Shin Megami Tensei - Good Vibes, Dead Ends in Tokyo
Happy Halloween! Not that I really care about Halloween, but I thought I might as well do something a little festive for The Game Boy Abyss. Of course, the obvious choice would’ve been to have saved Play Novel: Silent Hill for such an occasion, but of course I had to be a total idiot and play that as one of the very first games on this blog, but oh well, it is what it is. So, this week, we’re taking a look at one of the great grandaddies of the modern JRPG, and one of the biggest competitors and comparison to the far more popular Pokemon franchise - Shin Megami Tensei for the Game Boy Advance. A game that, in as many ways as it’s aged quite notably, maintains a sense of atmosphere, and tells a story that matches up with the very best the franchise later has to offer. So, without further adieu, let’s go visit a Tokyo not so distant then ours… just with more craziness.
Full disclosure: I did not complete Shin Megami Tensei for this review. This is a hell of a long game, and with how many games and hobbies I partake in at any time, I just don’t have the time to play through the entire thing. However, as you’ll soon see via this review, I rather enjoyed SMT1, and I expect, even if it doesn’t happen for a long, long time, I will finish this game, and in that case, I’ll write a second, full review of that when it happens. So, uh, look forward to that. Additionally, I am playing a patched version of the GBA release of Shin Megami Tensei, which I believe is pulled from the official IOS translation.
My history with Shin Megami Tensei games is kinda all over the place. At this point, I’ve actually played all of them, sans the second main game, in one way or another. I put only a couple of hours into III and V, and probably got a good halfway through IV. And the funny thing is, I loved them all - I’m just garbage at finishing games sometimes, and I plan to go back and finish all of these. In recent years, I’ve fallen off the Pokemon craze for reasons I’m sure y’all are far, far too tired of hearing, and SMT scratches that creature-collecting itch far better then the modern Pokemon entries. Maybe all I needed was a dash of sexiness in my monster collectors, but then again in Pokemon, we do have… Uh, let’s not follow that train of thought, actually. There’s enough of that kinda shite online
Shin Megami Tensei is a true fusion of a monster-collecting RPG, and a true-blue old-school dungeon crawler. Monster collecting is pretty simple from the get-go - you can get into fights with a vast array of demons, each with their own stats and skill sets, and for each of them, you can ‘negotiate’ with them to receive items, money, or most importantly, ask them to join your team. Negotiation is pretty much just responding to various questions and actions, and pretty much hoping that you pick the right one. You’re almost limited by what your alignment is - Law, Chaos, or Neutral, affected by choices you make across the story. Depending on your alignment, certain demons won’t join you, so you’ll need to use the ‘Analyze’ command to ensure you can actually recruit the demon you’ve been shouting at for five minutes. After collecting a demon, you can visit the Cathedral of Shadows (where demons dwell!) to fuse two or more demons together to make stronger demons, only limited by how high your main character’s level is. It’s a pretty straightforward system to fill out your roster of demons, though it can be a little trial and error to fuse the demons you want, though there’s a fantastic amount of resources online to find the correct fusion recipe you’re looking for. On that note, I just wanna say that I hope Slime burns in hell. No matter what you fuse with him, it seemed like I was just going to get more versions of Slime. That’s… mildly annoying, to put it lightly.
Combat takes place in the form of turn-based battles - you, the player, can have up to two human compatriots, and up to three different demons to battle against you, turning fights into six on… I don’t actually know what the limit of how many opponents you can face is. It seemed there was some limitation with how many enemy demons can be on screen at any time - most fights will take place against a singular enemy ‘on-screen’, whilst above the enemy’s head there’ll be a number of icons indicating just how many of that particular demon you’ll be taking on. Whilst the system took me a little get to grips with, especially since as far as I could tell you can’t target a specific demon Thankfully, even if you are fighting six Jack Frosts composed into a singular Super Jack Frost, many abilities in the games, like the ‘Ma’ version of spells or Guns, will target entire squads of enemies, giving battles a much faster pace than I expected. Oh yeah, I probably should talk about abilities, shouldn’t I? Well, the fact is, there isn’t a lot to write home about here, as outside of the way you fight I’ve already described, it’s a pretty standard, albeit difficult, RPG. You’ve got your normal attacks, guns for burst or spread out damage, and a variety of spells that can provide damage, heals, or debuffs in equal measure. It’s really just the demons that change things up, and even then, many of them are fairly static in regards to movesets. As far as I know, demons can’t even learn new spells, as demon progression is totally tied to the now iconic demon fusion system.
The main mode you’ll be spending the majority of your time in is the dungeon crawler - once you enter any building, you’ll be placed into a first-person, grid-based dungeon crawling mode. Just about any building - from the players house, to Tokyo’s biggest shopping mall become labyrinthe monstrosities. I genuinely got a laugh when I entered my house for the first time, striding through the corridors like a demon would leap out at any moment, such as the aesthetic of the first-person mode is. And whilst the vibes of these dungeon crawl segments are immaculate, it does eventually wear on the senses with how everything looks the same. Different ‘dungeons’ have different tilesets, but you’ll still be spending a long time - sometimes upwards of an hour, for the biggest dungeons - looking at the same bright red walls. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but it’s a fact of the times that there is only some variance in this game's many, many dungeon zones.
Now, the biggest… I don’t want to say issue with the game, as it’s more an element with just how old it is. But the elephant in the room is the fact that Shin Megami Tensei is a very, very hard game to navigate blind. From the get-go, you are literally given almost no instructions, or any real direction of where you’re going. You start off heading out to grab coffee beans for your mother, but after that, you’re really set loose. This is all good, but it can lead to some frustrating confusion as to exactly how you progress. For example, a few hours into the game, you’re trying to get into a rebel base. To get there, you need some kind of ID card - to get it, you’ll need to wander the Shibuya underground mall, going to a specific bar (there are several in said mall), making your way through, responding in a particular way to the bartender, who will then give you a piece of paper that seems totally nondescript and unrelated to your current situation. But, lo and behold, that random piece of paper is exactly what you need to get into the base. I’m just gonna say it - I have no idea how you’re meant to work this out without a guide, sans random wandering around. But then again, as you’ve probably seen reading The Game Boy Abyss, I am a known idiot.
The other notable issue is with Demon recruitment and fusion. As per SMT tradition, you’ll be getting the majority of your demons via actively negotiating with them, which basically boils down to you responding to their threats, demands, and wimperings with various responses. Now, I don't know if I’m just an idiot - which is very, very likely -, but the fact is I was consistently struggling to recruit demons to my side. The same demons seemed to respond differently to the same responses, which essentially turned every discussion with them into a clown fiesta of just praying I wasn’t going to get the shite beaten out of me by a fairy half my size. It’s also a bit of a shame how limited the demon personalities during negotiating actually are - there’s only so many times I can hear a demon ask me ‘to please fuse them with a cutie’ or ‘watch me warily’ before it just gets a bit predictable. I understand there are certain archetypes and whatnot, but it really just made it feels like, at least on a personality level, there are really two, maybe three, types of demons. Fusion, whilst still being relatively straightforward as a system, was also frustrating to cope with. It’s one of the easiest ways to get stronger Demons, but as far as I could tell it was fairly stringent in regards to what skills each of those demons would learn. Some of the status effects available in this game - like inflicting Shock from Zio spells, or Freeze from Bufu - are extremely, extremely overturned and overpowered, and it’s beyond frustrating to not be able to carry over these spells onto your stronger demons. This is probably my ‘modern gamer’ sensibilities showing; having played recent SMT and Persona games, even modern remasters of games like Nocturne, having skill inheritance makes a world of distance, and it really just ages the original a little too much.
Now, whilst the game’s age might antiquate it’s gameplay, it’s that very age that I think contributes to the game’s overwhelmingly greatest asset - it’s vibes. Shin Megami Tensei 1 is not a scary game, not in the slightest, but from the moment you enter Tokyo there is an almost overwhelming sense of unease and dread coating the entire experience. Eerie conversations with civilians, the game’s impossibly winding and mind-being mazes, the genuinely fantastic soundtrack, all of this piles on creating one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever seen in a JRPG - and I say this as someone who, as I said, has played the majority of SMT’s mainline entries. Even prior to ‘the big event’ around five or so hours into the game, Tokyo feels like a claustrophobic, fighting place; even conversations with other characters have an eerie, uneasy feeling to them, especially with how the spriates are always kind of distant and shrunk down. I love this style so much, and the fact it became a staple of the series overall delights me to no end. Honestly, this game might have my favorite vibes of the entire franchise, and I think a huge part of that is just how games looked all those years ago. No shade on more recent games, but there are aesthetics and atmosphere that are impossible to replicate on modern consoles.
Its story, or at least what I saw of it, was rather low-key, yet perfectly fed into the immaculate vibes presented from the forefront. The player is thrown into the deep end, narrative-wise, right alongside the main character. Bizarre, almost incomprehensible dream sequences dot the opening hour of the game, whilst the main character’s neighborhood is ringed by soldiers imposing martial law, seemingly, on all of Tokyo. The way the characters find themselves thrust into the main conflict is almost by chance, a freak accident involving their mother that genuinely caught me off guard. The characters themselves aren’t much to write home about on an actual writing level - they’re very much vehicles for ideologies and point of views - hell, the two characters who fight alongside the named character are literally dubbed the Law and Chaos Heroes, respectively. Because that’s what Shin Megami Tensei is all about - the endless battle between the base, humanistic elements of Chaos, and the angelic, ordered realm of Law. Choices made throughout the game will slowly lead you down one of these paths, the majority of these sequences taking place in deciding to fight one boss here, or saying a certain thing there. It provides a fun bit of replayability to a genre that generally was pretty linear in nature - especially if you eskw the Law and Chaos paths presented, and try for the always-fantastic Neutral route.
My review might’ve sounded a little mixed, but I did really enjoy the time I spent with Shin Megami Tensei. It’s aged, don’t get me wrong about that, but it’s vibes, visual flair, and combat systems almost totally carry the title. Whilst there is value in trying to play this game ‘pure’, without a guide, but I really can’t recommend trying that - it’s just too obtuse. Just do what I did, and find a nice, spoiler-free guide to help you out when you get stuck. For what it is, Shin Megami Tensei is a fantastic, albeit archaic, monster-collector RPG, with some of the greatest atmosphere I’ve yet experienced on the Game Boy Advance. Whilst I did put it down after close to ten hours, I will certainly come back to this title sometime in the future. Shin Megami Tensei is a very, very special franchise - as I’ve already known from the other titles in the series - and from the very start, I can see how it became the juggernaut that it is. Give this one a shot if you’re a little tired of Pokemon, or looking for a good alternative to play alongside it. Just… yeah, just grab a guide. Don’t be me, wandering Shibuya for an hour trying to FIND THAT GODDAMN BA-
Thank you so much for reading my impressions of Shin Megami Tensei! I’ll be off for next week, but I’ve already got the next game lined up, and that’ll most likely be Rayman 3 for the GBA! As always, you can find me over at Twitter @Lemmy7003, and if you have a request or a question, you can email me at email@example.com. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in my next review.