The World of Asian RPGs
Megami Tensei, literally translated as "Goddess Reincarnation", or Megaten for short, is the largest Asian RPG franchise. Created by Atlus, Megaten is more than just a series of RPGs; it is a stylistic phenomenon whose influence transcends the limits of the genre. Of all Asian RPG series, Megaten is decidedly the most original one. Since the appearance of its first regular title it had been treating topics unseen in other Asian RPGs and video games in general. Traditional medieval setting was replaced with modern or post-apocalyptic worlds in most Megaten games. Deep religious and philosophical questions, real-world mythological references and cosmic struggles penetrated its games, and its constantly serious, dark atmosphere made a sharp contrast to most other games. It displayed a remarkable stylistic unity which later helped to bring very different games to form one consolidated group. It was often possible to identify a Megaten game just by its unique graphical style, created by the "demon artist" Kazuma Kaneko. Challenging gameplay with unseen customization possibilities such as demon recruiting, the trademark of the series, made most Megaten games a thoroughly hardcore RPG experience. Its mature themes and "demonic" nature were other reasons for Megaten's lack of popularity in the West. The majority of Megaten games were never translated from Japanese.
The first Megaten game was Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei. For its time it was a truly revolutionary game, both in style and gameplay. It was set in modern-day Japan and involved summoning of ancient gods and computer-based communications with demons. The gameplay introduced the most famous feature of Megaten games: the ability to communicate with random enemies and to recruit them into your party. The game's extremely high difficulty level and no automap feature for first-person dungeons were its main downsides.
It was followed by Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei II, which introduced the post-apocalyptic theme to the series. The game was set in a demon-infested near future, and its story line was connected to that of the predecessor. It replaced first-person dungeons with top-down ones, a feature that slightly reduced its difficulty level, which was nevertheless still quite high. Story-wise it was hardly more interesting than the first game, but together they made a powerful combination. They were re-made for SNES as one game, Kyuuyaku Megami Tensei, with improved graphics and automap feature.
Shin Megami Tensei was the game that defined all the cardinal aspects of Megaten, becoming its undisputed leader and most powerful incarnation. The post-apocalyptic environment turned into the stage for a battle between Law and Chaos ideologies, which became the core of Megaten's philosophy. The most ground-breaking aspect of "Shin Megami Tensei" was the ability to make moral decisions that would influence the story of the game. The hero could side with either Law or Chaos, or choose to fight them both. Your decisions influenced not only the main story line and its ending, but also gameplay aspects such as demons you were able to recruit, weapons you could equip, etc. A strong supporting cast and a penetrating insight into religious and moral problems added even more depth to the game. The demon-recruiting, conversation and fusion system were refined and took their classical shapes. The game was still very challenging, but significantly more user-friendly than the previous installments. "Shin Megami Tensei" is the quintessence of the series, and one of the highest achievements of Asian RPG genre in general.
Shin Megami Tensei II continued the ideas of the previous game and expanded them. The story was directly connected to the predecessor, portraying a newly built post-apocalyptic world in which the dramatic battle between Law and Chaos was revived. The game had a more complex and detailed story line than the first "Shin Megami Tensei", more characters with developed backgrounds, and the religious theme became overwhelming, making "Shin Megami Tensei II" one of the few games with an own judgment of world religions. The gameplay remained essentially the same, and the hero's moral choices were as sharply defined as ever.
After a long pause, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne was released for Playstation 2. Its expanded version, with additional characters and locations, was the first Shin Megami Tensei game that was released in the West, as Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Many gameplay changes and refinements, such as equipping and learning abilities, leveling up demons, press-turn system, etc., were added to the classical dungeon-heavy gameplay with demon conversations, recruiting, and fusion. Story-wise, the third Shin Megami Tensei game was not connected to its predecessors, although it was set in a similar post-apocapyptic, demon-infested world. The Law and Chaos system was replaced by an even more detailed and versatile set of ideologies, represented by the main characters of the game. Your decisions once again influenced the story line, and this time six different endings were available.
Shin Megami Tensei series gave birth to several spin-offs, the most important ones being Devil Summoner sub-series. The first Devil Summoner game appeared on Saturn and contained most cardinal gameplay elements from Shin Megami Tensei, including demon conversations, summoning, fusion, complex dungeon design, etc. Unlike Shin Megami Tensei games, there was no possibility to choose an ideology, and the setting was modern-day Japan rather than post-apocalyptic one. The game also introduced an interesting loyalty system which divided demons into personality types and made you train them before they could fully obey you.
The sequel to "Demon Summoner" was Soul Hackers, which continued its story. Its setting had more cyberpunk elements, and the story was once again smaller in scope than in the main Shin Megami Tensei series. Demon loyalty system from the previous game was greatly facilitated and improved. The gameplay introduced new elements such as equipping software on your characters for various enhancements and effects in battles.
Other Shin Megami Tensei spin-offs include Shin Megami Tensei If, which featured high-school students as heroes and had multiple story paths depending on which partner among your classmates you chose in the beginning, and Shin Megami Tensei Nine for Xbox, with a cyberpunk setting and many gameplay enhancements, such as multiple parties and strategic cyberspace combat.
Since Shin Megami Tensei games mostly dealt with abstract religious themes, detailed characterization and developed background stories for party members were never its priority. The most important side-series within the Megaten universe, Persona, attempted to combine the unique style and gameplay structure of Shin Megami Tensei with the emotional characterization that became a standard in Asian RPGs.
The first Persona had a lot in common with "Shin Megami Tensei If", centering around a group of high-school students. However, its story was more detailed, and the characters' personalities much more evolved. You controlled a party of entirely human characters, each one having his/her own distinct personality and resembling more a real person than the abstract figures of Shin Megami Tensei. The setting had none of the typical post-apocalyptic or cyberpunk elements, and religious references were replaced by psychological analysis of the characters. The gameplay still retained many classical Megaten features such as demon conversations and fusion, but instead of summoning the demons you equipped them on characters, allowing them to have different strengths and weaknesses and learn different spells.
Persona 2: Innocent Sin refined all these new aspects, distancing itself even more from Shin Megami Tensei style and concentrating almost entirely on inner psychological experiences of the characters. Guilt feelings and various complexes of the characters were the background for a complicated story which involved mythological figures and real-life characters. Demon fusion was removed, and the system of card collecting was introduced instead. Demon conversations became extremely detailed, and as their result you could receive cards of different demon types, which would be later used to acquire demons and to equip them on the characters.
Persona 2: Eternal Punishment utilized a nearly identical gameplay system and graphical style, and was like a parallel story to "Innocent Sin", involving most of its main themes and characters. The teenage heroes from the previous game were still present, but the main characters of "Eternal Punishment" were adult people. The story of "Eternal Punishment" was the conclusion of "Innocent Sin", and the two games were actually one very large game split in two halves. The combination of emotional approach to the story, the characteristically dark atmosphere of Megaten, and a refined gameplay system made this double game to one of the most remarkable Japanese RPGs of its time.
Related to Persona games in style and approach to story-telling was the Digital Devil Saga series. It consisted of two games, the first one being a kind of prelude to the second, which answered all the questions and concluded the story. With a heavy influence of Hindu religion, philosophical concepts, and mythology, Digital Devil Saga was a very original addition to Megaten universe.
The first Digital Devil Saga was set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world and involved the typically dark themes of Megaten. The heroes were all members of a tribe which had to fight for its survival, without having any memory of their past. Like in Persona games, relationships between the party members and their psychological conflicts were the main theme of the game. Demon conversations, recruiting, and fusion were abandoned completely in favor of a mantra system, which allowed flexible character customization, and combat in demonic form. The story of the game was full of mysteries, and the ending led directly to the sequel which was released shortly afterwards.
Digital Devil Saga II continued directly the story of the first game, and had a very similar gameplay system with a few enhancements. The continuation of the story was set in the real world, a nearly devastated Earth on which it is possible to live only below the surface. The game followed the story of the same cast of heroes, and gave explanations to all the questions posed in the predecessor, mainly the answer to the heroes' true identity. The story was much larger in scale and in the end became at least as monumental and thought-provoking as in Shin Megami Tensei. Long cinematic cut-scenes, deep insight into the heroes' inner world, and philosophical main plot made the two Digital Devil Saga games a very powerful contribution to Megaten.
Not all Megaten games were aimed at mature audiences, and some of the side-series took a different approach. Those side-series were released mostly for handhelds and had all typical Megaten elements toned down, making them more children-friendly. Last Bible series was set in a medieval world and had traditional stories, even though monster-recruiting aspect was still present. Devil Children series, of which two appeared in the West under the title "DemiKids", featured modern-day heroes and extensive monster-collecting, but the typically dark, disturbing elements were deliberately removed.
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