Now that Persona 5 is in store shelves (and is excellent, as our review states), many gamers are getting their first taste of the ‘Shin Megami Tensei’ franchise. Or should we say, many modern ones at least.
Judging by the fact that it sold 1.5 million copies, it all but signifies that this once niche franchise has now officially gone mainstream. However in this case, it is definitely not a bad thing. Persona 5 may be accessible in many ways, but it is not dumbed down. It keeps all of the series ethos like complex storytelling, thematic elements, stylish art design and the classic spells, monsters and the ‘press turn’ combat system intact. It’s still very much a Shin Megami Tensei game.
For new converts, Shin Megami Tensei (translated in English as “The Goddess’ rebirth”) by description, is a long-running JRPG franchise and as mentioned, it stands apart from the pack due to it’s dark tone, stylized aesthetic, challenging gameplay and complexity. The series has not only kept up its quality and consistency over the decades but has been beating it’s contemporaries like Final Fantasy, the ‘Tales’ series and Dragon Quest at their own game. In terms of design innovation ,thematic complexity and western localization (yes), the series has moved on light years ahead of it’s peers.
In fact, we feel pretty confident in declaring that Shin Megami Tensei is the best JRPG series out there at the moment and one of the best RPG series overall. It not only exceeds its’ Japanese peers but most western ones as well and with the success of Persona 5, now is just about the perfect time for curious newcomers to jump in. If you’re someone who played Persona 5 and enjoyed it, it’s about time you start exploring the rest of the series.
However, since it’s so large and has more sub-series and spinoffs than Mel Gibson has children, doing that is no easy task. So for your pleasure, we’ve complied a little primer consisting of 7 steps here that will help you get started on the series and what we feel will provide the ideal entry point into this great franchise.
STEP ONE : PLAY PERSONA 3 AND 4:
These games have acquainted themselves with mass culture so well, that it’s pointless to even try and talk about them. Launched initially as a sub series of the main franchise, these games exist as part life/high-school sim and part dungeon crawlers. Featuring a generally more playful and stylish vibe (whilst not abandoning the darkness completely), charming art style, great storytelling, fantastic earworm soundtrack and a more accessible version of the classic ‘press turn combat’ system, these are the perfect ‘entry point’ for most people today to jump into SMT.
Top notch localization ensure that the games remain superbly written and wonderfully voice acted , which makes these games appealing to even those who aren’t usually fans of JRPG’s. Persona 4 , especially is one of the best and most accessible JRPG’s ever made and features subtle tweaks and gameplay improvement’s on the already stellar Persona 3. Both games are almost identical in many ways without ever feeling like copy paste. You can start with whichever you like, although 4’s option to give you command over the party members and a slightly better cast of characters gives it a slight edge.
Both games also have enhanced ports – Persona 3 Portable and Persona 4 Golden – for the PSP and PS Vita respectively. The former improves upon the console version in some ways (by adding full party control to the player) and devolves in others (replacing the entire interface with a visual novel) but it’s still worth playing if you’ve still got your PSP lying around. The latter though, is the definite version of an already great RPG, adding a new characters, events, locations and loads of new content that integrates seamlessly within the package.
STEP TWO: PLAY THE REST OF THE PS2 ERA SMT TITLES:
In our opinion at least, this period is the series peak and where it truly hit its stride. The Persona games get the lion’s share of credit for helping the series break through to the mainstream but in my humble opinion, Shin Megami Tensei:Nocturne and Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga (parts 1 & 2) offer gamers of say, more refined taste much more rewards in the long run. They never got as much exposure and traction as the Persona games but are in many ways, superior titles by a long margin. (Especially Nocturne)
Both of these sub-series have quite a few things in common, namely the ‘press turn’ battle system, a sinister sense of mood and a lot of the same spells and creatures, but are very distinct in tone and aesthetic. Nocturne, is especially noteworthy for it’s truly unique dark atmosphere and twisted art design that sometimes feels like Pokemon if David Lynch and Tim Burton co-directed it. It’s distinct dark, nihilistic themes truly leave a mark on your psyche. It’s a game that begins with the end of the world and then proceeds to gets bleaker from there. Add to that a very high (but rewarding) level of challenge, demon recruitment and guest appearance by Dante from Devil May Cry or Raidu from the Devil Summoner games (which we get to down below) in the Japanese version and you have a truly unique RPG that to this day, stands apart from anything out there. It’s our personal favorite Shin Megami Tensei title and Every RPG fan/ hardcore gamer needs to play this incredible game immediately.
(Fun Fact : Nocturne is also considered now as the third canonical mainline SMT entry and is called ‘Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifers’ call in the UK/Europe regions, just in case it wasn’t already confusing enough.)
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is split into two parts and prides itself on its’ cyberpunk-esque aesthetic, as well as a sense of ominous mood and atmosphere that is quite different to Nocturne. Although it borrows a modified version of its ‘press turn’ combat and uses a lot of recycled assets, it feels much different due to the flexible, free-form character skill system called ‘Mantras’, in which you progress any character according to the skills of your choosing. It’s a game with a genuine sense of style and atmosphere and focuses on a unique aesthetic that can only be described as ‘technological demon fusion’. It’s also clearly inspired by post-modern cyberpunk/sci-fi novels of William Gibson and Phillip K. Dick and is not afraid to go into metaphysics and multiple universes. Both parts 1 and 2 are 30-40 hours long and together they tell a great story. This is a great series and one of the most underrated games in the franchise.
Both of these games are available on the PSN and should be played ASAP after you’re done with the Personas.
In addition, The PS2 is also home to the Devil Summoner sub-series (under the “Raidou Kuzunoha VS” sub-branding) which act as the most unorthodox Megami Tensei games, in the sense that they employ real-time hack n slash combat compared to the series’ staple turn based style.
They also break tradition from the previous SMT games by being the first ones to take place in historical Japan and the storytelling is even more esoteric and bizarre than usual series standards. The consist of two games: ‘Raidou Kuzunoha vs the souless army’ and ‘Raidou Kuzunoha vs King Abbadon’. Both of them are to this day worth checking out but more as curiosities than anything else. The art style and combat is still fun but some frustrating design decisions and presentation issues ensure that they won’t be counted among the top tier of SMT games anytime soon.
STEP THREE :TRY THE “HARDCORE” SMT TITLES (IF YOU DARE):
( This section is dedicated to those SMT games that are primarily for veteran players of the franchise and are NOT recommended for newbies. Strictly for masochists or those with a love for old-school ,obtuse, more retro level/game design. If you’re not one of them and don’t plan to be , we suggest you skip ahead to step four.)
The original Shin Megami Tensei along with Shin Megami Tensei 2 and Shin Megami Tensei ‘If’… were released for the Super Famicom (Super NES, for the unfamiliar) and later ported to a few other platforms like Windows, PS1, iOS, Android and GBA. They were Japan exclusive titles and were never released outside of the country(although a fan translation is available for them). If you really want to take these on, we suggest doing it on a portable platform, though they’ve not held up well at all and you will lose interest very quickly. These games are very much the product of their time.
Revelations: Persona, i.e the first Persona game was relesed for the PS1 in 1996 and then ported to Windows in 1999 and PSP in 2005 and the Persona 2 duology : Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment on the PS1 and PSP. These are entirely different games from 3 & 4. They lean more towards the traditional gameplay style of SMT, complete with demon negotiation and are indeed, also outdated, even with the enhanced PSP ports. All 3 games do however, maintain their excellent narratives and are worth checking out at least once if you can find them.
Devil Summoner and Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers were the first SMT games to be on a SEGA system, the Saturn to be precise and later ported to PS1 and 3DS. Not to be confused with the PS2 Devil Summoner series (which act as prequels to this), these are turn based affairs that can offer enthusiasts some quality gameplay hours but we doubt that newer players (or JRPG fans) will find a lot to like.
Time has not been kind to the older games and some of them seem borderline impossibly difficult to play but they’re still worth exploring for a bit just so you can see how the series has evolved over the years.
STEP FOUR :EXPLORE THE NINTENDO HANDHELD EXCLUSIVES:
Nintendo Handhelds over the years have been blessed with the series presence. These range from SMT titles for the Gameboy Color i.e Revelations: The Demon Slayer and The Last Bible. (Both titles way past their prime. You’re better off skipping), the Gameboy Advance, with Demikids: Light & Dark Version.
Both of those efforts were, as you guessed correctly, ATLUS’ attempts to dethrone the handheld phenomenon that is Pokemon. Needless to say, they failed at that by a long shot.
However, all is not bleak. The titles released for the DS and the 3DS (generations later) are absolutely stellar, with the sci-fi themed Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey for the DS being just as great as any of the mainline titles. It features the old-school first person dungeon crawling and extreme difficulty, which makes it extremely intimidating for newer players but it also gives it an edge over other handheld RPG’s. The game is just as deep and fully featured as its’ console brethren and is very much worth a look. In fact, you can easily call it a mainline title in many respects.
And speaking of mainline titles, The 3DS was the chosen platform where Atlus decided to launch the official fourth mainline SMT title and it’s follow-up. Shin Megami Tensei 4 and Shin Megami Tensei 4 :Apocalypse (in 2013 an 2016 respectively). Both of them stand tall as two of the best games on the platform’s already vaunted library and feature extremely detailed combat, exploration, music and storytelling. They’re some of the best games in the entire series, in fact and feature great visuals and extremely lengthy campaigns that are high on difficulty and will take most people a long while to finish. While these games are highly recommended, newcomers may find them a bit intimidating. It’s best to be familiar with the series before jumping in.
The DS also received Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, an extremely challenging strategy RPG bearing the SMT name with the unique premise where you and a group of friends fight inter-dimensional demons in a ravaged Tokyo. It was later remade into Devil Survivor Overclocked and its’ sequel Devil Survivor Overclocked 2. Most people love these games but to be quite frank, we’re terrible at them. Hence, we can’t give a concrete opinion about them. If they look appealing then you should try them. Just be prepared for hours upon hours of frustration. These are the very definition of niche, super difficult games that are geared towards more adventurous audiences.
Finally, there’s Persona Q :Shadow of the labyrinth, a crossover title between P3 and P4, with Etrian Odyssey gameplay, which once again is on the slightly more challenging side but offers series fans the pleasure of having fan-favorite characters from both the said games interacting in a lengthy storyline. It’s a great game that is chock full of fan service and allows players to live out their ‘what if’ scenarios in real time.
Suffice to say there’s a pattern. The handheld SMT games are indeed on the ‘more challenging’ side of the scale. There are some of the harder JRPG’s in recent years and while they’re great games, your mileage (and patience) may vary.
STEP 5 :MOVE ON TO PERSONA 4 SPIN-OFFS:
Aside from the above mentioned Persona Q, the popularity of P4 ensured that Atlus’ moved beyond the core titles and developed spin-offs to the game to capitalize on the goodwill that it bought to the company. Never fear though, there are not cash-ins by any means. These are fully featured titles that are not only excellent but offer the canonical continuation of the characters established in the game in excellent (and often surprising ways).
First there are Persona 4 :Arena and its’ sequel, Arena ultimax. Two fighting games developed by Arc System Works (of Guilty Gear and Blazeblue fame) for the PS3, Xbox 360 and arcades. They feature excellent, flashy yet balanced fighting mechanics, a dizzying art style and a massive roster of characters from both P3 and P4, which are featured in its’ story mode that mixes text based visual novels and fighting and offers the continuation of the P4 saga.
Secondly, there is Persona 4: Dancing all night, a great rhythm game for the PSVITA that offers you the chance to master the many beats of remixed versions of the already stellar P4 soundtrack.
It also has new tracks that are just as good and also offers it’s own story mode, that continues on from the Arena games in telling the story of the P4 gang. It’s a staggering amount of content and polish for what is essentially a spin-off handheld title and further proof of Atlus’ awesomeness.
STEP 6 :KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR FUTURE INSTALLMENTS:
A new mainline Shin Megami Tensei game is headed to the Nintendo Switch in the near future while the 3DS is getting a remake of Strange Journey. Not much is know about them at this moment but they’r worth keeping tabs on.
STEP 7:CAP OFF BY LISTENING TO ALL THE SOUNDTRACKS:
Shin Megami Tensei not only contains some of the best music in JRPG’s but video games in general. Masterminded throughout by genius composer Shoji Meguro across it’s various incarnations, the music offers a staggering array and blend of musical genres each time. Featuring genres such as rock, J-pop, Jazz, Synth, Blues, Piano, Orchestra, Techno etc. etc., there seems to be no genre that Meguro does not seem to have a knack and ear for. The variety and moods displayed throughout the series just baffles the imagination. He truly is the Prince/David Bowie of video game composers.
He can switch from a track filled with guitars and bass lines to a catchy J-pop song to one based on orchestra without missing a beat. Even if you’re not into SMT and are just a music fan, he’s still essential to check out. Sample this playlist below. I mean, would you believe all these tracks were produced by the same person?
His reclusive nature and the series niche status is probably responsible for him being lesser known among game composers but with the release of P5, maybe that will change. Every SMT game has a great soundtrack, even the GBC ones (we’re not kidding), listen to all of them as soon as possible. Once inside your head, these tunes will never leave.
Hopefully what you just read will inspire you to seek out and explore the series (and spread the word). It’s an outstanding franchise that deserves far more than it’s gotten over the years and with the massive success of PERSONA 5, which we loved, here’s hoping that things will change.1 Upvote