Reviews: Shin Megami Tensei

Shallow, Pretentious Stories, Archaic Gameplay

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.

One of the greatest and most thought provoking RPG series today

Ah, Shin Megami Tensei...where to start? The simplest way to describe it is "Pokemon with Demons, Angels and religious metaphors", but that's only the surface. See, while the demon summoning mechanic is very similar to the concept of Mons, SMT games are much different from most games of that type. For one thing, it's much darker; Profanity, blood, and (oftentimes graphic) death are commonplace in this series, and these aren't cute pokemon we're talking about here, these are actual demons and creatures from almost all forms of mythology. Thor? We got that. Shiva? We got that. God, Satan, and Lucifer? They're here too, and they all have an interest in humanity...for better or worse.

And that brings me to the second main aspect of SMT, and that's the alignment system. See, in each of the "main" games, you must align yourself to one of three moral outputs:

  • Law: Emphasizes order and stability. The main alignment of God and the Angels.
  • Chaos: Values personal freedom above all else. The main alignment of Lucifer.
  • Neutral: The belief that humanity doesn't need either angels or demons to survive.

Sounds simple, right? WRONG. Each alignment has its dark side. Most people aligned with Law are fanatical Knight Templar, and YHVH (The SMT equivalent of God) is a totalitarian dictator who accepts nothing less than absolute obedience. Many people aligned with Chaos, in contrast, are violent, mindlessly destructive maniacs.

You may think Neutral is probably best then, but even that has some problems. First, obviously, you'll have both the forces of Law and Chaos gunning for you. Also, as the story in each game progresses, more and more of the human NP Cs will join one of the factions, making them your enemy. Its not uncommon for a Neutral protagonist to have maybe one or two other humans siding with him in the end, and the rest pitted against him.

So...who's side are YOU on?

(Obligatory "Hee-ho!" reference)

A More Critical Look at the Mainline Series

Mainline Megami Tensei fails to forge a meaningful conflict between valid, but mutually exclusive alternatives. The root ideas of Law (‘live for the greater good in an orderly world’) and Chaos (‘live for yourself in a world of freedom’) are fundamentally valid and could be a basis for an interesting conflict. However, they invariably degenerate into Evil versus Evil, which defeats the purpose of several story routes. Chaos and Neutrality are ‘right’ much of the time only because they are juxtaposed with Lawful straw men. You could make a strong argument in favor of an orderly world, but the mainline SMT games aren’t even trying.

The characters are shallow embodiments of their philosophies. It further defeats the theme of staying true to one's beliefs, as the games seem to be saying that remaining philosophically consistent will inevitably turn one into a dogmatic Knight Templar or Chaotic Evil murderer, and that the only way to retain one’s humanity is to be as weak-willed and indecisive as possible.

The extreme difficulty relies mostly on beginner traps and trial and error. The dungeons consist mostly of teleports and traps which the player has no way of spotting in advance. As such, any progress depends on memorization and dog-headed persistence rather than on foresight and strategizing. Likewise, the demon negotiation system is broken – it masquerades as a philosophical debate, but in reality is a guessing game. What matters is not being able to hold one’s ground in a discussion, but telling the demon what it wants to hear. Furthermore, the negotiations tend to break down for no reason, with the demon making off with your macca or items. Finally, combat is an exercise in frustration, with unblockable instant death attacks (I am looking at you, Maya and Mem Aleph!), regular enemies dealing extreme damage and the ludicrous ‘the main character dies and it's over’ rule (fortunately, the series got rid of the latter in SMT IV).

I consider myself to be a patient gamer and it usually takes a lot for me to dismiss a piece of work, let alone a series. Still, having experienced Nocturne, Strange Journey and SMT II & IV , I am willing to argue that those games are demonstrably flawed on a fundamental level, as their problems (bad writing, meaningless characterization, relentlessly bleak settings and cheap, unfair gameplay) are of the objective nature.

Shin Megami Tensei: Why it's amazing

The Shin Megami tensei series of games are any history lovers dream, as literally every demon is based of a god or deity from some world religion throughout history and they all have personalities based of the myths that surround them. Ever wanted to see what would happen if Thor fought against Loki? You can recruit one and see how'd that end up. What if you wanted to see Saint Michael The Archangel fight Lucifer? Then side with law or chaos and kick some ass. There's not just great fights with good mechanics, there's amazing stories too. The main series normally has the immediate plot based around demons invading Tokyo/Destroying Tokyo/Destroying the world and you play as a high school student who/Arena Fighter/Apprentice Samurai who get mixed up in the conflict, which is orchestrated by the two big bosses of the SMT Universe, YHVH and Lucifer. That's right, you get to fight under God (yes, That God), the king of the demons, or just not give a damn and kill them both! I'm not joking, play SMT 2 and you get to KILL GOD AND LUCIFER! This series doesn't get nearly enough love, as it's normally overshadowed by its equally amazing spinoff series, Persona. It's a shame, because there aren't really that many games that deal with religion and moral ambiguity as well as this, and those that try it normally suck (I'm looking at you Final Fantasy 13). everyone should play these games, just because of how unique they are in theme, setting, atmosphere and mechanics.

P.S. The first Megami Tensei game came out on the NES BEFORE Pokemon. We did it first, your welcome Nintendo.

Shin Megami Tensei

Man these games are great. An amalgamation of mythologies, hard as hell, and leaves none of its questions unasked. Also, better than Final Fantasy, I can only ask for that. It's these games that kicked forward my interest in mythology and the concept of chaos (the Chaos alignment helped that). Though I gotta say I've been getting my head wrapped up in understanding them, and I must confess that I may have taken some things too seriously, but I think I'm done gazing too deeply. The games are still utterly enjoyable to me, and that's all I ask (other than that last thing I said was all I asked for, but don't think too much of it).