This year, someone insisted that I was being unfair for judging the entire SMT franchise by the example of Strange Journey. So, with the aid of various emulators, I've every mainline title but IV, and I've ragequit every last one of them. Let's get this out of the way right now: the stories are awful and overwhelmingly shallow. The first game at least has the excuse of breaking new ground and trying new things, but none of the others move out of its shadow or evolve in any way. The characters are shallow and gormless stereotypes, devoid of character. The philosophy is shallow and sophomoric, offering nothing but the indicator that ludicrous, unrealistic extremes of behavior are bad, m'kay? The shallow, formulaic Order vs. Chaos but they're both dicks ending the world plots (or rather, plot, for there's just the one plot over and over) never develop beyond that. And, of course there's the whole shallow, tasteless use of my faith, and the faiths of countless others (but not, naturally, their home-grown religion) for shock value without any real substance. So, the storytelling's a complete and utter wash across the board. But games are still games, and one can still enjoy the raw gameplay experience of a title with a weak, pretentious narrative. And I'll say this: the core of the gameplay is quite good. It takes the traditionally-useless RPG mechanics (instant death, buffing-debuffing, status effects, etc.) and makes them versatile and useful. Crits and elemental weaknesses give you additional turns for more depth. In practice, though, it's all weighed down by the difficulty. When I lose a well-designed game, I feel like it was fair. I didn't prepare enough, or use the right strategies, or bring the right party. I feel like there were ways I could stop my loss next time, so I want to try again. This is the right way to craft a challenging game, one that is, to be blunt, fun. None of the SMT titles I played stayed well-designed or fun. It's all a frustrating, random mess. When it feels like it, the game'll cheat and kick your ass, and there's nothing you can do to stop it. Maybe you've got a higher tolerance for that kinda thing than I do, but I find that the poor, barely-improved design of the series is insurmountable, and the story offers no motivation to try anyway.
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