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SummaryWould YHVH be able to create such a game?
The GoodThe first Shin Megami Tensei was one of the greatest milestones in gaming. It was the manifestation of the true spirit of role-playing: story- and gameplay-affecting decisions based on ethical principles. It had amazing customization, allowing you to communicate with random enemies and build your own party from them. It had a unique style, a mixture of modern-day, futuristic, and post-apocalyptic setting with famous creatures of different mythologies appearing on the scene . And on top of all that, it had a magnificent story with heavy religious content and deep philosophical meaning.
In most ways the sequel is very similar to its great predecessor. You could say it is the same stuff, only more of it. The story, which was already very deep and thought-provoking in the first game, reaches unseen levels in the sequel. In a certain way, they have come to the end of the road here. It is hard to imagine anything more majestic that what you will have to deal with in "Shin Megami Tensei II". While the first game had you participating in the struggle between Law and Chaos, between God and Lucifer, they didn't appear in the game itself. The sequel goes straight to the heart. Yes, you will meet YHVH, the One God of Judaism and Christianity, you'll also meet Satan and Lucifer, the lord of Chaos. It just doesn't get any more awe-inspiring than that. It was a truly shocking experience to meet such "characters" in a video game. For this audacity "Shin Megami Tensei II" will be remembered as one of the most remarkable, boundary-crossing games ever.
This titanic battle between Law and Chaos is set in a unique world that only the masterminds of Megaten could have invented. Ruined cities, virtual reality, underground Tokyo, and mysterious, eerie Makai (demon world) are parts of the setting which can be described a mixture of post-apocalyptic and cyberpunk styles with modern-day references thrown in and a dark, demonic, "gothic" background, reminiscent of horror images of medieval Christianity. "Shin Megami Tensei II" shows us the dark side of Judaism and Christianity, basically the dark side of the entire Western culture. It is an insane, schizophrenic, nightmare-like world, and once you step into it, you won't be able to escape. And you thought Japanese RPGs were all about big-eyed cute girls and stuffed animals? Oh no. It would be really a hard task to find a world more terrifying, more sinister, than the world of "Shin Megami Tensei II".
The game's graphics, its trademark "Megatenian" character design and claustrophobic 3D dungeons, may shock the player in the beginning because of their deliberately dry, almost ascetic nature. Only the necessary things are shown: there are no embellishments, no nice views, it's dark and grim everywhere. You don't see yourself and your party; with the exception of abstract world map-navigating, the entire game is viewed from first-person perspective. This graphical style follows only its own tradition, the unique tradition of Megaten, and has nothing in common with other Japanese RPGs, or with anything else, for that matter. Everything you see in this game is hundred per cent Megaten. Some areas in the game are beautiful in a dark, lonely way. The dungeon design in the Playstation version is much more than just differently colored walls. Solid, white corridors of the Center, desolate underground caves, cozy Factory Tower, creepy cities and passageways in Makai - there is enough variety here, despite the very fitting feeling of desperate, mathematical soullessness.
Same can be said about the music. No broad, "Celtic" melodies; no naive tunes, no excited orchestral battle themes. You are invited into a world of weird-sounding, abstract, electronic music, an unparalleled mixture of medieval church motives and heavy metal. It sounds cold, it is not alive, and it is just perfect for the game. It gets particularly terrifying when you visit the Makai. The music of the Makai cities, with electronic cembalo as background for cluster-like long tones, is really a memorable piece.
Just like its predecessor, "Shin Megami Tensei II" is the incarnation of true role-playing spirit. In fact, those games are much closer to Western RPG tradition than to the Japanese one. The essence of the game are moral decisions, adherence to certain philosophy. Many great Japanese RPGs deal with deep ethical and metaphysical problems, but the genius of Shin Megami Tensei is integrating them into the gameplay. You can become the follower of Law, Chaos, or choose a Neutral path. Your decisions have a huge influence on the story line. The motivations for your actions become different depending on which philosophy you have chosen. You reach totally different endings. And the gameplay takes the shape of your alignment. If you choose an ideology, you'll attract demons who follow it, while those of the opposing ideology will become more suspicious. You'll be able to wield certain swords or guns, while others will be unavailable to you. You'll join different fractions and fight different bosses. Of course, this impact on the gameplay is mostly noticeable during the last third of the game, but it is there, and it is what real role-playing is about.
This kind of deep ethical role-playing is only present in the main series of Megaten universe, "Shin Megami Tensei". But Megaten includes many spin-offs games, which are fun and exciting even though they follow the more standard "you are the good guy, defeat the bad guy" pattern. The reason for the high quality of Megaten RPGs is their fantastic demon-summoning system. Megaten has amazingly rich customization for a Japanese RPG. It also surpasses most Western RPGs in this aspect. You build your own party in those games, by talking to random enemies, convincing them to join you, and then summoning them in battles, or fusing two or three of them together to create different ones. Once summoned, the demons act like fully playable, controllable characters, complete with battle parameters, strengths and weaknesses, spells, and so on. The sheer amount and depth of this system is overwhelming. You can literally spend hours in the Jakyou (fusing facilities), experimenting with demons and constructing your optimal party. If this sounds like Pokemon, you must know one thing: Megaten is older than Pokemon, and it's the creators of Pokemnon who borrowed this idea from Megaten, not the other way around. Not to mention that Megaten has this system on top of a religiously themed, world-embracing story in a dark post-apocalyptic setting, which is not exactly the case of Pokemon.
The demon conversations are more varied than in the first Shin Megami Tensei: different demons have unique talking styles, some will politely ask you simple questions, others will greedily demand items; female demons will seduce you, stupidly-looking demons will just roar mindlessly, intelligent demons will talk with you about ethics, the reason for fighting, the nature of mankind, and other stuff. You can completely avoid the monotonous Japanese-style random fighting by talking your way out, getting items, getting healed, recruiting new party members. Even without the demon-conversation system, the game offers so much RPG goodness, a lot of which is unseen in other Japanese RPGs. When you level up, you decide yourself which parameter to increase, both by Aleph and Hiroko (the hero and the heroine of the game). You can invest points into their agility, so that they dodge physical attacks; make Aleph a brute sword-wielding machine at the expense of intelligence, and concentrate on Hiroko's magic power; or anything else you want. There is the traditional sword-and-guns gameplay: different enemies are vulnerable to melee attacks or firearms, and you can equip both on the same character. There is a huge amount of swords randomly dropped by enemies; bullets with different status effects, indispensable in random battles; and a lot more. All this comes with hardcore dungeon crawling, which are automatically mapped: it's exciting to explore complex maze-like passages when you know you can't be lost.
Finally, some words about the Playstation version. Several improvements were made, the most important one being the new "Normal" difficulty level (the original difficulty level is called "Expert" here). Rnadom encounters are less frequent than in the SNES version, which makes dungeon navigation much less annoying. There are still enough enemies for you to fight and gain levels, but at least you won't be stopped after every two steps. Instead of the awkward "jumping" in the original version, you can smoothly walk through 3D dungeons in this release. And the graphics, while very similar to the original, are of course in higher resolution and look much prettier. The change is particularly noticeable in the dungeons.
The BadBad things? You mean "Shin Megami Tensei II" has bad things?! Ye cursed heathens, ye followers of Chaos, how dare ye to speak a word against this holy game?!..
Okay, seriously, there are just a couple of small issues. You'll surely notice that the graphics are way below the level of contemporary Playstation games. But bear in mind that it is not really a remake, but an enhanced version, a bit like
While the game's story is outstanding, it is not always perfectly paced. In the middle of the game, when you begin to explore the Underworld, you receive a quest to resurrect the ancient Japanese warrior Masakado. I think this quest is obligatory, at least for Law and Neutral paths. The point is, it takes a very long while to gather the body parts of this guy, and it really feels like a waste of time, since it has nothing to do with the actual plot. It's like a fetch quest grown out of proportions. That's why the Underworld part of the game is a downside compared to the brilliant beginning and final parts.
The Bottom LineSummary:
+ Majestic story
+ Ultra-original style and setting
+ True role-playing with adherence to different philosophies
+ Wonderfully rich and flexible gameplay system
+ Cool design and music
- An uninteresting quest in the middle
What can I say? It's Shin Megami Tensei (sorry for the unintentional bad rhyme). An amazing game gets an equally amazing sequel. Seriously, with the unofficial English patch for SNES version, you have no excuse not to play this masterpiece. This is mandatory gaming, the best of the best.
Now go and play the game... otherwise the wrath of YHVH and Lucifer will destroy you!