Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
On September 11, 1987, Namco released an RPG on the Famicom (NES in the US) loosely based on the novel “Digital Devil Story.” This game was called “Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Story.” After that and the sequel were released on the Famicom, Atlus bought the rights to the series, and thus the prolific Megami Tensei series as we now know it came to be. 1992’s Shin Megami Tensei for the Super Famicom was the first Megami Tensei game produced by Atlus, and many fans say it’s still the best of the series.
Unlike most RPGs, Shin Megami Tensei does not take place in a traditional fantasy or sci-fi/fantasy hybrid setting like many RPGs do, but rather it takes place in a post-modern Tokyo, Japan. The main character, who’s supposed to be you, is a male teenager who lives with his mother and the family dog Pascal in the Kichijoji district. The neighbors are a doctor and his daughter who’s around your age. Life is grand, until that one crazy night when you have a cryptic dream that will change your life forever. This dream is where the game begins.
Stumbling through a hazy pink-walled corridor in another dimension, you encounter a talking gate who asks for your name. This is where you name your character. You then enter the gate and walk some more till you find a soul tied to a cross. This is the Law Hero and you name him. Law Hero joins you and you encounter a soul being restrained by a demon. This is the Chaos Hero, whom you name, and who reluctantly joins the party. A lady named Yuriko is bathing in a spring in one of the rooms and says she’ll always be by your side. After some more walking, the dream is shattered by Mom yelling at you to get your lazy self out of bed.
Before you exit your room to meet Mom, you see a message on your desktop computer. You click on it and a ‘Devil Summoning’ program created by a man named Steven is downloaded onto your arm-mounted portable computer. This program allows you to talk to demons, store them in the computer and summon them as minions. Without this program, no human can communicate with demons. While you’re left scratching your head, Mom is still calling you. She mentions the loud police sirens last night and wonders how you could sleep so soundly during all the commotion. But Mom, being a mom, has an errand for you to run: go to the cafe and get some coffee.
When you exit the house, you notice that Kichijoji is blocked off in all directions. So, you go to the big cross-shaped building, which is a local shopping center and hangout spot. There are stores there like a knife shop, an armor shop, an antique shop and, of course, the cafe. In one of the abandoned shops, a teenage delinquent named Ozawa hangs out with his gang of thugs. Anyway, you head to the cafe and who should you chance to run into but Yuriko from that dream. She greets you warmly and seems to recognize you, then hastily leaves. You talk to the other people at the cafe and find out why Kichijoji is blocked off. It appears a young girl was murdered at Inogashira Park and with the murderer on the loose, no one can leave or enter Kichijoji. Unfazed, you go to the counter, where the clerk recognizes you, and you get your usual coffee on the house for good patronage. But the astute RPGer will not go home yet. By exploring each inch of the cross-shaped building you will talk to other NPCs and see one get attacked by a demon. Said demon lunges for you, but you manage to ward it off and pick up the attack knife it leaves behind. So, with the coffee, you head home where Mom gives you more details on the Inogashira park murder.
Tired, you go to sleep, and end up in another strange dream with Law Hero and Chaos Hero. The three of you witness a trio of evil-looking priests about to sacrifice a young woman. After deciding whether to attempt a rescue, the young woman beckons you to call out her name, and thus you name the heroine. The priests then let her go and the heroine tells you that she’ll meet you again in the future. The next day you find yourself privy to even stranger events, but you do meet up with Law Hero and Chaos Hero in the physical world, so you feel less alone.
From those humble beginnings, you find yourself involved in a twisted plot involving demons, demonic possession, ancient gods, political conspiracies that lead to war and destruction, moral ambiguity, and in the middle of it is you who is constantly encouraged by NPCs to maintain balance and not upset it.
Unlike most RPGs where your path is defined, in Shin Megami Tensei it’s not. While you’re encouraged to maintain balance, you don’t have to. Morally ambiguous, the game offers multiple sides of a dilemma and you get to choose where your loyalties lie. Depending on the various decisions presented to you throughout the game, your character can fall into one of three alignments: Law, Neutral, or Chaos. Law is not automatically good and Chaos is not automatically bad. It’s up to you, the player, to decide which is right or wrong for you. Even the simplest decisions like the aforementioned “will you save the girl? Yes/No” in the beginning have a bearing on your alignment. And it goes without saying that big decisions such as whether to side with one political leader or another sway your alignment big time.
Perhaps Law is closer to your heart where society should follow unbending laws and rules to the letter in order to avoid conflict and benefit the collective whole. Or perhaps Chaos is more up your alley where rules are stifling and that people should follow a more Darwinian path. And, of course, there is Neutrality where you feel the balance of law and chaos, the middle road, is the path to follow. And while Neutrality is a nice ideal, it is the most difficult path to carve and follow in the game and you will find yourself very alone and with very bloody hands. Being for neither Law nor Chaos, you will often find yourself in opposition with both factions, and that is a very lonely place to be.
One negative you may have about the story is that it can be offensive, particularly if you’re devoutly religious. Certain religious groups and their ideals are portrayed in a negative way. Also, the game’s portrayal of Americans is quite unflattering. However, I felt that all of the controversial content was well-grounded in truth and none of it was mindless bashing. And in the game’s defense, while, for example, the Americans weren’t portrayed very positively, the major Japanese leaders were pretty corrupt as well so nobody’s hands were clean. Still, I must emphasize that if you are easily offended, steer clear away from this game. It is no surprise that this game never made it to US shores and likely never will.
Another negative you may have about the story is that while the event-based portions of the plot are cool and compelling, there is little to no character development and some scenes that would traditionally be poignant are handled quite nonchalantly; this is especially true of death scenes. Where death scenes are traditionally dramatic or melodramatic, Shin Megami Tensei handles death as ‘just another day at the office.’ Also, unlike more modern (read: post FF7) RPGs that are ‘story scenes interspersed by dungeons’ Shin Megami Tensei is mostly ‘dungeons interspersed by story scenes here and there.’ Still, it works fine since if characters and plot direction were too defined, then the story would suffer from an overly linear path and Shin Megami Tensei’s strength is that there are multiple paths for you to follow. In a nutshell, Shin Megami Tensei does have an interesting and original plot but the game itself puts a greater emphasis on its gameplay than its story.
Speaking of gameplay, not only does your alignment affect the storyline (including the final boss faced and the ending) but it affects the gameplay too. As is the hallmark of the series, you can talk to demons during battles and perhaps convince them to join you as minions. If your alignment is Chaos, for example, Law-aligned demons will not join you and may not even talk to you, due to your opposing alignment. Also, certain places may not allow you to enter based on your alignment- for example, if you’re Chaos aligned, the Law aligned Mesia churches will not allow you to use their services. There is no alignment meter in the menu so you need to use cues like this to figure out where you lie. Another visual alignment cue comes from overland travel. If the player icon rotates clockwise, you are law aligned, counterclockwise is chaos, and neutrality has your icon swaying from side to side.
Speaking of talking to demons, I like the way conversations are done in Shin Megami Tensei. Only you alone can talk to the demons (your other party members cannot) and the conversations tend to be more freeform than in Persona. In Persona, each person had a particular ‘contact skill’ or skills (such as Maya Amano interviewing the demon). In Shin Megami Tensei, when you initiate conversations with demons, you can start off either speaking in a friendly or threatening manner- your choice. Based on that, the demons will react in various ways (such as try to intimidate you) and you’re given another choice of reactions (such as ‘act unfazed’ or ‘assume a battle posture’ when the demon intimidates you). When the conversation is successful, the demon will allow you to ask for something such as money, magnetite, ask it to leave, or to make it your minion. But even if you get this far in the conversation, the demon may refuse your request and attack you. These more open freeform conversations make you feel more like the main character is ‘you.’ However, one thing Shin Megami Tensei doesn’t have is a ‘demon mood meter’ like Persona does so it’s sometimes a guessing game when trying to pinpoint demons’ moods and personalities during conversations and thus make better dialogue choices.
A nice thing is that if you have a particular demon in your entourage/computer (i.e. a Pixie) and you talk to other demons of that type on the field, they’ll not attack and may give you items, money or magnetite…unless it’s a full moon. In the game, the moon phase constantly changes and the closer you are to a full moon, the more powerful demons are and the less likely they are to talk to you. Even if you have a Pixie in your party, other Pixies won’t talk to you if it’s a full moon.
Magnetite is important, because it’s what allows demons to manifest themselves on Earth. Once you summon a demon from your computer into your active party (which costs money), they consume magnetite as you walk. Those demons whose CP cost in the menus is high consume more magnetite. Definitely keep an eye on your magnetite, because if you run out, the active demons lose HP and could die. Demons stored in the computer consume no magnetite.
Other than that, the rest of the battle engine is straightforward. It’s a turn-based engine where you can attack with swords or guns, summon minions, have the human characters (besides you) or minions use magic, etc. Yes, except for you, the other human characters: Law Hero, Chaos Hero, and Heroine, can all use magic.
The banes of ‘old school’ RPGs are here in this game full force. I speak of high random encounter rates and the need for serious level building. Now a high random encounter rate isn’t that bad, but oftentimes the average random encounter in this game consists of multiple waves of enemies and sometimes one wave of enemies can number seven or more. For example, you may get into a random battle and see a Jack Frost in the middle of the battle screen and see seven stick-figure like icons at the top of the screen symbolizing seven Jack Frosts. Defeat those seven and a wave of another type of demon may come out to play. One burden-easer is the auto-battle option where your party uses regular attacks until you press the B button to take manual control. Also, the enemy stick figures crouch into a ball when close to defeat, which is a nice way of seeing how you are doing in battle. And it should be noted that the battles are far from easy. Regular random encounters can decimate your party more often than not and bosses can be difficult.
On the other hand, a high encounter rate means more opportunities to fight and thus, makes it somewhat easier to gain levels. A cool thing about gaining a level is that the human (demons don’t gain levels) who gains the level has his/her HP and/or MP restored and can distribute a point to one of six stats. I chose to keep all my human characters balanced. Level building is a necessity in this game. Sometimes you may find yourself in an area where powerful demons attack you more often than weaker ones. Also, many demons will not join you if your level isn’t on par with theirs and the Jakyou will not let you invoke a fused demon with a higher level than your own.
Jakyou? Fusion? Let me explain…The demons you obtain do not gain levels, so you periodically need to go to a Jakyou room to fuse two or three of them into a more powerful minion as your levels rise. Of course, you cannot summon demons with higher levels than you and/or with an opposing alignment.
I know what some of you are thinking- the whole ‘collecting demons and storing them in a computer’ sounds suspiciously like Pokémon, right? Well, the Megami Tensei series has been around long before Pokémon and thus was one of the pioneers of the monster collecting paradigm back in the old days.
Your arm-mounted computer does more than store or summon demons. Once you get various upgrades, the computer can do things like automap the dungeons and analyze demons you encounter for future reference. The automapper is your best friend in this game because the first-person dungeons are quite large and mazelike. In addition, navigation can be tricky because the walls all look the same and you can get lost very easily. I found myself checking the automap with extreme frequency. This was made more cumbersome by the fact I had to hop through lots of menus just to get to the automapper, and I wished there was a shortcut or hotkey for it (Note: The PlayStation remake uses the L2 key as the automap hotkey). Another downside to the dungeon crawling is the sheer dearth of save rooms. You will often find yourself in huge, sprawling dungeons with the lone save room near the entrance. There is a spell called “Toraport” that allows you to teleport to the last save room you saved at, while you are in a dungeon, but I did not have access to that spell until very late in the game. However, on the up side, I found it cool that you could use the save rooms as warps to other save rooms elsewhere in the game that you’ve been to previously on foot.
The movement scheme isn’t anything special. Up moves you forward and the other directional keys turn you in various directions and you can only move at right angles. What I found superfluous is that the shoulder keys turn you right and left as well as the directional keys. One thing I lament is the lack of a strafe function, but the PlayStation remake uses the L1 and R1 shoulder keys to strafe and the scrolling is much faster and smoother.
This dungeon crawler starts out fairly linear but gets progressively nonlinear as the game goes on. Some major story events that set up the grander scheme of things are set regardless of your alignment, but this does not make the game linear at all. The game becomes quite nonlinear particularly in the middle-to-end portions of the game. The game strikes a balance between linearity and freedom. You’re not confined to a set of rails but neither are you left up the creek without a paddle (except perhaps at the very end of the game). Guidance is available, but ultimately, you carve your own path.
So how appealing does your path look? Frankly, not that great. The majority of the game’s graphics are functional, but not too appealing. The overland is a very simplistic tile-based overland where you guide a top-shaped, blue icon to various locales. As I mentioned before, the first-person dungeons have bland texturing on the walls and floors and thus everything looks the same making it easy to get lost. Also, the lack of variety in the dungeon scenery can be tiring given the copious amount of time spent in them. Most of the indoor dungeons look like warehouses or self-storage facilities. While those kinds of environments are wonderful to enhance creepiness, it seems awkward to be in a Ginza shopping mall, only to have it look like a warehouse. (NOTE: Ginza is the major shopping area of Tokyo). Then again, weird and unnerving are par for the course in this game and in the Megami Tensei series as a whole.
The highlight of the graphics is in battles and conversational cuts cenes. The sprites of the demons and humans have very few animations, but are drawn very well with lots of detailing. The demon sprites, particularly female demons, pretty much all have cool designs, as do the human females such as Yuriko; the male humans and demons tend to have blander designs. I particularly enjoyed looking at the various female demons such as Nekomata (a cat demon from Japanese folklore) and Lamia (a half woman half snake demon from Greek mythology). The bosses all looked very large and intimidating. For the most part, the demons looked like they would in the mythology they come from, but there were a few creative liberties taken here and there. One example would be Megami Tensei’s typical portrayal of Cerberus (or Kerberos if you prefer) as a lion-like creature with one head rather than a three-headed dog.
The music is good but not great. The majority of the music is very ambient, particularly in the dungeons. There are very few standout location pieces, save for the second overland theme and “Ginza” which I thought would have served better as a battle or boss theme with its driving beat and synthy guitar sounds. The battle and boss themes utilize a lot of electric guitar sounds in the MIDI, which I thought was cool because driving rock is a style of music not often utilized in RPGs. The number of tracks isn’t many so you’ll hear the same few repetitive dungeon themes over and over which can be annoying given the amount of time spent in them. So while there are a few standout tracks, the soundtrack is nothing to write home about. The sound effects are nothing to write home about either – they’re pretty standard 16-bit sound effects.
Other things I should mention? Oh yes, the early Super Famicom cartridges of this game had a serious gamestopping bug in them. Towards the end, if you were Neutral, the game would think you had two alignments simultaneously and could lock you out of the final dungeon. Later runs of the cartridge had the bug rectified and the PlayStation remake also has the bug fixed. So, yes, if you missed it on the Super Famicom, you lucky importers can play it on PlayStation. I’ve partially played that version and aside from some graphical enhancements, greater clarity in the synthesized music, and the aforementioned strafing and automapping changes, it’s the same game. If you already have the Super Famicom version, I wouldn’t waste my time with the PlayStation remake unless you are a rabid collector who needs every piece of Megami Tensei merchandise out there. However, if you don’t own any version of Shin Megami Tensei yet, I’d definitely get the upgraded PlayStation version. And before I forget, it is common sense that given the emphasis on interactive dialogue with demons, prospective importers should have competent Japanese reading abilities.
Overall, though, Shin Megami Tensei is an acquired taste. To me, it’s one of those games you’ll either love or loathe. Personally, I loved it. Despite the many negatives, I was clearly drawn in by the morally ambiguous storyline; I loved how the storyline and the gameplay influenced one another. The game takes a long time to finish so definitely be prepared to sink some serious hours into it. And like with all other Megami Tensei titles, if you can’t get into the whole demon conversation and demon fusion systems, the game is not for you. Moreover, as mentioned before, the often tedious dungeon crawling and the story’s controversial content could very well be showstoppers for you as well.
If you liked Megami Ibunroku (Revelations) Persona, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. This is the proverbial Megami Tensei game and is a milestone in the series’ life. In many ways, Shin Megami Tensei’s gameplay system is deeper than Persona’s. In my eyes, this game is a classic. Though certain aspects of it have not aged well, it still stands up as one of the most unique and risk-taking RPGs I’ve ever played.