|In most RPGs, you must gather a dewy-eyed group of heroes to save the
world from impending doom, an evil corporation, nasty demons, or the wicked witch of the
west. In SMTN, the world blows up after twenty minutes of gameplay, and you
promptly are turned into a demon.
SMTN comes from a series of games, most of which have not been released in the
US. Including spin-offs, there's some fourteen games in the series, only five of which are
US released: Persona, Persona 2, DemiKids, SMTN, and Shin Megami Tensei:
Digital Devil Saga. Of those games, three are spin-offs, thus leaving the US without
a main Megami series release until SMTN. Consequently, there are some
connections (themes/similar characters/etc) between the games that may not be readily
apparent, but SMTN does stand on its own. The title "Shin Megami
Tensei" indicates a cycle of death/rebirth that dominates everything - including the
world. The US version is actually a director's cut with additional content and one extra
Set in post-apocalyptic Tokyo, the protagonist is one of the few to survive the
catastrophe. Therefore, he is given the opportunity to explore the world around him and to
ultimately help/hinder the rebirth of the world. As he journeys, he can gather demonic
allies to aid him. The main party will consist of four characters, though more demons may
be held in reserve to be called up in the midst of battle.
One of the strongest (yet possibly confusing) aspects of SMTN is its mythological rooting.
The demons (generic term - some "demons" are actually good guys in their
respective pantheons) that inhabit the world are not random pickings of a game developer's
imagination - they are drawn from mythologies diverse as Greek, Hindu, Celtic, Christian,
etc. The sheer number of demons (200+), each with its own history, will leave all but the
most knowledgeable reaching for an encyclopedia at some point. Although some gamers will
undoubtedly care less about the mythological significance of some demons, Atlus included
special interactions/conversations between demons of the same pantheons for those who
understand their significance.
Battles are random, but a color-changing indicator relieves some frustration. SMTN
uses a "press-turn" battle method, rewarding players who exploit enemy weakness
and punishing those who think it's fun to use an ice spell to kill an ice demon. An
"auto" button can make easy battles less tedious by significantly speeding up
the battle process.
The philosophical underpinnings of SMTN will appeal to
those gamers tired of the same "save the world" RPG frameset used repeatedly.
The protagonist is introduced to a variety of Reasons, each seeking to become THE Reason
that shapes the world rebirth. Conversation choices and actions ultimately determine which
Reason (if any) that the protagonist is aligned with.
While the philosophical/mythological backdrops provide an involving atmosphere, the actual
plot itself lacks coherency. The Reasons are separate and rarely intersect story-wise -
enough so that the game felt a bit formulaic in the standard "jump through each
hoop" so that the game can continue. Adding further insult, much of the early game
bears little to no consequence on the endgame - much less the actual ending. Story
branches are practically non-existent - if you replay the game for each ending, the actual
plot will be much the same unless you choose to do the one significantly different ending.
Some of the decisions of characters in the game defy all logic and are never adequately
One notable feature of SMTN is its incredibly deep demon fusion system. Think Pokemon
with demons drawn from most of the world's mythological pantheons.
Not only are there many demons to discover, but you can actually customize skillsets with
proper forethought and ultimately create uber-demons. Almost every boss you fight can
eventually be fused and they are usually significantly more powerful than their common
brethren. Of course, demons can level up and gain skills just as the protagonist. Once a
demon is caught/fused, it will always be available (for a price) at the Cathedral of
Shadows. This director's cut also includes a guest appearance from Dante of Devil May
Challenge-wise, SMTN is not for everyone. At times, the game can be infuriatingly
tough. Walk into a boss battle with the wrong resists and your party is toast. Actually,
your party doesn't have to be toast - if the protagonist eats it, it's game over. Though
the fusion system has many merits, much of the challenge will come from finding which
demons work particularly well in each area and against the bosses. Bosses can be
incredibly cheap and easily kill even a well-prepared party. The difficulty is not such
that one needs to power-level at any point in the game, but higher levels mean that you
can control better demons thus making the game much easier.
Many of the dungeon areas are insanely huge and though save terminals dot most of them,
the warp function from within a dungeon is one-way: you can warp out from a save terminal,
but you have to start completely over. A good automapping system and manual camera control
alleviate angle problems, but teleporters and other traps often make navigation hazardous.
Random battle frequency can be upped/lowered with items/skills.
In terms of visuals, SMTN offers up a darker cel-shade design intended to
reinforce not only the catastrophic events but the sheer other-worldliness of the new
Tokyo. You won't find jaw-dropping animation, FMV cut-scenes, or cutesy anime-style
interruptions to the gameplay. All video sequences are rendered from the game engine,
creating a smooth transition from gameplay to story sequence.
Characters/demons/enemies are unique and draw upon their various mythological
backgrounds to provide memorable character design. Each family of demons has a set look
that creates a uniformity that is to be expected, but usually avoids the trap of making a
green slime that's tougher than a red slime that's tougher than a blue slime ad nauseum.
The only major complaint is the reuse of various backdrops; every tunnel looks exactly
like the last tunnel (and there were a lot of tunnels) - eventually the world just looked
artificial instead of believable.
For the audiophiles, Atlus produced a limited edition version that includes the
soundtrack. Much of the music is dark and battles are punctuated with a heavy rock theme
that will either set your adrenaline pumping or have you reaching for the earplugs. The
music was not outstanding or epic in scale, but it certainly did not detract from the
overall experience. Atlus chose not to include full voice acting in this release though
some conversations are punctuated with monosyballic utterings ala Skies of Arcadia.
SMNT features six different endings for replayability. None require multiple
play-throughs to achieve, and each ending reflects choices made throughout the game. The
demonic compendium gives gamers the opportunity to collect 100% of the available demons
and register them. Any demons registered in the compendium can be used for the new game+
save file. If you register all of them, the broker sells them for half price (a
significant discount), so there is incentive to get catch them all.
SMTN can easily be recommended for a mature RPGer who is tired of saving the
world in pseudo-medieval settings and wants something darker. However, it will take
dedication (and the use of a good FAQ) to master some of the game aspects, especially
given the limited skillset available and that once a skill is discarded, it is gone
forever. SMTN is easily one the more unique games on the market, and even if you
decide not to achieve all six endings, it is well worth a single playthrough simply to be
exposed to an RPG so different from the run-of-the-mill. For extra enjoyment, consider
looking up some of the settings/demons to expand on the short descriptions that Atlus
provides and create an even more engaging atmosphere.