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SummaryClueless theology, but cool gameplay
The GoodThe first Shin Megami Tensei was an oddity among Japanese RPGs: it had its own sharply defined style and presentation, it attempted to present real religious concepts, and it gave the player a certain degree of freedom and moral choices its genre brethren were always trying to avoid.
In most ways the sequel is a very similar game. The titanic battle between Law and Chaos is set in a unique world. 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. There are no big-eyed cute girls. There are no talking stuffed animals. It is an insane, schizophrenic, nightmare-like world, and once you step into it, you won't be able to escape.
The game's ascetic visual style fits well the particular themes of the story. There isn't much variety, but there is consistency, a rare beast in Japanese RPGs. The dungeon design in the Playstation version is more than just differently colored walls: solid, white corridors of the Center, desolate underground caves, cozy Factory Tower, creepy cities and passageways in Makai pull you in with their desperate, mathematical soullessness.
Same can be said about the music. There are no broad "Celtic" melodies, no excited orchestral battle themes. You are invited into a world of weird-sounding, abstract, electronic tunes, a curious mixture of medieval church motives and heavy metal. It sounds cold, it is not alive, and it is just perfect for the game. The music of the Makai cities, with electronic harpsichord as background for cluster-like long tones, is a really memorable piece.
Like before, moral choices are integrated into the gameplay. You can become the follower of Law, Chaos, or choose a Neutral path. Your decisions have an impact on the plot - but more importantly, they affect the gameplay. 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 factions 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 that's what counts.
Otherwise, all the familiar Megaten goodness is there. Demon-recruiting and fusion are even more addictive now, with more detailed conversations and a wider variety of creatures. You can spend hours at the Jakyo facilities trying to find that perfect demon, and the good news are that fused demons have the spells of their "components" carried over. There is more fine-tuning in party-building and more specific benefits for Law and Chaos paths - the game doesn't seem to push you towards Neutral as hard as the first one. Don't forget manual attribute-building for the two main characters, sword and gun differentiation (with interesting sword fusions), clever battles with spell-specific strategies, and hardcore dungeon crawling all around.
The Playstation remake adds a lower difficulty level that mercifully reduces the amount of random encounters. There are still enough enemies for you to fight and gain levels, but at least you won't be stopped after every two steps. Also, instead of the awkward "jumping" in the original version, you can smoothly walk through 3D dungeons in this release.
Regardless of its theological ineptitude, the game's plot is actually a very interesting piece of work to be featured in a video game. The gameplay-related ethical choices are woven into the context of an ideological confrontation between the factions of Law and Chaos. This conflict is dressed up in religious garments, but the actual choices you have in the game are between three equally anti-religious (or at the very least anti-Christian) ideologies: an authoritarian, egalitarian state ruled by a ruthless, scheming deity (an ideal vaguely influenced by Plato and Gnosticism?); a brutal, aggressively pagan movement against order and stability (somewhat aptly symbolized by Lucifer); and, finally, moral relativism with a peculiar anarchist flavor, which sees any ideology as oppressive. Quite in line with their Japanese cultural tradition, the authors seem to favor the latter path. In any case, what's interesting and important here is not the actual depiction of the ideologies and their incarnations in various mythological figures, but the fact that the player is allowed to follow any of them freely.
The BadThere are some noticeable pacing problems - in the middle of the game, when you begin to explore the Underworld, you receive a mandatory quest to resurrect the ancient Japanese warrior Masakado. It takes ages 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. On other occasions, you'll be stuck without a clear goal and will have to backtrack to trigger certain events.
Like other Megaten games, Shin Megami Tensei II is essentially a big dungeon crawl. There are no real friendly areas and the whole maze-exploring process can get on your nerves, especially if you don't dig the whole demon-related gameplay, without which the game boils down to a glorified, simplified version of an ancient Wizardry variant.
Another problem is, of course, the material used for the story. I suppose it could have been called "blasphemous" if anyone in his right mind would take it seriously. Strong, sincere blasphemy is a cry of the wounded heart that might eventually lead you to God. The authors of this game, however, seem to be satisfied with an inane caricature of Judaism and Christianity that is way too pitiful for being classified even as dignified agnosticism.
Clearly, they have heard of the Bible instead of actually reading it, and paid no attention whatsoever to any works by the Church Fathers or later theologians (I guess even asking them to read Chesterton or C.S. Lewis before dealing with concepts they have little to no idea about would be too much). In the game's story God is depicted as a petty tyrant forcing people to share the "glory" of his kingdom. That only a select few are hand-picked for salvation might still be somehow understood as an inexplicable nod to radical Calvinism; but the rest is pure nonsense vaguely reminding of certain heresies, only presented with way less imagination and involvement. Whenever the story sticks to pure mythology we can imagine it's just free variations on the Book of Enoch; but when it attempts to dive into true questions of faith it feels like the ravings of a ten-year-old child raised by lapsed Gnostic parents.