Atlus’ very first game in the famed Shin Megami Tensei series has been released on the App Store, waiting to give hardcore RPG fans a taste of the original SNES game’s magic. This classic RPG is not for the faint of heart, so be wary if the only exposure you’ve had to the Shin Megami Tensei series has been the Persona spin-offs. Shin Megami Tensei is a far cry from the high school-based socials sims you’re used to seeing.
In SMT, you take on the role of a teenage boy living in Kichijoji City in the year 199X. You wake up from a strange dream after having met a series of unusual characters that seem to be reflections of people you know in the waking world. It turns out that a mysterious murder had just been committed in a park nearby and parts of the city are locked down in order for police to investigate and keep the populace safe. This initially limits your movement around the city, giving you the option to go to the shopping center, to your next-door neighbor’s house and few other key places in town.
The controls are strange, to say the least. As you might expect from a SNES game, there are a lot of buttons. In order to accommodate this, playing in portrait mode will bring up a much smaller screen, giving us an emulated handheld system with a directional pad, A and B buttons, Select and Start buttons and shoulder buttons. It’s almost as if you’re playing on a Gameboy. While there’s some novelty in playing like this, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really enjoy squinting.
Playing in landscape mode gives you the full picture, but adds all of the virtual face buttons on the screen, albeit translucent. This is my preferred way to play, but you might find playing in portrait mode more appealing, even though you’re not able to see much of anything.
Moving around the city is fairly simple, since you’ll be guiding your character along streets and moving them into buildings. Inside buildings, the game becomes a little different. You’ll be switched into a first person perspective, able to move forwards, backwards and turn left and right. It’s a bit of a disorienting experience at first, especially when you’re trying to learn where the actual locations of doors and hallways line up with the graphics presented on the screen. You might think a door is still a space ahead, but then turn to your right to find that it’s in front of you. It takes a little getting used to, and the fact that the directional pad always swings you further than you wanted to turn makes things a little more difficult. With that said, it’s a pretty interested thing to experience, as it is sort of the basis for a lot of the first-person dungeon crawlers that Atlus produces these days.
Another interesting part about this first-person perspective is how it works with the limitations of the technology back in the day. You’ll move along inside a building and walk up to a wall that’s perceived to be a dead-end. Once you actually hit said wall, it’ll turn out that there’s a non-player character set up there, waiting to give you information. Nifty. And you’ll interact with most characters in this way. Take care as you move around trying to find NPCs though, because random encounters still exist in this game and will bring you face-to-face with some of the many demons that have been unleashed unto the world. What makes SMT cool is that you’ll be able to speak to these demons in either a friendly or threatening tone. Depending on how you interact with different demons, they’ll either join your cause and become a member of your party or try to kill you. If you fight them, you’ll be presented with a menu that changes based on what weapons you have equipped and what kind of magic you know. From then on, it’s a typical turn-based RPG battle in which each side takes turns dealing damage to the other or playing defensively.
The battles in SMT are a little on the tougher side, especially if you’re just starting out with this kind of game, but it just takes a bit of practice, thoughtful stat allocation and lots of grinding to get the hang of it. With that said, it’s definitely not for the faint of heart or novices to the RPG genre. SMT’s combat and presentation has the potential to turn off a lot of players due to the uniqueness of its gameplay style as well as its inherent difficulty.
RPG veterans will revel in the fact that the full game is available for their phones. I can just picture the lot of them negotiating with demons, combining them and then using them to fight legions of other demons and the force responsible for setting them loose in our reality and the mysterious murders. SMT’s dark story is ironically refreshing and adds a touch of the macabre in a sea of RPGs that star plucky heroes and goofy characters who are out to stop the Big Bad from destroying the world, armed with spells and swords. In SMT, you have weird dreams, access to a computer that imbues you with strange powers and analogs of people in your waking world who appear as fantastic beings in your subconscious. It’s a wild ride for anyone willing to tackle the game’s difficulty and old-school presentation. You’re getting a lot of content for the price, but it’s hard to recommend to everyone.
If you’re hardcore into RPGs and want an experience from the past that still holds up some twenty years later, then definitely pick up SMT. If you’re just looking for another fun, time-destroying high school simulator, then patiently wait for the return of the Persona series to consoles.
This review was completed with a purchased copy of Shin Megami Tensei for iOS.