We've reached a point in gaming where, at least when it comes to major franchises, there are very few great JRPGs that haven't been eventually released in English. There are no lost Final Fantasy mainline games, all the holes in Dragon Quest have been filled, and even less famous series such as Ys and Monster World have had previously skipped over installments finally brought to English gamers. There are still a few significant gaps, though, and for me personally, none more significant than the missing games in the Shin Megami Tensei series. This is a franchise that, largely through the popularity of spin-off series Persona, has never been so relevant in the west as it is now. Sure enough, missing games connected to the franchise have made it over, one-by-one, with the entire Persona series now available in English and even the cursed Soul Hackers finally finding its way overseas, but we're still missing the games that started the whole ball of wax.
Well, we can subtract one from that list now, because Shin Megami Tensei 1 [$7.99] is now available in English on iOS devices. Originally released in 1992 for the Japanese Super Famicom, it tells the story of an accident that causes a demon invasion of Tokyo and the resulting chaos. You play as a young man whose face you'll never see and whose name you must choose yourself. It starts with a bizarre dream where you meet some of the principle characters of the game's story. After waking up, your mother sends you on a mundane chore, and all seems relatively normal except for the fact that someone was murdered in the neighborhood the night before, causing the police to set up barricades around the area. Things gradually get weirder before opening up into chaos, and that's just the start. The twists along the way are incredible, and it all leads up to one of three different endings. The story is one of Shin Megami Tensei's many strengths, and though it has a tendency to be ham-fisted at times, it still holds up impressively today.
That ham-fistedness can still be found in modern entries of the main series, and it comes by way of the same things that it does here. Shin Megami Tensei is well-known for is its use of alignments as a fundamental part of the game. There are lawful people who believe the world needs order and peace, even if it comes by way of force. There are chaotic people who believe that order and authoritarianism are abhorrent concepts and that a world of anarchy would be best. You'll have one of each type joining you through much of the game, showing you what both extremes look like and pushing you towards a choice that will determine your ending and the fate of the world. Both sides come off like jerks a lot of the time, but it's not like there are any other options. Or are there?
The game plays out from two types of viewpoints. There's a relatively simple overworld map of the city where you take an isometric point of view and move the little arrow representing your character along the streets, occasionally battling enemies or talking to people. When you find a building of interest, the game switches to a first person view where you can explore, talk to NPCs, fight monsters, shop, and so on. Being a game from 1992 designed for a home console, you might anticipate some problems in trying to move the experience to a handheld, and I would certainly agree with that if this were, in fact, the original release from 1992. Shin Megami Tensei has seen many releases, including SEGA CD, PlayStation, and Game Boy Advance, and each version has had some tweaks made to the game to update it a bit. In the latter's case, a few key features were added to help make the experience fit a portable console better, and it's that version of the game that has been more or less ported to iOS.
Of course, while that means things like the system for saving your game have seen major changes in consideration of the fact that people often need to stop playing handheld games at the drop of a hat, it still feels very much like a game designed for the Game Boy Advance, not the iPhone. It doesn't help that the game does an incredibly poor job of explaining anything beyond what was in the original game. There's a manual you can access on Atlus's webpage at the tap of a button, but even after reading it, a lot of things weren't clear. It does explain, for example, that you can press start at any time, choose 'quit', and your game will be saved as you exit, but it doesn't mention much about the fact that the game now auto-saves after every battle, which is a piece of information I think a lot of people would like to know. This auto-save, by the way, takes some of the bite out of the game's famous difficulty, since dying in a fight only sets you back to wherever you won your last fight, at worst.
The odd save system is just one of the many strange things about this port. Another example is in that you can play the game in portrait mode or landscape mode, but you don't switch between them by simply rotating your device. Instead, you tap anywhere on the play area in portrait mode to change to landscape, and to change back, you have to tap a button located on the right-hand side of the screen. It's really unintuitive, especially if you're used to tapping the screen to move text along in an RPG. Then, there's that portrait mode. I'm incredibly happy it's here, and I wish more iOS RPGs would offer such an option. Of course, since the original version is from the Game Boy Advance, in order to maintain the proper aspect ratio, the play area takes up less than half of the screen, with the remainder filled with a very weird-looking set of virtual controls.
I should stress that these controls work very well with the step-by-step nature of the game, and I found it very comfortable to play in portrait mode, but there's no question it looks bizarre. Finally, the game is designed for the iPhone, and while you can play it on your iPad, you might not be happy with the results. There's not much Atlus could do about this short of redrawing everything in the game, but it's something to keep in mind. I can't imagine the portrait mode controls work as well on the larger real estate of the iPad, either. Still, the landscape mode controls, which use a more familiar setup of laying transparent virtual buttons over the play area, will likely you serve you just as well.
Okay, now that I've gotten all the negative stuff out of the way, let me tell you why I love this game and think it's one of the best RPGs on iOS. As I mentioned above, this game has an excellent story, with a lot of surprises, some meaningful side content, and satisfyingly divergent multiple endgames. The quest is long, well over the 25 hour mark for first-time players, yet the density of content and the pacing mean that once the game picks up, it never really lets go of you until it's all over. I love the way alignment plays into not just the story side of things, but also affects the gameplay in terms of who your allies and enemies are and which demons will join with you more easily. The setting is awesome, taking a somewhat recognizably real place and slowly twisting it into a nightmare. The fact that enemies can get you anywhere, and that an on-screen indicator shows how close you are to being attacked, creates an ominous feeling of tension even in areas we traditionally find safety in, like shopping areas. The demons are everywhere, friends.
Speaking of the demons, let's talk a little bit more about them, since they areย Shin Megami Tensei's calling card. Like in many other RPGs, you will meet other characters who will join your group as the story dictates. They're quite strong, and particularly in the first half of the game, they will form the backbone of your party. You'll never have enough people to fill more than half of your party, though, so if you want to get up to full strength, you'll need to make some friends among your enemies. The battles in Shin Megami Tensei are the usual turn-based battles seen in many RPGs, but in an interesting twist, before anyone starts swinging their weapons, you have the chance to try to talk things out.
Choosing the talk command opens a dialogue with your opponent. The demons will say things or ask questions, and you have to choose a response. Sometimes, they'll ask for an item or some money, and you'll have to decide if you want to give it to them. If your negotiations go well, you might get a new party member, an item, some cash, or some magnetite. If they go badly, you might be facing an even more difficult battle than you already were. Being a good negotiator can make the game a lot easier, not just in terms of strengthening your team, but also for earning extra money and simply avoiding fights. The demons are much more predictable in this game compared to later entries, so as long as your memory is good and your intelligence stat is high enough, you'll be able to convince almost anyone to join you sooner or later. Feel free to try to catch 'em all, Ash.
Of course, you can only have so many demons at one time, and demons don't level up in this game they way they do in some later Megami Tensei games, so you'll naturally want to be improving your roster as you go along. A great way to do this is by fusing demons, which can be done at a variety of locations around the city. You can combine two or three demons to create powerful new allies, though you need to be mindful of their level and summoning cost. In addition, keeping your demons out costs magnetite, so you don't want to be walking around all the time with your big dogs out. You'll often find that the random enemies in an area are either useful for taking on the next boss or can be fused into something that is. The fusion system in this game is a bit less complex than later games, since your monsters don't pass on any skills or traits, but in a way, that makes it very approachable. That's a good thing, because it's an integral part of enjoying the game.
The Shin Megami Tensei franchise is also famous for its difficulty. I think it's overblown in some cases, but it's certainly true that if you just try to Rambo your way through, you're going to have a lot less success than you would in, say, Final Fantasy 6 [$15.99]. The difficulty in this particular game actually isn't that bad, relatively speaking. Unlike many other games in the series, there's no instant game over if your main character is knocked out. The enemies certainly aren't shy about using status effects that will stick on you pretty frequently, but the reverse is also true, with charm attacks being particularly useful against even bosses. While the dungeons can be huge and sprawling, there's an automap you can check at any time, and even a spell you can use to overlay it on the screen while you walk around. The game is at its most difficult in the early stages, when your main character is underpowered and underequipped and your team isn't yet filled out.
That's not to say the game can't be nasty at times. If you don't bother negotiating with demons, fusing new ones, and hitting up enemies for money, you're probably going to get overwhelmed quickly. At times it's unclear where you need to go or what you need to do, leading to a lot of wandering. There are some truly mean tricks in the dungeons in the back half of the game, too. This is all fine by me, since the new save game system means you rarely lose much if you die. I think it's nice to play a JRPG that has some real all-around teeth in combat, exploration, and dungeon navigation. So, sure, you're going to die sometimes, and you'll probably see a game over screen more in the first couple hours than you've seen in the last five Final Fantasy games you've played put together. There's always a way through, you just have to put together the right team and strategy. I mean, unless you throw all of your main character's stat points into magic. If you do that, you're probably in trouble.
Graphically, the game is good, but not great, which is understandable given the vintage of its source. There's virtually no animation, and although the backgrounds are nicely detailed and varied from dungeon to dungeon, there's a lot of repetition within dungeons, making it very easy to get lost if you don't check your map fairly often. The game has a very unique visual style to it, though, and some of the demon designs are truly spectacular works of art. Oh, and the soundtrack is absolutely amazing. It's heavy and sad sometimes, light and cheerful at other times, eerie in places, and butt-rocking in others. I often play games on my iPhone with the sound muted so as not to disturb the people around me, but this game's tunes had me wanting to listen at all times.
Yes, the interface has some serious quirks to get used to, and the lack of certain niceties and features that we're used to on this platform is a bit of a bummer. In the end, however, Shin Megami Tensei is easily one of the best RPGs we've seen on the iOS platform yet, and it deserves your attention in spite of some of the flaws specific to this port. I had an amazing time making my way through this huge, crazy journey, and I only hope that English versions of Shin Megami Tensei 2 and more follow.
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