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SummaryTeaching Japanese RPGs what role-playing is about
The GoodA follow-up to two early Megami Tensei games, Shin Megami Tensei is commonly seen as the most important and influential game of the huge Megaten universe.
The game occupies a unique place among Japanese RPGs by relying more heavily on gameplay elements from their Western counterparts. The most basic gameplay style of Shin Megami Tensei is first-person Wizardry-style dungeon crawl. The dungeons are huge and have a tremendous amount of branching ways and hidden rooms. It can take ages to explore the whole world of the game, checking every corner, talking to every NPC, and opening every treasure chest. It is always interesting to explore the dungeons, to find out what lies behind this corner or which way is the right one to follow. All the explored areas of the dungeons are automatically mapped, so you won't have to worry about getting lost.
Unlike the overwhelming majority of Japanese RPGs, you create the four main characters (Hero, Heroine, Law Hero, and Chaos Hero) yourself, thus making them to whatever you'd like them to be. You can create quick, evasive characters, power tanks with a lot of HP and good defense, or skillful magic users. Every time your characters gain a level you can distribute skill points to raise their strength, intelligence, magic, speed, stamina, or luck.
What really sets the game apart from pretty much every other RPG are demon summoning and conversations. Long before Pokemon, the creators of Megaten came up with the idea of summoning demons, making them fight for you, and fusing them to get more powerful species. Contact with the demons occupies a very important place in the gameplay of Shin Megami Tensei, making simple random turn-based battle a completely different experience from the usual RPG routine. This is one of the rare games in which you can communicate with your enemies; they aren't just enemies, but also your potential allies.
When you encounter a random enemy, you can choose to talk to him. Demons of various types will react differently to your efforts. For example, Yousei demons are usually very sweet and almost immediately agree to join your party. Evil demons like Gedou cannot be recruited at all and usually just laugh at you or trick you into weakening your defenses in order to attack you. Also, if you are of Law alignment, Chaos demons won't join you, and vice versa. Most of the demons follow a random conversation pattern, and you have several options to choose from: talk in a friendly or a threatening way, intimidate, smile, and even sing.
Once you managed to recruit a demon, you can summon it at any time to join your party. Summoning costs money, and while wandering around with you, demons consume a special energy called magnetite (which you get from negotiating with random enemies or from defeating them); once you run out of it, the demons die. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this demonic gameplay is demon fusion. You can fuse two or three demons into a new one. Sometimes you produce weak demons of lower levels, sometimes you can't get anything, but often you can fuse a very powerful demon from two or three weak ones. The sheer amount of programming that went into conversations, demon classification, fusion possibilities etc., is astounding. You can spend hours trying to fuse the strongest demons, customizing your party in so many ways that the experience almost becomes overwhelming.
Shin Megami Tensei starts in modern-day Tokyo. In the beginning of the game, you create and name your hero - a simple young man who lives together with his mother in a quiet district. But soon he gets involved in a major military conflict. Gotou, the commander of the Japanese army, has summoned demons to help him prevent the invasion of US forces. He doesn't care for the lives of the innocents that will be taken by rampaging demons; he is determined to preserve the freedom of his country at any cost. The US ambassador Thorman wants to put an end to the demonic invasion, but in order to do that, he won't stop at anything, and will blow the whole city to pieces if it is necessary. This is the first time in the game that the hero will have to make his choice - to side with the Japanese or the Americans, or, on a larger scale, with Chaos or with Law, or choose the neutral path and stop both Gotou and Thorman.
This is a tough choice to make, and it is unlike anything seen before in Japanese RPGs. There are no good or bad guys in this game. The Law side is not necessarily good. The Chaos side is not necessarily bad. Both Law and Chaos sides have attractive ideas you can agree with, and both surely have something you wouldn't agree with. The followers of Law want to establish a thousand-year kingdom of God, stop the invasion of demons, bring order and peace into the world. But they will mercilessly annihilate anyone who stand on their way, anyone who won't accept their religion and worship their God. Terrible disasters are viewed by them as God's wrath, punishment sent by God to exterminate the sin. In short, the Law alignment has all the virtues of Abrahamic religions, together with the unfortunate fanaticism of many of their followers.
The adherents of Chaos don't demand from people to worship one deity, and don't strive to kill those who choose a different way. They believe in individual freedom and natural course of events. But by declining any social and moral values, they turn the world into a continuous struggle where only the fittest survive, and where right and wrong have no meaning any more. The Chaos side is composed of several stylistic elements: the "demonic" side of Judaism and Christianity, natural Japanese religion Shinto, and ideas of some late nineteenth century European philosophers, particularly Nietzsche. At no point in the game did I have the impression the designers themselves were favoring one side more than the other. Everything depends on the player's personal opinion.
To make the storyline less schematic and more close to our common human understanding, the designers of the game created two other important characters, whom you have to name yourself and who will later be revealed as Law and Chaos Hero. Both of them are simple young men whom you encounter early in the game and who agree to accompany you on your first quest. In the first part of the game, they fight together with you. But very soon they choose their own ways. The Law Hero starts as a gentle, caring person, but due to many misfortunes he has to deal with he finds it necessary to side with the forces of Law, and becomes one of the leaders of fanatical God's army. The Chaos Hero seems to be just a reckless boy in the beginning, but he slowly becomes obsessed by the idea of individual power, and joins the forces of Chaos, to bring murder and destruction to the world. Both characters have many attractive as well as repelling sides, just like real human beings.
Of course, the natural choice of the game would be the neutral path, and it seems this was also the path the creators of the game had in mind. But this path is also not simple to follow. You can't simply avoid the struggle - you have to be involved in it. More importantly, both Law and Chaos leaders will attack you if you refuse to help them. In short, if you choose to follow the neutral path, you will have to slay the minions of Law and the minions of Chaos, thus stopping the bloody struggle between them without allowing either side to have the upper hand.
In order to present a complete picture of struggling Law and Chaos forces, the designers of the game did a massive research on mythology, and the result was the most comprehensive compendium of various mythological figures I ever saw in a game. All the supernatural beings are united into a very complex structure, which is based on Law/Chaos as well as Light/Dark axis. Countless characters from different mythologies of the world are systematically entered into the catalogue of demons that is divided into families and races.
The BadIt is a dungeon crawler. And a heavy one at that. Basically, the whole game is spent in dungeons. RPGs usually have "peaceful" areas, towns where you can talk to people, buy things, etc., without being exposed to attacks. Here, except the very beginning of the game and two other areas, there are no such places. Shops, bars, discos, healing rooms, teleporters, and other places where you can prepare your party and interact with NPCs - all are situated in dungeon-like areas which are populated by monsters like any other dungeon. Because of that, the game can become extremely tiresome - you literally can't breathe freely until you've completed it.
The dungeon design also tends to be exaggerated. I understand that some of the dungeons could be complex and maze-like. But who the hell had the idea of building a normal house in such a way you can't go through it without getting lost? Why do I have to spend hours in a simple office in order to find my way to the next healing room or teleporter? Literally every location of the game is a maze - big or small, simple or complex, but a maze, with dead ends, branching roads, and so on. It is nice to be able to do some non-linear exploring, but I wish they would at least make some "friendly" areas without fights and without mazes.
The graphics are unfortunately quite poor. The locations of the game are too much alike. It is basically the same dungeon in different colors - except the cathedral, which has some additional design details. Because the first-person perspective movement is so limited, you can't help feeling you are in some kind of a mathematical, unnatural, completely square world, where you can't move normally and where everything looks the same.
There are too many random battles in the game. Often enemies pop out literally at every step. It is hard enough to explore the mazes even without the enemies, but when they appear every couple of seconds, it becomes even more tedious. A serious flaw of the game is its save system. Japanese RPGs usually offer restricted possibilities for saving - save points, world map, etc. But in most of them there are quite fair opportunities to save. In Shin Megami Tensei, you can save only at terminals. A whole district usually has one such terminal, and many dungeon areas don't have them at all. Imagine fighting your way through three or four huge floors infested with mazes, random enemies, and bosses, dying against the dungeon boss, and having to restore the game from the last save... it can literally drive you crazy. That's why I recommend using the Toraport spell when you notice things aren't looking good: better to backtrack through the dungeon again, but with all the treasures taken, bosses defeated, and - most importantly - ways mapped, than taking a risk of doing everything from the beginning.
The map interface is very uncomfortable. Instead of having to press just one key to get the overview map, you have to load the computer menu. The Mapper spell doesn't solve the problem, because it displays only a small portion of the map, and doesn't indicate whether you have already explored an area or not.
The Bottom LineThe genius of Shin Megami Tensei is in the way it takes different gameplay elements and manages to create something entirely original out of them. It puts a typically Japanese world-embracing, philosophical narrative on top of predominantly Western RPG-style gameplay (dungeon exploration, active leveling up, etc.), and then adds to that its own fantastic demon-summoning system and ethical choices.
Shin Megami Tensei thus opens entirely new horizons to Japanese RPGs; it teaches them new possibilities of role-playing, which involve more than following a pre-defined path through a narrative.
For a definitive Shin Megami Tensei experience, I recommend to play the remake, which has much nicer graphics and reduced random encounters.