(This is an entry for the SMT IV Contest posted here. I'm expanding upon a previous post. If time allows, I may also post a recording of a poem about Shin Megami Tensei that I wrote, making it a more thorough entry.)
(It's about to get real.)
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne was a landmark achievement for role playing games, placing players in a situation that was simultaneously horrifying, uncomfortable, and deeply empowering. As you stand next to your teacher, who had been your guide and friend in your previous life, you watch it all disintegrate in an apocalyptic event that leaves only Tokyo standing. You are made to watch as the world becomes vastly smaller and vastly stranger; your life is irreversibly changed, and you are totally stunned as to what to do next...when a strange child drops a worm in your mouth, and you are changed forever as well.
(OH GROSS NOOOO-did he just give me demon powers? Sweet!)
Set on a journey to discover your place in this vast dystopia, you will discover that you tread a land that embodies the very cycle of life and death, and that you will be the deciding factor in what the new world becomes...or if it is even reborn at all.
Aside from the epic setup, eerie world, amazing plot twists, and grand conflict, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne had great pacing, blistering difficulty, and a customization system that is rarely, if ever, rivaled. Imagine, if you will, a cross between Final Fantasy V's job system and SMT's usual deep demon system (given a boost this time around thanks to the Amala Labyrinth and the four tempers which you can resurrect and re-fuse to boost stats). It combines everything great about taking power from the world around you (the demon system) and developing one's own inner strength (the magatama).
The pacing is also simply incredible. At first, you will feel highly restricted, and the game will be relentless in attacking you. But develop some strategy and make it to level 30, and the demon system begins to really, really, really open up. From here on in, there is always another power to pursue, another demon to fuse, and another quest to finish. In a twist of genius, when one has hit the final level (99) you can begin to make 2nd generation demons, resetting their levels and building them back up again so they can have skills like the omnipotent Pierce, which entirely ignores enemy defenses. The magatama also make for difficult, irreversible changes to your character, causing you to tread lightly and weigh the pros and cons of each decision you make about the development of the Demi-Fiend.
I've spoken of it briefly before, but there's just nothing QUITE like the world of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Digital Devil Saga and Ico have a similar sort of aesthetic, but the characters, in their muted expressions amidst a dying world that has suffered a fatal blow, really drives the point home about the tragedy that has occurred The visual designs of each of your friends after they (SPOILER STARTS HERE) transform into avatars for various demons and ideals (Spoiler end) is amazing visual shorthand for showing how people change and twist to become champions of the world that they fight to realize. The art style, by the marvelously talented Kazuma Kaneko, is one of the series' best, showcasing stylized versions of religious icons from religions all around the world, including Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Greek, Roman, and Japanese mythological pantheons.
All in all, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne isn't just one of the best in the SMT series, or just one of the crown jewels in the PS2 library. It's one of the best games of all time, and an exemplar for video games as some of the greatest art mankind has ever conceived.
Oh, and it has Dante in it.
Now, with that being said, let's look at one of the slightly lesser known titles in the series, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga. What I'll be discussing here mostly relates to Digital Devil Saga 1, since speaking too much about 2 will really spoil most, if not all, of the amazing story. I will simply say that much of what can be said about Digital Devil Saga 1 can be said about 2 and leave it at that. My passion for the series is such that I would not want to spoil more than I absolutely have to.
(It's about to get unreal.)
Digital Devil Saga is yet another shining exemplar of why Shin Megami Tensei is the best around when it comes to weaving together a narrative that is twisted in it's presentation, engaging in it's storytelling, wicked in it's deception, monumental in it's theme, and utterly engrossing in it's journey, with gameplay that is strategic, addictive, and mechanically wedlocked with the story.
Yet, perhaps more intriguing is it's ability to thematically summarize the very core of EXP-growth-based RPGs.
Let me explain what I mean. In Digital Devil Saga, you have the ability to actually consume your enemies as opposed to simply eating them with a variety of physical "eating" skills. Consuming an enemy grants you bonus experience for your current mantra, which is similar to a magatama from Nocturne in that it grants you skills. (Unlike Nocturne, however, you can always re-select old skills to add to your repertoire.)
What this particular mechanic made me realize is that, interestingly enough, RPGs that incorporate some sort of experience mechanic are really all about the slow, tactical consumption of your enemies in order to get stronger.
How many times have I thought to myself, even before playing Digital Devil Saga, "I'll just use this spell in this area with enemies weak to it to eat some XP so I can power up before the next boss!"? Like when I take a grass or electric Pokemon with me when surfing vast distances across Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, Sinnoh, or Unova?
(Couldn't agree more.)
It's not simply about grinding, either. When you're in a fight for your life against a tremendously difficult boss, it's eat or be eaten. So much about the mechanic of experience points has more in common with actually eating your opponents than merely learning from the battle you faced against them.
The other interesting thing about the eating mechanic is that you can use the enemies' weaknesses against them (either an elemental attack that strikes their vulnerabilities or a void/repel/absorb spell) in order to give them the status effect "Fear". Enemies with this effect are more susceptible to eating skills, which will often (but not always) kill them instantly.
Now, I'd like to talk about the central themes of Digital Devil Saga's fantastic narrative.
I'd say more than just a story about a strange world and the strange things people do in that strange world, and more than just about cannibalism, Digital Devil Saga is a game about war, and the evolution of a solider's view on the subject as the war carries on.
In fact, I think that sums up the story so well that the game could just as well be called Shin Megami Tensei: PTSD Saga. (No offense to those actually suffering PTSD or friends/family of PTSD victims!) I will go so far as to say that this game is the RPG equivalent and predecessor of Spec Ops: The Line.
In the beginning of the story, you (Serph) are a member of a faction called the Embryon, fighting for survival and territory in a strange metal-filled wasteland called The Junkyard. You don't know why the war started or why you're fighting it, other than the strange instructions given to you by the GlaDOS-before-GlaDOS computer goddess known only as Angel. "Claim all the territory in The Junkyard and ascend the tower into Nirvana!". It is your only goal and desire, and for many years you fight this war unquestioningly.
One day, however, a strange flower appears on the battlefield. Suspecting the rival faction, the Vanguards, of placing it as some sort of trap, you and your cohorts (Heat, Argilla, Cielo, and Gale) have a standoff with them on either side of the bizarre metal flora.
What you find is that it has a surprise in store for both of you, as well as the entirety of the junkyard. Lasers start shooting out of the steel plant every which way, penetrating you and every warrior of purgatory in the junkyard with a pulse of light straight through the heart. Soon, you find yourself and your companions turning into blood-crazed demons, and just before you black out, you notice the leader of the rival gang (Harley) feasting on the corpses of his own dead soldiers.
(Oh yeah, it's also flashy as all hell.)
As the story unfolds, the gang find themselves increasingly terrified by things they never even had the capacity to question before, as the new-found cannibalism element confronts them directly with the sheer, unabated horror of war. After all, to claim your enemies' territory by violence is very much symbolically akin to actually eating them.
I won't spoil too much more, but suffice it to say that the narrative really completes Serph's journey from unquestioning solider who hates only his enemies to someone who fights against the very puppeteer of war itself, who feels the tug of the puppeteer that plays solider and tugs back.
As the aesthetics go, they are very much similar to Nocturne's overall design, but I will say that it uses a lot more grey and green to give the feel of a war-torn cyberworld as opposed to Nocturne's reds and blacks. It certainly suits the game's tone and gives a very moody feeling to the overall atmosphere of the game. Other than that, everything I had said about Nocturne's visual design applies here, and it's as gorgeous as ever.
Overall, Digital Devil Saga is a game that perfects the medium even as it transcends it, sending the player into a rhythmic trance of growth, suspense, surprise, horror, strategy, deep thought, and wonder. It is a luminous emerald in the PS2 SMT library, next to the glittering ruby that is Nocturne, the shining sapphire of Persona 3 FES, the tantalizing topez of Persona 4, and the prismatic glory of the Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha series.
I think I'll wrap this up by talking about why I, personally, LOVE the Shin Megami Tensei series. I must say that my passion for it is two-fold; I love the games as playable RPG powerhouses whose systems and worlds engross me like no other experience. Playing any other game, I would be thinking about a million other things at once. I would be using it as a form of mere abnagation. Whenever I pick up an SMT game, though, I can't help but be completely absorbed by it's uniqueness and total fine-tuning.
What I also love, however, is the series as a schematic. Shin Megami Tensei always takes it's themes and it's gameplay deep into it's dark, twisted heart, and produces an unholy (in a good way) marriage of concepts. From Digital Devil Saga's eating mechanics, to Nocturne's sense of rising power and control, to Persona's social link system, every game is an utter master class in game design, pacing, control, challenge, atmosphere, suspense, story, and real player choice.
It's a game that I, as an aspiring game designer, can really learn from.
For these reasons, the Shin Megami Tensei series, Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga in particular, are my Citizen Kane.
Atlus, you are true masters of the craft.
Don't go dying on us.
Edit: Added Soundcloud reading here! Sorry for the crappy quality and blunders, I had only a little bit of time left and a crappy webcam microphone.