Written by  :  Oleg Roschin (181570)
Written on  :  Nov 24, 2003
Platform  :  SNES
Rating  :  3.83 Stars3.83 Stars3.83 Stars3.83 Stars3.83 Stars

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Teaching Japanese RPGs some tricks

The Good

A 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.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of Japanese RPGs, you create the four main characters (Hero, Heroine, Law Hero, and Chaos Hero) yourself. Every time your characters gain a level you can distribute skill points to raise their strength, intelligence, magic, speed, stamina, or luck. Strangely, the game takes away two of those characters permanently rather early in its course, and after a while you realize that the Hero can only be a fighter, while the Heroine is the essential magic user.

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.

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.

A very cool feature of Shin Megami Tensei its the choice of alignment, which affects the progression of the game's ending segment, as well as some gameplay-related choice. You can choose to side with the forces of Law, the forces of Chaos, or fight them both. The Law side is, essentially, a caricature of Christianity - a stereotypical fanatical religious order (actually serving archangel Michael and, by extension, God in the game) that suggests to wipe out all unbelievers. The Chaos stands for anarchic freedom, but does so with considerable ferocity, striving for a world order where only the strongest survive. The Neutral path is represented by a Taoist deity and, on one hand, preaches indifference to either Law or Chaos, and on other hand, recommends to annihilate the followers of both.

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've 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 catalog of demons that is divided into families and races.

The Bad

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 teleportation 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.

With all its clever touches, Shin Megami Tensei only gravitates towards the (in my opinion far superior) Western RPG design school, but doesn't really follow it in certain core aspects. Its progression is still quite formulaic and linear - with very few exceptions, the game takes your hand and drags you through its locations in a strict order. Compare this, for example, to Might and Magic games, where the player has complete freedom of movement and exploration, and where many locations are optional. Even the famed dungeons of Shin Megami Tensei are somewhat deceptively complex: there is, in fact, always only one route to the goal in them, and it's always rather obvious. Unlike truly deep dungeon-exploring games such as, for example, the sixth Wizardry, there are no puzzles and no thinking involved when exploring the dungeons - you just follow the map.

The Bottom Line

Shin Megami Tensei combines a typically Japanese world-embracing, quasi-philosophical narrative with somewhat Western RPG-style gameplay (active leveling up, party customization, etc.), and then adds to that its own interesting demon-summoning system and ethical choices. Thus - though it doesn't quite hold its ground against contemporary Western RPGs - it does teach the Eastern sub-genre something important.