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So you want to get into The Shin Megami Tensei Series…

So you want to get into the Shin Megami Tensei Series...

If you’re a big JRPG fan, you’ve probably heard of Shin Megami Tensei. Atlus’ demon-summoning RPG series has been around for nearly 30 years under its original Megami Tensei moniker. In the US, however, releases were sporadic at best and often underwent heavy localization to fit Western sensibilities. It wasn’t until the 2007 release of spinoff title Persona 3 that the series started gaining traction in America. Since then, the series has become a staple of the genre in the West. Those titles that make it to our shores are some of the most anticipated releases in their windows.

That said, it’s a rough series to get into. There are countless spinoffs, sequels, and genres across the series. That’s why I’m here! I’ll help you dip your toes into the series, with recommendations based on the type of game you’re interested in, as well as a quick rundown of what to expect in the series as a whole.

What is Shin Megami Tensei?

Shin Megami Tensei translates to “True Goddess Reincarnation,” but Wikipedia can fulfill any of your naming origin needs. What you need to know is that the series goes by several names: Megami TenseiMegaTen, Shin Megami Tensei, or SMT, depending on where you live. The series is marketed as Shin Megami Tensei in the West, so we’ll stick with that.

The series generally focuses on recruiting, fusing, and fighting with demons and mythical beasts from throughout mythology. It’s easy to think of it as Pokémon for an older demographic. While not a perfect analogy (for one, Shin Megami Tensei is older than Pokémon by around a decade), it gets you at least halfway there. There is a wide selection of games, including quite a few spinoffs, so it’s hard to peg down some bullet points from every game. Still, most games will have some combination of the following:

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  • Demon Summoning – The hallmark of the series, there are few games where you won’t be interacting with — and often fighting alongside — mythical creatures ranging from the 72 demons of the Goetia and creatures from Japanese folklore to entities from modern religions. Generally, you not only fight alongside these demons but also fuse weaker demons into stronger ones over the course of the game, progressing your party by carefully selecting when to sacrifice a demon rather than leveling any of them up. While you’ll find a small handful of games without this feature, it’s certainly the glue holding the series together.
  • Modern Settings – While SMT deals heavily in the supernatural, it usually does so under the umbrella of urban fantasy. You’ll regularly find yourself exploring real-life locations, seeing major Japanese landmarks, and using modern technology alongside your standard medieval weaponry. So how does the series find new and unique settings?
  • The Apocalypse – Nothing goes with demons quite so well as the end of the world. The mainline SMT games usually take place at or around the apocalypse, while spinoffs often deal with apocalypse-level threats. While this offers unique set dressing (and an excuse for demons to be strolling around), it’s certainly more than skin deep. This setting allows for deeper exploration of what ideals are vital to humanity. Which leads directly to…
  • Morality – SMT games may have protagonists and antagonists, but they’re not always clearly defined as heroes and villains. In the main series, you’ll usually be dealing with the struggle between Law and Chaos. While you might see more angels aligned with Law and more demons bumming around Chaos, neither side is strictly villainous or heroic. They simply hold different ideals sacred, and these ideals set them against each other. You’re often tasked with choosing a side and, depending on the game, you may have some gray area to play with as well. While the spinoffs regularly tread into a more traditional story structure, they almost universally create well-rounded villains with some form of reason, or at least rationalization, behind their actions.

In short: if you want to take a tour of mythology while treading in philosophical gray areas, SMT may be for you.

Awesome, so where do I start?

That’s a fun question. See, SMT has its roots deep in the traditional turn-based RPG, but it’s had forays into action, fighting games, even dipping its toes in the rhythm genre. As such, I’ll break down what I feel to be the best introduction based on the type of game you want to play. Let’s get a few ground rules out of the way:

  1. This information is for the newcomer. My recommendations might not be my personal favorites or fan favorites, but rather the games I think will be the most fun to a series newbie.
  2. I’ll be giving preference to games that are easily accessible through legitimate means. That’s just how we roll.
  3. I’ll be including spinoffs like Persona. Hardcore fans, I know they’re not strictly SMT games. I’ve thought it over, and I’m OK with it.
  4. I’ll provide some extended recommendations at the bottom of the article if you’re curious about other standouts in the series.
  5. These are just, like, my opinion, man.

We all copacetic? Well, let’s start from the top!

I want to try the core series!

Hey, that’s a great place to start! You can tick most boxes on the list above and get a feel for the gameplay that put the series on the map! There are four main Shin Megami Tensei entries and a few spinoffs that toe the line pretty dang well. That said, I can confidently recommend Shin Megami Tensei IV.

Box art for Shin Megami Tensei IV on the 3DS

Platform: Nintendo 3DS | Release Date: July 16, 2013

What it’s like: SMT IV is a traditional turn-based RPG, much like the rest of the core series. As a samurai armed with a seemingly anachronistic AI, you gain the ability to speak to, recruit, summon, and fuse demons. You begin by protecting the surprisingly European city of Mikado, but you’re quickly off discovering the secrets of the greater world. While a small group of fellow samurai accompany you, your battle party consists of yourself and up to three demons. In practice, this plays out like a relatively complicated rendition of the monster collecting games you might have played in the past. What makes SMT unique is a steeper difficulty curve that rewards long-term strategy in fusing demons, exploiting your enemies’ elemental weaknesses and covering your own. You can expect to see the game over screen from regular enemies if you’re careless, adding to the foreboding atmosphere. Don’t be distracted by the brightly-colored anime style. SMT IV feels closer to a horror story than it does high adventure.

Why you should play it: SMT IV is the most newbie-friendly entry into the main series. While the difficulty can be stiff, dying several times will unlock an easy mode to help you out. You have full control over what carries over during fusions, meaning that you’re not rolling the dice on random skill inheritance when fusing demons (a common thread you’ll see if you delve into earlier games). The UI is slick and clean throughout, with your AI buddy Burroughs guiding you throughout the adventure. The story hits some unique and mature beats, going to great lengths to ensure it doesn’t fall back on common tropes whenever possible. Most importantly, demon fusing is an incredibly satisfying incentive to keep you invested. There are over 400 demons to recruit. You can win some over by speaking to them during battle and trying to answer questions successfully, and you can always re-summon old demons for a fee, but most of your best warriors will come through fusing your crew. Fusing two demons results in a more powerful new demon. You can select eligible skills to inherit from your prior demons, making their growth vital to your new demons. The loop of fusing new demons, leveling them, fighting alongside them, then creating something new and exciting is a strong driving force. As an added bonus, a direct sequel, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse improves on many points but does regress on a handful.

What you might hate: While the atmosphere and mystery are wonderful, the story is hit and miss. Moment to moment you’ll be uncovering plenty of cool mysteries, but your traveling companions can be a bit flat. Side characters and demon interactions add plenty of flavor to the world, but the narrative often feels secondary to the gameplay and the atmosphere. It’s also easy to get lost in exploration, as your next destination is not always apparent. You’re often told locations to go without any kind of cardinal directionality, and if you set the game down for an extended period, you won’t find many reminders when you pick it back up. Finally, the battles are purely first-person. For some, this is a dealbreaker, but the animations are slick and you can still get a ton of equipment dress-up time with your avatar. All of his equipment will show up during dungeon exploration, and you can find all manner of interesting goodies that offer stat boosts, but more importantly, style.

Where you can get it: SMT IV is still relatively easy to find at retail, but you can also get it on the 3DS eShop. Atlus loves digital sales, so you can regularly find it for around $20.

Alternatives: There are a few other ways to break into the mainline series. The farthest back I’d go is Shin Megami Tensei, though there are some earlier Megami Tensei games that SMT was birthed from. The original series isn’t available in the West, and even if it was, it definitely shows its age. Shin Megami Tensei saw an iOS release you can dig into, though as an old-school first-person dungeon crawler, it’ll be a tougher pill to swallow for all but the most hardcore. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, the third game in the series, feels a bit more modern. Touting the now-signature press turn battle system, Nocturne takes the series into the third person and tries many new things with the formula, including a twist on the standard Law/Chaos/Neutral breakdown and some pretty crazy boss battles. It’s available as a PS2 Classic on the PS3 in addition to its standard release, with an HD remaster on the way in 2021. Finally, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux is a more recent 3DS release that might appeal to those who want to experience the mainline series with some modern quality-of-life touches. While not technically a mainline game, it was developed under the same mentality and with most of the same trappings. It’s a remaster of a DS game, so it won’t look as nice as something like SMTIV, but it is a fantastic entry point if you want to see something closer to how the series started.

I want something a bit more upbeat!

Oddly enough, we’ve got some solid choices for more upbeat! But if you want to be a part of the majority of SMT conversations, you’ve got a pretty clear selection in Persona 5 Royal.

Cover art for Persona 5 Royal on PlayStation 4

Platform: PlayStation 4 (Non-Royal edition also on PS3) | Release Date: March 21, 2020

What it’s like: Persona is the most popular spin-off of SMT. The series focuses on high school students uncovering supernatural truths about the world, with modern entries giving equal focus to school life and supernatural aspects of the heroes’ lives. Persona 5 Royal is the updated version of Persona 5with large swaths of extra story, additional endings, character costumes, equipment, party members, as well as a host of quality of life improvements. The core game is somewhere between a dungeon crawler and a visual novel. You take the role of a silent protagonist investigating a mysterious metaverse, starting the Phantom Thieves, and stealing the hearts of corrupt adults to improve the lives of those under their thumbs. The game works on a calendar system, and each day you’ll divide your time between classes, spending time with friends, and infiltrating metaverse palaces. You’ll spend a lot of time getting to know the large cast of characters while engaging in standard SMT staples like demon fusion and turn-based battles. The game handles some darker subject matter but does so with vibrant color, a smooth acid jazz soundtrack, and an unflappable sense of style.

Why you should play it: The Persona games are probably the games you hear the most about in conversation. Starting with Persona 3, the series took a sharp turn from its darker origins. While some longtime fans have lamented this, it’s led to a huge surge in popularity and has given perhaps the easiest avenue into the larger SMT universe. The game features strategic battles that reward smart fusion and exploitation of elemental weaknesses, making bosses more about sound strategy than level grinding. The characters are robust and well rounded, and interacting with them during the day feeds directly into the power of your fusions and battle techniques in the dungeon portions. The story presents an intriguing mystery that begs for replay, and deciding who to spend your days with will lead to deeper character growth for the party members and townsfolk you most enjoy spending time with. The game also oozes cool. The visual style is striking, with vibrant red and black motifs giving every UI element significant impact as characters seamlessly animate into contrasting menus that slam around with the impact of a gunshot. More importantly, the soundtrack from series stalwart Shoji Meguro is one of gaming’s all-time greats. Featuring modern music ranging from jazz to pop, techno to rock, and everything between, the soundtrack is one you’ll be listening to well after the credits roll.

What you might hate: If your tolerance for anime is low, your patience for this game will be severely tested. While the game gives depth to every character, that depth sits atop some well-worn tropes. You live the life of your average anime high schooler (in that every anime high schooler has superpowers and fights demons), and while it is incredibly successful in this, it’s unlikely to convert anyone who is already vehemently against the genre. The in-your-face style of the game can also rub some the wrong way. If you want your world taken seriously and presented realistically, you’re going to be in for a shock here. Anthropomorphic cats transform into vans, high schoolers don superhero outfits and go by goofy code names, and non-traditional gender roles will get played for laughs. The calendar system can also be stressful for those who hate deadlines, as without a guide you’re unlikely to see everything the game has to offer in a single playthrough. As someone who hates time limits, I learned to relax and prioritize the characters I most wanted to see. For some, this might be too much. Thankfully, the game offers a new game plus that makes a second playthrough more manageable.

Where you can get it: Persona 5 Royal was released for the PlayStation 4 both physically and digitally and is compatible with PlayStation 5. While it’s a slight downgrade, the original Persona 5 is also available on PlayStation 3.

Alternatives: Persona 4 Golden is in some ways every bit as easy to recommend as Persona 5 Royal. According to many, it’s got the stronger cast and an interesting driving mystery plot while remaining slightly less of a time sink. In addition to its original home on PlayStation Vita, it saw a Steam release in 2020 that works wonderfully. It lacks some of the modern polish of Persona 5 Royal, but if you’re looking to dive into the series on PC, P4G is your gateway. Persona 3 is similar tonally, but it’s a bit darker and lacks many modern conveniences. Furthermore, it doesn’t have an easy-to-recommend definitive edition, so I advise diving into it if you find yourself enraptured with 4 or 5 and want to see the rest. The first two Persona games are significantly darker, and the first is too rough around the edges to recommend, but Persona 2 is a fantastic game in its own right. It comes in two parts, Innocent Sin (available on PSP in the West) and its follow-up, Eternal Punishment (available as a PSOne Classic in the West). Outside of Persona, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is a crossover with the Fire Emblem series based around pop stars who moonlight as superheroes. It’s only tangentially an SMT game, but it’s an excessively fun (and light) time. Given its recent Switch port with additional content, it’s easier to play than ever.

I want a more traditional RPG experience!

If you’re looking for something closer to the Final Fantasy games, but with that darker, SMT flair, you’ll have an excellent time with Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga.

Box art for Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga on PlayStation 2

Platform: PS2, PS3 | Release Date: April 5, 2005

What it’s like: Digital Devil Saga is kind of Shin Megami Tensei by way of Final Fantasy. While it features the grim story and cutting difficulty of a Shin Megami Tensei game, the game follows the narrative structure of a more traditional RPG. Rather than recruiting an army of demons, your party consists of a conventional group of 5 characters who transform into demons during battle. Eschewing the demon fusion system for a more linear growth pattern, your progression choices mostly stem from determining which skills your characters learn as they level up. The battle system is lifted almost entirely from Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and will feel familiar to those who have played Shin Megami Tensei IV as well. As for plot, you’ll find yourself in control of one of six warring tribes vying for territory in a wasteland known as the Junkyard. Of course, things are not always as they seem, and the world expands throughout this game and its sequel. As you enter the story, you see the inhabitants of the Junkyard gain the ability to transform into demons, and you see the effect this has on the world and characters themselves as they struggle with their newfound power and glimpses of humanity they had not displayed before.

Why you should play it: DDS gives you the best of two worlds. While it plays like a traditional SMT game, the plot is front and center here. It opts to treat its players like adults, allowing you to figure out what’s going on in the world without having it spelled out. The world is filled with intriguing mysteries, and the characters follow some intriguing growth patterns. Starting off as emotionless dolls, the awakening of their demon forms also sets off growing emotions, and the reason behind these events is teased throughout the narrative. The atmosphere is creepy and gruesome, and the music is a driving, guitar-heavy set from Shoji Meguro. While the battles are harder than your standard RPG, they are on the easier end for a Shin Megami Tensei game, making it a fine introduction for new fans.

What you might hate: DDS is a PS2 game, and the seams show in graphical fidelity and control. The style is strong throughout, offsetting this weakness, but you’re still playing a game from 3 generations back. Some have criticized the game’s repetitiveness, though it’s a bit par for the course for a turn-based RPG. If you’re not willing to let the story be your main draw, this might not be the SMT for you. Most importantly, DDS is not a complete experience. The sequel, appropriately named Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2, finishes the story started here. It also refines a lot of the gameplay and opens up the world and story. While the cohesive experience is great, this can make the first game feel like an extended appetizer to the second game’s main course.

Where you can get it: Digital Devil Saga and its sequel can be found pretty affordably on Amazon if you’re looking for a PS2 physical copy. If you’re not willing to bust out the old console, you can move up a generation and pick the games up digitally on the PSN as a PS2 Classic on PS3. This is also the cheaper option, at about ten bucks a pop.

AlternativesShin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, a mainline game, shares a lot with DDS, from its graphical style to its battle system. It’s significantly more challenging, however, and like all mainline games the party is focused on demon collecting and fusion. Persona 5 and Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE skew close to the traditional side as well, but both focus more on character relationships and don’t feature extensive exploration.

I want something a bit more strategic!

If you’re a fan of tactical RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire EmblemSMT has you covered with Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor.

Cover art for Shin Megami Tensei Devil Survivor for Nintendo DS

Platform: Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS | Release Date: June 23, 2009

What it’s like: Devil Survivor is a tactical RPG with some SMT flair. You’ll be doing plenty of tactical positioning a la Fire Emblem, but once you engage in combat, you’re dropped into more of a traditional SMT turn. You’ll be exploiting weaknesses with a team of demons, as you’d expect. You have a lot of drive in the apocalyptic plot, though the breakdown of Law and Chaos is more of a flavor, as most outcomes revolve around how you interact with party members and who you choose to stick with. These can lead you down some pretty familiar paths, but they follow individual characters a bit more closely than some titles. Rather than speaking to demons, you’ll recruit them via auctions, but you’ll still do your standard fusion to get the best beasties. You can then assign two demons to each human party member, and they’ll move and act as a unit. It’s pretty slick, though the tactics are less complex than the strategy in party building and pre-battle preparation.

Why you should play it: Devil Survivor oozes style. The art is wonderful to behold, even by SMT standards, and the plot walks that SMT line between dark and stylish. The game is tough but fair, rewarding well-thought-out fusion, good use of weaknesses, and a bit of trial and error. If this ends up being too rough, there are ample opportunities to grind your way through the tougher battles. Like most SMT games, it will not hold your hand. It’s also got plenty of replayability, with a wealth of extra endings and a lengthy campaign. It’s also got a solid, guitar-heavy soundtrack. SMT does love its power chords. The plot is also engrossing, layering on mysteries early and making sure you care enough to seek answers.

What you might hate: The game’s not easy. You’ll have to struggle with trial and error for a number of battles, and if you’re not a fan of challenge, Devil Survivor might not be the game for you. The character designs are also pretty divisive. What one finds stylish, others (understandably) find obnoxious and weirdly proportioned. As a tactics game, it’s also a bit slower paced, so it might not be for those with shorter attention spans.

Where you can get it: Devil Survivor was initially released on the DS, but there’s a 3DS port called Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked. While the 3DS has some additional story content, there aren’t enough upgrades to recommend it over the original if there’s a large price difference. That said, the 3DS version is available on the eShop, and is regularly pretty cheap. There’s also a sequel to the game, and it’s a fine starting point, as the stories aren’t connected and the improvements aren’t so huge that they make it difficult to go back.

Alternatives: The sequel, appropriately named Devil Survivor 2, is easy enough to start with. The plots aren’t really connected, and there are some quality-of-life improvements in the sequel. None are enough to make the original a significant downgrade, and as the story might be a bit stronger in the first, I’d give the nod to playing the original first.

I like action in my games!

While SMT games are generally slower-paced, turn-based affairs, it’s dabbled in action a few times. Probably the best place to start is the exhaustingly named Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army.

Cover art for Shim Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army

Platform: PS2, PS3 | Release Date: October 10, 2006

What it’s like: We’re going to call Devil Summoner an action RPG wherein you’ll slash and shoot alongside some demon buddies. You play as Raidou Kuzunoha, a devil summoning detective in 1935. If you’re on board with the plot at that point, you’re in good shape. The action is standard action RPG fare, with battles taking you to a separate arena where you fight with a sword and a gun and limited ammo. You can summon a single demon to fight alongside you. Fusion makes a return, alongside the ability to sacrifice demons to power up your sword.

Why you should play it: First and foremost, the setting is utterly unique. 1930’s Japan is something most players will be utterly unfamiliar with, lending the game a bit of novelty as you find a Japan deep into Westernization meeting the traditional supernatural world. The style is classic SMT, with gothic character designs and the excellent demon designs you’d expect from the series. The detective story trappings are also a contrast to the traditional apocalyptic settings of SMT games. The plot gives you stakes but still allows you to get to know the characters acting in their standard day-to-day capacity. The battles are fun, if uncomplicated, and it’s an easy game compared to most SMT titles.

What you might hate: Devil Summoner is an older game. It wasn’t a graphical powerhouse during its initial PS2 release, and time hasn’t been kind to it. It’s got its fair share of jaggies and unpolished textures, and a lot of the animations have that PS2 doll-like stiffness. The action isn’t particularly deep, opting as many SMT games for depth in demon selection, fusion, and character progression. Make no mistake, this is a PS2 action RPG, and it plays like one.

Where you can get it: Devil Summoner and its sequel are both available as PS2 classics. They go on sale pretty regularly, so you won’t risk more than ten bucks on it.

Alternatives: Devil Summonercombat is, generously, pretty clunky. I recommend it on the strength of the characters and setting, and to introduce that world. However, there is a sequel, called Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon, available through all the same means as the original that features much-improved combat. While you will miss some context, none of it is a deal-breaker and the game stands alone quite well. It can be a nicer entry point for new players. While most of the praise for the original game stands here, the combat for the sequel is significantly smoother. As the main character persists throughout the games, I’d still recommend starting with the first game, but if you can’t get into it (or you don’t want to take the risk), feel free to dig into the sequel. The game does a fine job of getting you up to speed.

Where should I go from here?

There are plenty of other options within the series and other genres covered that we didn’t hit here. It’s hard to recommend them, however, as so many of them come as spinoffs from various Persona games and can spoil those games if you haven’t finished the original. These subseries include fighting games (Persona 4 Arena), dungeon crawlers (Persona Q), and even a few rhythm titles (Persona 4 Dancing All Night and its cohorts for Persona 3 and Persona 5). If you like any particular game in this list, you can generally delve into that subseries and find more to love. If you like SMT IV, check out Nocturne and Apocalypse. If Persona 5 really hits a sweet spot, try Persona 3 or Persona 4. The series has a pretty good standard of quality, and it’s hard to go wrong. It’s a series dense with titles, but it’s easy to delve into any given game and have a good time after you get started. Just be prepared: once you dive into the world of Shin Megami Tensei, you’ll likely never leave.

This work was originally published on the author’s blog and that version can be viewed at messofcords.com.

Wes Iliff

Wes Iliff

Wes learned to read playing Dragon Warrior on the NES and they haven't stopped playing RPGs since. Through a superhero-esque origin story, they started writing like crazy and eventually ended up writing features at a site they'd been reading since high school, which was... some time ago. They love sharing the joy in whatever flawed masterpiece has caught their attention this week, usually to the captive audience of their spouse, children, and small menagerie of pets.