Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Shin Megami Tensei (SNES)

Taking a break from study for a long overdue update. I've loads to write about and no time to write it up. I'm going to try keep things a lot shorter from here on out as well.

Anyway on with the main show for the few people that care. Ever since I was introduced to the Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series after playing Persona 3 and 4 (absolutely amazing games by the way) I've become a little bit obsessed with the franchise. SMT has a big following in its native japan but it wasn't until 1997 in the US with Persona on the PS1 and even later in europe with the 2004's SMT: Lucifiers Call that the english speaking world got it's first taste of the series. The series has remained quite niche but has a rabid following. SMT has always been much more mature than its rival RPG franchises and by mature I don't mean gore and nudity but more so treating its audience as being a bit more intelligent. I decided I wanted to try the first game in the series to see where it all started.

SMT isn't necessarily the first game in the series, there were two Megami Tensei games on the NES by Namco before Atlus took over to create Shin Megami Tensei (the shin prefix meaning new in japanese but is used like 'Super' as in Super Nintendo or Super Castlevania 4). It is however the first game Atlus handled and it's the earliest game with an english fan translation, the game never being released outside Japan. SMT is not like most traditional JRPGs like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest and is much closer to western first person dungeon crawlers like Wizardry. In fact the game rarely leaves the first person perspective except for the very seldom moments that you have to use the world map to get from place to place. Distancing itself from JRPGs even more is that fact that the game is relatively non-linear and throughout the game you have to make a variety of choices that will affect the outcome of the story. It's got more in common with a bioware RPG than a traditional JRPG.

SMT is set in and around the area of Tokyo. As the main character you wake up one day to find you have been sent a weird email containing a program to summon demons. When you step outside of your home you find that your town is in a state of panic. There's been a murder, your town has been quarantined off and is under martial law and demons have started to appear in the streets. To make matters worse the Americans are aiming nuclear warheads at Japan as a contingency plan in case they can't contain this demon problem. Without spoiling anything, things get out of hand quickly, the story takes a turn and becomes far darker than you would expect from your average JRPG. You can affect the storyline and choose your outcome by the choices you make. The choices you make will affect you alignment and change it to either Law, Neutral or Chaos. Law alignment means you support humanity gaining paradise but the unworthy humans will be killed and any that survive will lose their free will. Chaos means you support a world where total free will is given to humans and demons but with the threat of anarchy. Neutral supports humanity being governed by laws but not so much that they lose their free will. No alignment is perfect and while Neutral seems like the fairest choice it results in the deaths of many people. It's this grey area rather than black and white choices that really makes the system so interesting. SMT's story is surprisingly complex for an RPG from 1995 and explores some quite deep subjects.

The battle system is your standard battle system but with a twist. You have 3 companions that will help you out at various points but most of the time you will be relying on demons you have enlisted to help you. When you fight a demon you have the choice of engaging it in combat or negotiating with it. If you negotiate well you can gain money or an item from them or better yet they can join you and help you in battle. These demons can be fused together to make more powerful demons, some of which you won't find in random battles. It's this negotiation and fusion system that sets the SMT series apart and is so good that every other game in the series uses the system. Your alignment will  affect negotiations. Demons have their own alignment and will refuse to talk to you or fight with you if you have the opposing alignment. Alignment can also affect what items you can equip with some being exclusive to certain alignments.

If you want to play SMT you'll have to use a fan translation since the game was never released in English. The translation is really well written. However if you are using an emulator there are some bugs in the game and the use of a faq while playing is recommended so you don't run into any game killing ones. If you are taking the Law path one section will require you to load up the japanese rom to pass the section and then continue with the patched rom. There's other bugs like a gun not being available at the start of the game that would make the beginning of the game a lot less difficult. Make sure you play using the a SNES9x emulator for the best compatibility or a more accurate emulator like BSNES if you have the PC horsepower. I really enjoyed SMT but you really have to have a lot of patience to play it. There is no respite from random battles, they can happen anywhere and the encounter rate is quit high although you can alleviate this when you learn to use the negotiate command properly. The game is also very difficult and everywhere is a maze which will require you to map out areas or use a faq (really recommended). The game doesn't require grinding which is a god send, you get enough experience just playing through the game.

It's easy to see why SMT never made it to the West. There's a lot of semi nude demons that could have been covered up and redrawn. It's the subject matter that is what stopped its release. Depending on what choices you make during the game it can lead you to defying god and slaughtering a slew of biblical angels. How awesome is that!