Shin Megami Tensei is where Atlus’ famed and ultra-prolific series really gets going. The original Famicom games were fine for their time, but the increased capabilities of the Super Famicom clearly let the series stretch out its ideas. Today, though, I’m breaking my usual chronological pattern and looking at the PlayStation remake released in 2001 – thanks, as always, to a comprehensive fan translation. The main advantage of this remake is textured dungeons at a framerate that won’t make you gag, but some other quality of life additions make it a superior choice for first-time players.
Shin Megami Tensei is the start of a new timeline, but is a de facto reboot of Megami Tensei 2. In that game, you were presented with a false choice – you had to decide whether to believe you were indeed the world’s anointed savior, or that the demons that contacted you were lying. Picking the wrong choice puts you into an unwinnable fight. This choice returns at the very end of the game, where you accept or reject the proposed fate of the world. Your decision affects the ending, but only through a different final boss fight and ending screen. As I said in the MegaTen 2 review, it feels like the developers wanted to do more with player choice, but were held back by 8-bit technology.
Shin Megami Tensei is able to go further, to the point of basing its whole narrative around the concept of free will. As you play, your actions determine whether you support the God of the Old Testament, or Lucifer, well, of the same. These choices are not presented as “Good” or “Evil” but instead as “Law” or “Chaos,” while a reoccurring old man suggests a third option that doesn’t tip the balance either way. That’s three endings, and to a point, three playthroughs. You’ll see the same locations and follow the same story beats, but your affiliation directly affects your partners, your equipment, boss fights, some narrative moments, and the demons you can summon throughout nearly the entire game. It’s a pretty impressive step up from the previous game.
You play as an adolescent (I don’t think it ever directly says, but presumably a boy) living in Tokyo. Your humble beginnings involve picking up some coffee for your Mom from the local mall. While out, you notice police have barricaded off much of the neighborhood. Other shoppers chatter about a grisly murder in the nearby park. A user of a BBS you’re subscribed to sends a mass warning that demons are about to spill into our world. He offers the series’ notorious Demon Summoning Program to anyone brave enough to download it. From here, the plot goes places, but we’ll talk more about that in a bit.
Shin Megami reuses MegaTen 2’s basic interface. Locations are explored in first person – anything from your two-room house to multi-level dungeons, while you move between locations through an overworld map of real Tokyo districts. Chatting with NPCs and watching story beats play out both happen in first person. The remake adds an encounter tracker introduced in Shin Megami 2, which isn’t terribly useful. Encounters come too often to change up your plans based on the bar’s warnings. Commands are also now laid out on a contextual strip, so layers of full-screen menus are no longer necessary.
Your party has a maximum of six slots. You are the only permanent member, and as is a series staple so far, the only character that cannot use magic. Instead, you get exclusive access to a portable computer that can store and call up demons, much like Pokémon. Boss demons are generally taken from mythology, but everyday ones get creative – including cat girls, corpse piles, slime with teeth, Atlus’ mascot Jack Frost, and sometimes, it’s just Leonard. Summoned demons fill out the rest of your party, along with a combination of human companions determined by your current affinity of Law, Chaos, or Neutral.
Character creation is presented as an extended dream sequence. Here, you’ll assign names and points to yourself, a Law companion, and a Chaos companion. Like the previous games, only you and your companions level up with earned XP and can equip stat-boosting gear. Demons never improve; instead you can command more powerful ones as you level up. The Law and Chaos companions act as the (almost literal) angel and devil in your ear, arguing with each other constantly on which course of action to take. This setup also allows for the expected conflict, rivalries, and betrayals to play out as you solidify which path you’re going down.
As the situation in Tokyo deteriorates, you learn that a General Goutou has successfully led a coup and overthrown the government. He is working with scientists using “Terminal” machines to bridge the demon world with ours. Goutou views demons as Japan’s ancient protectors and insists everyone accept their arrival (despite them, ya know, ripping people up like the murder in the park). The American government doesn’t much like the idea of literal demons running Japan, so your eventual meeting with Ambassador Thorman sets up the first of many decisions about who you should trust and side with.
Overall, I liked what they did with the Law/Chaos affinity system. The game’s structured so you can first meet both sides in peace to learn what they’re about, while you’re really never locked in to a path until the last 10 or so hours of a 40-ish hour game. There’s exclusive equipment and demons that make the other side look pretty tempting, while neither side ever looks like the clear moral choice. Even if you’re not inclined to trust the Americans, Goutou and his demonic plan isn’t presented as rational. Credit also to the fan team for making all this apparent through the English translation. Further, there’s multiple ways to reign back your alignment before committing to one. Even the “enemy” versions of outposts – where you can heal and remove curses – still allow you to enter for a simple donation.
But while I acknowledge that it’s a vastly better-told version of Megami Tensei 2’s story, it’s still Megami Tensei 2’s story. Humans are, again, just playthings for famous deities from Eastern and Western religions. Both possible endings weren’t great for humanity in MegaTen 2, which holds pretty true here. Chaos and Law both have telegraphed flaws that shouldn’t make you that comfortable, but Neutral doesn’t seem like you’re doing the world any favors either. And some light spoilers – the series seems to destroy Tokyo more than Godzilla, so you’ll definitely be combing through apocalyptic ruins well before the game ends.
So, despite the initial “slice of life” intro, you’re still ending up in the same environments of MegaTen 2. The novelty is saved a bit by having each district, roughly, be a self-contained challenge, all of which are varied. You’ll rescue a resistance leader, stop berserk police robots, visit Tokyo “Destiny” Land, and so on. This stuff is unique, but definitely light – just filler side plots interesting enough to keep playing, but not necessarily memorable on their own.
Demon negotiation is slightly expanded here, and overall, more reliable. You begin by picking either Friendly or Intimidate dialog paths, with some randomization regarding what dialogue comes next. You always get two choices that match the demon’s statement, while which one is the correct response isn’t always clear. However, new for Shin Megami is that that demon type’s reaction to a response will remain consistent. Barring some consideration for your Wisdom and character levels (a demon may not be recruitable until you reach a certain level), you can be sure that they will react the same way every time.
This means once you “figure out” a demon, you can easily exploit it. Shin Megami gives you more options with a cooperative demon than just simply recruiting it – you can ask for money, for MAG, or dismiss the demon without a fight. Money is the useful one here. Once you know a demon’s “code” of responses, you can wander around a dungeon shaking down every instance of that demon for cash. By the mid-game, I was pulling in 3-4k each time I did this, which made high-level equipment quickly affordable. It certainly makes the equipment grind go much faster in a thematic way.
Virtually nothing has changed about demon fusion (except there’s more of them) or the combat. Your companions learn magic spells as they go, so you’ll rely on them and collected demons for any healing or serious damage. Weapons again come in melee and gun forms. You can purchase guns, while swords and the like generally come as rare drops from defeated demons. Guns usually hit more than one enemy, but some melee ones do as well. Again, what you use basically comes down to whatever weapon is the newest/strongest.
The exception is ammo. Ammo is a new equipment slot separate from the gun. You always have infinite bullets, so this slot is just to boost damage and provide special effects. Every major status effect that a magic spell inflicts will have an ammo type that does the same thing – preventing foes from casting spells, poisoning them, turning them to stone – all the good and useful ones. Except, ammo doesn’t use magic points – status effect bullets are infinite and free. Their success rate is pretty good, maybe even 50/50. The result is noticeably overpowered.
With a high accuracy stat, a gun that hits 6-8 enemies, and an ammo that inflicts stun or bind, you can pretty much Auto-battle everything, including bosses, with just you and a companion. Throw in maxed out Speed stats and you’re also dodging just about every hit that comes your way. Put the controller down and grab a sandwich. Like the games before it, there’s a ridiculously huge dungeon housing the game’s last boss. Unlike those games, I chewed through it without even having to spend magic to heal, just from using the above setup. I cannot stress enough that this is unheard of.
I also spent, by far, the least amount of time with demons out in this game. In the previous (and in the early game here) you need demons to soak damage, give more attack power, and help manage the healing load. Once I had two characters that stunned and dodged nearly every attack, there was no need to bring anyone else out. I can’t find any information saying the PlayStation release has been made easier, while certain ammo being overpowered is frequently discussed in walkthroughs for the Super Famicom version. Therefore, I assume this is how Shin Megami is meant to play. It’s nice to not have to worry about summoning demons and deciding when to cast spells, but it seems kind of against the spirit of the game.
There are a few definite changes for the PlayStation version worth mentioning, which make this the version to recommend. L1 brings up an automap, once you “download” it on the second day. You won’t need to draw maps, as in the Famicom era. Automap is also available in the Super Famicom version, but buried in a menu and not on a simple button press (though a mod can fix this). The PlayStation further adds the ability to set markers. You can’t name them, but you can set their type, and they helped me a few times to highlight traps or remember where I was going.
Maybe the biggest improvement is that the PlayStation version lists what spells do before you select them in battle, removing the need to try and remember what things like “Makajama” and “Bufula” are for. A small point, but I appreciate that dark areas aren’t pitch black here, making them slightly less frustrating. And of course, the first person dungeons have detailed textures and scroll smoothly, compared to the simple textures and choppy framerate of the Super Famicom.
Of what I played from the Super Famicom, I did notice the translation here was a little more bland. For example, an early encounter with an armed man has him going “ARGH,” then blinking and replaced by a demon. Did he turn into the demon? The PlayStation version isn’t clear. Conversely, the Super Famicom translation has the man’s “throat torn out by a demon!!” I’m not sure if that’s pure embellishment on the part of the Super Famicom translators, but I would suspect the PlayStation translation is more literal from the Japanese. Do with that info what you will.
Maybe it’s from coming off MegaTen 2 so soon, or maybe playing the Famicom originals ruined all of this game’s surprises, but Shin Megami overall felt like a game that I had already played. It’s a good game, and a much better version compared to the Famicom originals, but definitely doesn’t stray far from them. For a 16-bit upgrade, maybe this is enough. I have no direct knowledge of where the series goes from here, but I do know it’s a jumping off point for a legion of spinoffs and their sequels. From that perspective, it’s definitely sturdy footing and a solid game overall.
You’re free to pick three different paths and the outcomes feel mostly organic. Plot has more twists and turns, while the Law and Chaos companions bring the drama. Demon negotiation is buffed up and the ability to reliably ask for money cuts down on grinding time. PlayStation version has nice quality of life improvements and smooth scrolling dungeons. They fucking named him Ambassador Thorman, and that’s incredible.
Basically a remake of Megami Tensei 2, with the same ideas. Probably spoils some fun if you’re familiar with that game. Stun/Sleep/Charm bullets are wildly overpowered, as is (arguably) your success at dodging with max points in Speed. Lot of backtracking and hassle for the best equipment, some of which is missable.
Mr. Red? These guys here…? I asked them to die for me…? And they just won’t die for me!” – Alice