I never thought I would see the day. The first Shin Megami Tensei game has been officially released in English 22 years after Atlus first unleashed it in Japan on the venerable Super Famicom. A once obscure cult series outside of Japan, Shin Megami Tensei currently enjoys surprising popularity among RPG fans in the western hemisphere and continues to grow. For modern Shin Megami Tensei fans, this classic may look and feel clunky, but it still has a surprisingly relevant storyline, serves as an interactive history lesson for the series, and contains features that I wish more iOS ports of JRPGs had.
What if parallel dimensions existed and one of the world’s greatest minds was researching ways to communicate across these dimensions? Well, that’s what’s been happening and a small tear in this inter-dimensional continuum has allowed otherworldly beings (generally referred to as “demons”) to slowly invade Tokyo. With this proverbial cat out of the bag, the powers that be are scrambling to keep this catastrophic snafu under wraps. Every district in Tokyo (including Kichijoji, where you live) has been cordoned off and is under martial law.
Of course, the “great mind” who opened this dimensional rift has also been quarantined, but somehow managed to forward a “Devil Summoning” computer program to a bunch of people. Most people regarded it as spam or conspiracy theory crackpottery, but you elected to go down the rabbit hole and now have the power to communicate with the demons funneling into Tokyo. Having chosen to possess this arcane knowledge and power, you find yourself in the middle of a darkly twisted, morally ambiguous plot involving the occult, demonology, demonic possession, ancient gods, lucid dreams, and sociopolitical conspiracies heralding the impending apocalypse.
The storyline is very good and still surprisingly relevant today. With television programs like Ancient Aliens and America’s Book of Secrets gaining popularity, people are becoming more aware of conspiracy theories such as the New World Order. Shin Megami Tensei explores aspects of these controversial subjects in the seemingly innocuous guise of a video game.
Adding meat to the original story is the “A-Mode DDS” option on the title menu. Throughout the game, you obtain seemingly random items from notable story sequences and accessing them through the A-Mode DDS menu offers backstory into characters or events that you were not witness to. This works very well to flesh out aspects of the plot that were neglected before.
Despite the A-Mode DDS enhancement, the storytelling still may not appeal to modern RPG fans that prefer the more vividly detailed narratives woven in contemporary JRPGs. Event-based portions of the plot occur sparsely and are often sudden shocks. Even then, events that would normally be melodramatic are handled as “just another day in the office.” That lends a very foreboding “edge of the apocalypse” atmosphere to the experience. Also worth noting is that plot direction is semi-vague, so it’s not uncommon to walk around in circles wondering where you should be going and what you should be doing. Some may see that as a nuisance, whereas others will see it as a visceral enhancer of the game’s atmosphere. The localization is generally fine, although sometimes words do not have spaces between them and there is occasional text “drop off” where a phrase is left unfinished in a text box that denies further scrolling.
Your role in Shin Megami Tensei is not clearly defined, and plenty of circumstances will push and pull at your moral “Law-Neutral-Chaos” alignment. There is no clearly defined “paragon/renegade” paradigm here, as both Law and Chaos have their own unique appeals and flaws. Sometimes it’s a matter of picking whether to die by the gun or die by the sword. Of course, there is also the neutral path you can carve out. It seems ideal, but is a very lonely and arduous path that may put you in opposition with everyone else and leave you with severely bloodied hands.
Not only does alignment influence the latter portion of the storyline, but it affects gameplay as well. For example, certain facilities will deny you service and certain demons will not talk to you or be usable if their alignment opposes yours. Yes, not only do you fight lots of battles to earn EXP and material spoils, but a big part of the game involves talking to demons to potentially make them your allies. Demons do not gain levels or learn new skills, so you need to frequently combine them at a Cathedral facility to make stronger minions. A nice upgrade from the Super Famicom original is that you can preview the end result before fusing two or three demons together. Back then, combining demons into new minions was a game of chance that sometimes led to disappointment.
Unlike the PlayStation-era Persona games that have a more structured conversation system, the conversations in Shin Megami Tensei are more “stream of consciousness” and quite unpredictable. I could never tell what emotion I was eliciting with some demons, and making them my minions was a crapshoot. It’s clear that demon dialoguing in the series evolved big time from this point.
Also evolved is saving. There is the traditional way of saving via save points, which are scarce in the labyrinthine dungeons. There is also a quicksave method that I’m sure many players wish existed in the game before. Players can either initiate quicksaves themselves, or a quicksave file is automatically created after a player falls during a random enemy encounter.
Perhaps the quicksave feature reduces the game’s difficulty, but it is still no cakewalk. Even normal battles can decimate a careless player and enemies sometimes come in multiple successive waves. Demons can be difficult to persuade, and they often ask for hefty bribes before they agree to join you. Outside of battles, the lengthy first-person dungeons are labyrinthine and quite disorienting. There is no mistaking this for an old-school MegaTen game, that’s for sure. Yes, there is a need to grind, but this version of the game has been slightly rebalanced from the Super Famicom original to require a tad less of it.
The graphics are based on the GBA update of the game, so the background textures look smoother and more detailed with more pleasing colors. This is a vast improvement over the Super Famicom original, in which almost any indoor location looked like the halls of a storage facility. The identical textures on the walls and the lack of discerning landmarks still make the first-person dungeons disorienting to navigate, but the game has a helpful automapper. The classic Kazuma Kaneko style is present in the game’s character and monster sprites, but they look watered down into pixelated sprite form. The game does not necessarily look bad; it just looks rather plain, especially considering how stylized we know the series to be.
The music presented here is more atmospheric than the more pop-derived music of the newer Persona games. Each piece fits its intended scene or location, but few compositions are particularly memorable. One exception is “Ginza,” heard in the Ginza sector of post-apocalyptic Tokyo. That piece is so well composed that it would sound good in any form, be it 8-bit PCM or current day HD music formats. The music format in this version of the game sounds like richer MIDI than the Super Famicom original music. The soundtrack will not win any awards for HD quality or snappy compositions, but it gets the job done nicely.
The interface is excellent for tablets. This is the kind of interface I would have loved in games like Tales of Phantasia. The game can be played in landscape format with semi-transparent buttons or with the device held vertically, where half the screen is the game and the other half is the buttons, similar to a classic Game Boy. I preferred playing in landscape on my iPad because portrait made the buttons a little difficult to reach. The controls are quite responsive, and I have no complaints there. Okay, the ability to strafe in the first-person dungeons would have been nice, but it’s not a game killer.
Aesthetic complaints aside, the fact that Shin Megami Tensei got an English localization is pretty cool. Even cooler is that a 22 year-old RPG has a storyline that still holds some relevance in today’s times. The mobile interface is my favorite I’ve seen thus far on a tablet-based JRPG, and I hope more tablet JRPGs follow this example. Shin Megami Tensei for iOS not only serves as a virtual history lesson for this amazing series, but is still one of the more unique old-school JRPGs you will play. I definitely recommend checking this game out.