the Japanese puts more emphasis on him being human. The Japanese comes out to “The Human Ashura”. That is to say, the fact that he’s a human is the important part, and why his design emphasizes that.

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      See, I feel that’s kind of silly, when storywise his demonness is far more important. He’s demon enough that it disqualifies him from conceiving a Reason, and the entire True Demon route (which is canonical by SMT4A and SMT5) is about him embracing his demonic side. Moreover, all other demons immediately recognize him as a demon and treat him as one.

      I can see why they’d want to emphasize his humanness if the plot actually did anything with it, but it doesn’t. (Possibly, given the prologue seemed to imply a very different plot than the one we got, they were planning to do something with it at one point, but scrapped that thread.)


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