A look at the Shin Megami Tensei franchise

Something I like to do fairly often is break out of my old PS2 and play some older games. Well, that’s kind of a lie. I never have to “break out” my PS2, because it’s pretty much always hooked up unless I need to hook something else up to the TV. The reason for this is simply because there are more games I want to play for the PS2 than any of my current generation consoles. One particular franchise that keeps me playing my PS2 is Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei. In fact, Nocturne is the game currently keeping me tethered to my PS2.

The recent news that Atlus USA will be bringing the PSP port of Persona 2 to North America has made me particularly happy. Of any SMT games I’ve played, the Persona series has been my favourite. Since I started with Persona 3, I didn’t really have a chance to play the first two games, but with these PSP ports I can. With this latest announcement, it seems like a good enough time to detail my journey through this franchise.

There will probably be massive spoilers for some of these games.

Things started out with Persona 3: FES, which I bought on a whim while visiting family because stores where I live rarely carry Persona games. The game tells the story of a group of high school students who are members of a special group called SEES. These students are able to maintain their normal human forms during a secret hour that occurs at midnight known as The Dark Hour, during which most humans are transmogrified into coffins. The Dark Hour has a strange affect on the school, causing it transform into a maze-like tower named Tartarus. The members of SEES are responsible for exploring this tower, and trying to discover the cause of The Dark Hour.

One of the things I really liked about Persona 3 was the characters. They all felt kind of real, with each one having their own flaws, relationships, and personalities. They react to most things like you would expect, and they largely behave like normal 17 year olds. Granted, some of this gets a little messed up in the extra part of FES, The Anwer. Yukari, for example, goes from being kind of moody and exasperated with all this Dark Hour nonsense, to becoming a complete psycho bitch. They also shoehorn in a romance subplot between her and the main character for that part of the game, despite the fact that it never appears in the main story. It was nice to see how the characters dealt with the things that happened at the end of the main story, but The Answer handled the characters pretty poorly for the most part.

I also liked the gameplay, at the time at least. I was never fond of the fact that you couldn’t control your teammates, and had no control over what skills they learned as they levelled up. The knock-down system was the best thing ever, or the worst thing ever, depending on whether you were on the receiving or giving end of the knock-downs. There’s nothing quite like sitting back and watching as your character gets repeatedly knocked down, missing at least one turn every time, while your team mates ineffectually cast magic until you finally die and throw your controller at the screen in frustration.

Another minor annoyance was the difficulty in changing your party members’ equipment. You could only do it by talking to them in the dungeon. When buying new equipment you couldn’t see what they currently had equipped so you didn’t know if what you were buying was better, worse, or exactly the same. But most of these problems weren’t noticeable at the time, and only started getting on my nerves after I played another game.

The game that made all the problems with Persona 3 standout was Persona 4. This one takes place in a small town where strange murders start taking place. A teenager who recently moved to the town to live with his Uncle for a year finds himself with the mysterious ability to enter another world through TV screens. When he and his friends find out that the murder victims had been thrown inside that world before turning up dead, they realize they’re the only ones who can prevent more people from dying and finding the murderer.

I like Persona 4 for much the same reason I like Persona 3. It had a great cast of characters, just like the previous. However, Persona 4 put a bit more emphasis on the actual story than Persona 3. The story in Persona 3 was doled out in chunks whenever the game felt like doing it, which wasn’t often. Several times you’d defeat the latest story-line boss only to have the characters say something along the lines of, “Well, we still don’t understand shit, so might as well climb that tower some more.” Most of the story is never really told until the very last stretch of the game, where you’re simply drowned with information.

Persona 4 moved its story along at a much better pace. Since the characters were trying to solve a mystery information is slowly given out over time until the characters finally solve it. Every time you saved someone who had been thrown in the TV the characters would discuss what they knew about the killer so far, try to understand his motive, and see if they could prevent any more people from being thrown in. It was handled at a decent pace, and there was more going on than just climbing a tower over and over. Which leads us to another things Persona 4 did better than Persona 3.

One of the major flaws of Persona 3 that anyone will point out is that the dungeon crawling aspect of the game is repetitive as hell. It’s 200-some odd floors of running around randomly generated mazes and fighting the same enemies over and over. The design rarely changes, with the only thing ever changing being the colour of the walls and floors, and the music is almost exactly the same the entire time. It’s infuriatingly repetitive.

Persona 4 actually had some variety in the dungeon design. There were things like a castle, a bathhouse, a strip club, an 8-bit video game, and more. The game also wasn’t just a bunch of randomly generated floors. Every dungeon had a few floors with some sort of gimmick, like warping you if try to go past a door in the wrong direction, kicking you out of the dungeon if you get in a battle, or switching the camera angle quickly to confuse you. Every dungeon was also given its own matching song, as opposed to using the same one for the entire game like Persona 3.

Persona 4‘s Social Links were also better than Persona 3‘s. They focused more on the characters coming to accept who they were, which was a major theme of the game, instead of the ones in Persona 3 which were all about how the character was dying, knew someone who was dying, knew someone who died, or some other horrible thing. The game also let you decide what skills your party member’s would learn, control them in battle, and made buying and changing their equipment much easier. Essentially, Persona 4 took everything wrong with Persona 3, which was already a really good game, and fixed it. Which is why it’s easily my favourite game. I’ve played through the thing at least four times, and not one of those playthroughs took less than 40 hours. I love it and will continue to play it until the day I die.

The next one I played is one I’ve never actually finished. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Radio Kuzunoha vs King Abbadon, is about a young man who is the latest in a long line of devil summoners charged with protecting the capital of Japan. Raidou, along with his mentor Gato, who is a talking cat for some reason, do detective work as a cover up for their battles against demons. Their latest case begins when a young woman hires Raidou to investigate a man named Dahn. One of the reasons I ended up buying this game, aside from it being an SMT game, was that it came with a plushie. The plushie was a Jack Frost, dressed up in Raidou’s clothes, though from what I understand this Jack Frost is actually a character in the game. I actually liked the game, but ended up not finishing it because I got distracted by another game.

The game that distracted me from Devil Summoner 2 was the next SMT game I played Devil Survivor. Devil Survivor is about a group of teenagers who, along with hundreds of other people, are stuck in an SDF enforced enclosure. No one is allowed in or out, and no one has any idea what’s going on. When demons start appearing in the area, the protagonist and his friends realize their COMPs (handheld computer thingies) can now summon demons of their own to fight for them. They can also now see death clocks above people’s heads, counting down the days until they die. Once they notice that they’re own death clocks will reach zero in a few days, they decide to use their new power to survive and find out what’s going on.

I’m not really into strategy games, either turn based or real time, and the only other I can remember playing is Final Fantasy Tactics. This probably explains why I found Devil Survivor irritatingly difficult, and it didn’t help that level grinding was pretty much impossible. The only reason I even managed to finish the game is because I cheated. I’m kind of glad I did that instead of just quitting entirely, since I really liked the story in Devil Survivor. Well, more specifically, I liked one of the endings.

The game has 6 different possible endings, depending on certain decisions you make throughout the game. They range from, “Well, guess the world is fucked,” to, “Well, guess the world is only kind of fucked,” and even, “Well, guess I’m going to go kill God.” That last one is the one I was interested in. For that particular ending, the main character, who turns out to be a reincarnation of Abel (the guy from the bible), and his cousin Naoya, who is actually Kain (also from the bible) decide to team up and kill God because they just don’t like him. Speaking as someone who grew up in a staunchly Christian house, the idea of killing God, and they are referring to the Judeo-Christian God, is an idea I can get behind.

Not that killing a god is a new concept for video games. It happens all the time really. There’s an entire franchise dedicated to killing the Greek gods. But it seems rare, in my experience at least, that you have something where the plan is to kill this particular god. Though we don’t ever see this god so we don’t know if it’s actually God, but given all the biblical references present in the game it seems like a safe assumption. The 3DS port of the game, Devil Survivor: Overclocked, will be coming out here later this year, and it has an extra day added to the game. Maybe we’ll actually get to fight against God.

Next up was the PSP port of the very first Persona game. The game begins with a group of high school students playing a ritual like children’s game called Persona. Initially nothing results from them doing this, but shortly afterwards all of them are knocked unconscious. While unconscious they encounter a being named Philemon, who gives them the power to summon personas. This new power comes in handy when strange events start occurring, like buildings warping and demons appearing in the streets. The students set out to uncover what is behind these strange events.

This is another one I ended up not finishing. This was mainly due to the fact that much of the game was just tedious, and seemed like it hadn’t been updated at all from the ’90s. I didn’t like the first person view while exploring dungeons, fights ranged from too easy to tedious with no real middle-ground, and getting new personas was absurdly time consuming. The method of getting new personas was what really put the final nail in the coffin for this one.

I wanted to test to see how time consuming it really was. After an hour or two of trying to figure out how the hell the demon conversation system worked to get the cards for fusing, all I had to show for it was two personas that were too high level for any of my characters to use. There’s just no way I could ever see myself constantly doing this to get enough personas for every one of my party members for the rest of the game. The least they could have done was implement that flippy card game you play to get new personas in 3 and 4. Then I probably would have stuck around. I really wanted to like this game, but there’s just no way I’ll ever bother finishing it. I imagine the same thing will happen with the port of Persona 2, but whatever, I’ll still buy it.

Next up is Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. I can’t really sum up the plot of this one. I only played it for maybe an hour. I should probably go back and finish it some time. Moving on.

The PSP port of Persona 3 was the next one I played. This is probably the best of the three releases Persona 3 has gotten. It’s like someone at Atlus said, “Hey. We should take all that stuff we fixed in Persona 4 and do the same with Persona 3.” Every single issue with the gameplay I had with the original was fixed in this version. You could control your team mates, you picked what skills they learned when they levelled up, and the knock-down system was fixed. The menus were more streamlined, you could compare equipment when buying new stuff and change it through the normal equipment menu. It was perfect.

Some people complained about the fact that town exploration was reduced to moving a cursor around a screen and clicking on things or people, but that didn’t bother me. Town exploration was never much fun anyway, and this just sped things up. It is too bad that cutscenes no longer had on-screen character models moving around, and that The Answer wasn’t included in the game. These are legitimate problems, but I could finally play Persona 3 while controlling my team mates so I don’t fucking care.

Another substantial change was the choice to play as a female character instead of the gloomy emo looking male character. This had the benefit of allowing you access to a whole new set of Social Links, many of which were less depressing than the male’s, as well as fulfilling a fantasy for guys who lay in bed late at night wishing they were a pretty high school girl. More importantly the female protagonist meant you could finally have an all female party, put maid costumes on them, and save the world with your team of battle maids. Just saying.

The next, and last, entry on this list is actually two games, the Digital Devil Saga games. The story takes place in an area known as the Junkyard, a vast desolate wasteland. In this wasteland, various tribes battle for supremacy and a chance to gain entrance to Nirvana. When a strange pod-like structure appears in the Junkyard the various tribes suspect each other of placing it there as a trap. When it opens a strange light pierces everyone, causing them to transform into monsters and devour one another. All that remains of the pod afterwards is a glowing crater with a naked girl inside. Serph, leader of the Embryon tribe, decides that his tribe will take the girl and try to figure out what has happened to them.

The first Digital Devil Saga was a game that kept me playing because I really wanted to know what was up with the Junkyard and that whole world. Throughout the game your repeatedly shown hints that things aren’t exactly as simple as they seem. There are buildings which are clearly from modern times, at one point you find a beached cruise ship, and characters talked about remembering things that aren’t in that world. My initial belief was that the Junkyard was Earth after some kind of apocalypse, an apocalypse probably caused by some god being a dick, and the tribes were the left over humans who were charged with re-building the world. It made sense since there was a being going by the name Angel telling the people how they could reach Nirvana.

That turned out to be wrong though. I was kinda disappointed when it turned out that the first game took place entirely in a computer program. I probably should have realized that sooner considering the word “digital” is right there in the title, but whatever. It did get into some god stuff later on, and he was in fact destroying the world because he is a dick, and got really interesting with all the reincarnation business that goes down. I still find the ending a little confusing (seriously, what the hell was that black cat supposed to be?), but have more or less gotten a grasp on what went down.

I also liked the battle system, since it was fast paced but still easy to learn and use. The Mantra skill system also fulfilled my base desire to do stuff. Filling in that grid, despite most of the skills being kind of useless to me, was something I could just sit down and do for an hour or two. There’s nothing quite like grinding for a few hours to learn the skill that nullifies all but one type of damage, allowing you to blow through areas like some higher being killing everything in sight while taking no damage. I was a little disappointed with the final boss, who basically just switches between casting each kind of elemental magic. It’s just a really easy fight if you do the simplest amount of preparation before hand, and if you do enough preparation there’s no challenge at all. Still, they were two great games, and two of my favourites from the series.

That’s all of the SMT games I’ve played so far. I liked most of them, though I haven’t finished a few, with only one game that I was really disappointed with. It’s a great series of games with interesting stories and characters, great gameplay (most of the time), and challenging, if a little unforgiving, difficulty. I’m currently working my way through Nocturne, which managed to grab my interest pretty much instantly since it begins with the world ending (coincidentally I started playing it on Rapture day), and has the same battle system as Digital Devil Saga, so I’m pretty impressed with it. This series is one of the few reasons I even still play video games at this point, and all of these games are definitely worth tracking down and playing.

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2 thoughts on “A look at the Shin Megami Tensei franchise

  1. I’ve played my share of Shin Megami Tensei games though I can’t say that I’ve played quite as many as you have. By far I’m most interested in the Persona series. Maybe that’s got to do with how rooted in real life it is and how easy it is to relate to the characters struggles. In any case, there’s definitely obvious themes in these games.

  2. P3 and P4 are two of my favorite games ever. I still think P3 is better than P4 by a hair, though, because I liked the story more.

    [spoiler]
    P4 got a little repetitive with the whole “I’m the bad guy!” (one dungeon later) “No, I’m the bad guy!” (one dungeon later) “No, I’M the bad guy!”
    [/spoiler]

    Totally agree with you about The Answer, that was just thrown in there to give the game some extra content so that fans of the original would be more willing to double-dip on it.

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