Okay, so I don't know if anyone around here has noticed, but I really like Shin Megami Tensei.
Kidding, I think everyone knows.
My love is not to the exclusion of other RPGs, mind you, but I would say as JRPGs go its defined the last decade for me in the way Final Fantasy VI and SNES/Game Boy RPGs defined my teen years. SMT has been around about as long as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy have been, but really didn't touch western shores in a big way until just over nine years ago on the PS2
Before that, we just had the PSX Persona games and The Demon Slayer on Game Boy Color, which were placed under the "Revelations" banner. And the PSX Persona characters were deeply Americanized and laughably localized by the folks at Tecmo. Let's positive thinking!
So why do I like the series so much? Well, I'll answer that question, but before I start if you're wondering where to start with the series - just start with Shin Megami Tensei IV next week! While there will be nods and allusions to other SMT games within SMT IV, there's no direct continuity to follow. Explaining what those nods and allusions mean would be like explaining every season of Dr. Who in one blog post. And there are about as many post-apocalyptic Earths in the SMT franchise as there are Dr. Whos - so yeah, that wibbly-wobbly multiverse stuff.
But lets begin, shall we? Why does this pixie like SMT?
This is going to be more of an ongoing thing through the post, in fact, i already linked some of the music above. These are remixed compositions of Shoji Meguro's work in what are mostly SMT-related games (remixed by Niconico user Mosutoro). The dude just has amazing range, capable of crafting the right music for the tone and spirit of each game he touches. I really just can't get enough of his work.
Nocturne's soundtrack has a blend of gothic organs, rock guitar and techno. Digital Devil Saga skews to pure rock most of the time, with some sections more laid back than others. The Devil Summoner games have a bouncy, jazzy slant to them, bringing brass sections right along side the rock and they also have moments that befit the detective stories they weave. Strange Journey goes orchestral in the cinematic sense with a male choir chanting through it. No matter the game, the music tends to be really great. Even the piano bits are wonderful.
Muguro actually is not working on SMT IV, however, Ryota Kozuka (who also had a hand in Persona 4, Devil Survivor and more) will be assuming composing duties he will be reprising some of the prior composers' works in addition to having a chance to make his mark on the franchise. I'm looking forward to hearing it.
The Post-Apocalypse Setting
It might be a bit cliche from a western perspective, but the post-apocalyptic setting is a rarity for JRPGs. Often, you're not saving the world here - no, the world is already fucked - you're just going to decide where it goes from there. Kinda like Fallout, but with demons, angels and storybook characters littering the landscape rather than mutants or zombies or whatever.
Well, there are zombies, but they're technically demons here, too. Plus you can talk them out of eating you, bringing me to my next point!
Your first friend is a pixie and she teaches you how to negotiate!
Among the first characters you'll encounter on the battlefield is a friendly Pixie who will teach you how to make friends and influence demons. You're going to be alone in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, so sometimes its better to talk with the beings you meet and attempt to befriend them rather than kill them.
They often want to hear your opinions or ask for things before they'll be persuaded to join you - and sometimes they're just jerks that run off with the stuff you gave them - but sometimes the best way out of a fight is to just talk. Never hurts to ask someone to become your demon until that someone gets upset and attacks you.
Also, in Nocturne, that first Pixie you meet can eventually become a very powerful ally if you keep her around (so don't lose track of which demon you fused her to or dismiss it).
As fun as Pokemon can be, the pokemon breeding thing can get tedious when it comes to passing on traits and such. You've probably even seen the joke site for Pokemon Fusion - take two pokemon, use science and create a new one with a funny name.
SMT actually uses this idea in most of its main series games and spin-offs, minus the funny names. What's more is before you fuse your demons away into one new demon and you can record the old ones in a compendium. Then you can pay a fee to re-summon the old ones later if you need them again. So yeah, no stupid riding around on a bike, waiting for an egg to hatch and hoping you get the right EVs.
Someone's PC can also get bent.
It is important to note some high level demon traits cannot be passed on to other demons, but for the most part you can pass on traits you like to new demons, customizing them to your liking and playstyle.
Moral Alignments turned on their ear
Taking another page from western dystopias and RPGs, you have the classic Law/Neutral/Chaos alignments present in SMT, but they're never quite what they seem. In SMT, SMT II, SMT Imagine Online, and SMT IV you'll encounter two cults - the Gaians and the Messians and these guys usually represent two of those alignments.
But like the Democrats and Republicans of today are not the ones of the 1950s the meaning of these alignments - and whoever reps for them - can change. Going back to Nocturne, the old alignments were thrown out entirely and replaced with three new ones - Yosuga, Shijima and Musubi.
Yosuga believes the strong and beautiful should survive.
Shijima believes in an world of perfect stillness and order.
Musubi believes in a world where everyone is isolated and a god.
All before Heaven and Hell get their say, to boot.
You still have a few more paths you could take. Choose one, choose none, go make a deal with Lucifer or tell them all to go fuck themselves. Any answer is yours and yours alone - so do what you feel is best to shape the next world.
SMT IV appears to be going back to Law, Neutral and Chaos, but what Law and Chaos stand for this time out, what ethics the factions are advocating and how they go about them appear to differ dramatically from where they stood in the past.
Combat in SMT is not unlike what you'd find in most RPGs, but it does have it own special flavor. The Press Turn system found in Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga and SMT IV is one of the most fun and progressive combat systems I've had the pleasure of experiencing.
Going beyond just rewarding damage modifers for nailing an enemy weakness, the Press Turn system rewards critical hits and tagging elemental weaknesses with an additional attack turn. This very system inspired the "One More" system of Persona 3 and 4. Play the situation right and you can beat the enemy down quickly and efficiently.
Just as important, however, is the use of buffs and protecting your party's elemental weaknesses. Buffs in most RPGs are just sort of there, marginally affecting the outcome. In SMT those buffs mean a whole hell of a lot - particularly Sukukaja (an evasion and accuracy buff). Guarding your weakness prevents the enemy from exploiting it for an extra turn and evading a hit makes the enemy lose two attack turns. Absorbing or nullifying a damage type also blows two turns for the attacker.
Repel status, well, it steals two turns and you may eat your own sword. I have killed myself and met the Game Over screen for getting careless. So yeah, always scan new enemies for status boosts and weaknesses before attacking, if you can.
A good challenge and preparations
Finally, SMT has some reasonably tough battles that require a fair bit of planning, along with mastery of the fusion and combat systems to win the day.
Often, I like to load up my protagonist with physical and Almighty damage skills while balancing the rest of my crew with magic, buffs and healing. Skills you may want to be on the lookout for to buff up your protagonist are Pierce, Focus, Fog Breath, Frikujel, Hassohappa, Megidolaon and various area-of-effect attacks. In Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga and Devil Survivor these skills have all served me well. Some of these skills are also protagonist-exclusive.
And you're going to want demons on your team that know all the healing magic, status cures, party buffs and enemy debuffs. Having a few magic specialists and bruisers doesn't hurt either. Situational awareness and a strong team will get you through your battles a winner.
And that's mostly why I've come to enjoy SMT so much. If were to add anything else I liked about the series, its that it does its commentaries about religions and politics without being too heavy handed about it. It might get the deeply religious or those deeply anti-religion stirred up, but what I've taken away from SMT and its spin-offs is that whatever religion or thematic device gets tapped, its not just done to be controversial and often is treated with as much respect as other themes and devices therein.
Persona is probably the most deliberate in its use of themes. Persona uses Jungian psychology as its thematic backdrop. Carl Jung had a great interest not only in religion, mythology and what that meant for the conscious and subconscious mind, the persona and the shadow - he also had an interest in tarot card reading which is another device Persona loves to draw upon for storytelling, relationship-building and gameplay mechanics.
Shin Megami Tensei and its spin-offs have a great deal of respect for much the subject matter they look at. Sure, you can also kill a disembodied head that thinks its YHVH, but even in games like Devil Survivor the series isn't afraid to question someone's Atheism, either. You can meet Lucifer and everything he says sound so right and yet... you're not sure about the guy since there's so much also biblical about him
While some of the older entries are a bit rough around the edges, I always look forward to the opportunity to see what themes were explored and what will be explored in the newer games.
In the last nine years its never gotten old for me and I think that's something special.
About Pixie The Fairy One of us since 2:32 PM on 12.21.2012
I'm 30-something. I play games and sometimes type things. Possibly also a level 80 fairy that can cast Ziodyne on her enemies or give +30 to each stat to any of your demons via Sacrificial Fusion in the Cathedral of Shadows.
Don't do that, though, I'm helpful. I can heal and revive you. I also recap/promote blogs, moderate comments and write funny stuff.
Fuse someone else!
When I'm not helping decide the fate of humanity, I'm probably roaming the open world or rolling into a ball to access secret passages and seeing if my Paragon rating is high enough for discounts at the mall.
For other things and stuff about me you can read here, here and here. You will learn of my origins, my trials and tribulations and how I became a superpixie!